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UCF and the Big 12: It’s Been a Long Road

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Finally UCF has hit the big time

Derek Warden

The ink is finally dry. It’s not a dream. The UCF Knights are joining the Big 12 Conference.

For anyone who has watched the show Enterprise, the opening theme song is “Faith of the Heart” by Russell Watson(originally by Rod Stewart). The opening verse goes like this:

‘It’s been a long road,
To get from there to here.
It’s been a long time,
But my time is finally here.
And I can feel a change in the wind right now.
Nothing’s in my way.
And they’re not gonna hold me down no more.
No they’re not gonna hold me down’

It’s time to celebrate, Knights fans, for it has been a long road.

Jeff, Eric, and I have been around UCF since the early 2000s when UCF was still an independent in football. We have seen the school and program go through ups and downs, all the while growing from 30,000 students to over 70,000. I was witness to seeing Akron get beaten into oblivion after dancing on the logo at midfield. I had to sit through an 0-11 2004, as a member of the Marching Knights. I had to play on the field in 2004’s Thanksgiving weekend season closer against Kent State and there might have been 5,000 people in the cavernous stands of the Citrus Bowl. I was busy playing the fight song as a deluge of fans rushed the field and tore a goal post down. I watched from the stands as a missed extra point in overtime robbed UCF of a potential first bowl victory. I was also there to see UCF open up Bright House Networks Stadium on campus, something we never thought was going to be possible. I witnessed multiple conference championships and the fall back to zero. I was in the presence of UCF attaining perfection and now we are all witnesses to see UCF’s ascension. To see all of this time, growth, hits, and misses culminate in an invitation to the Big 12, it’s definitely a time to pause, look back and reflect. Let’s look at that long road.

UCF athletics in Division 1 has always been a step behind. The Knights joined the Sun Belt Conference right after a mass exodus of programs in 1991 due to a merger with their home conference, the American South. A few of those departed programs became the founding members of Conference USA. We’ll come back to that. Due to media issues, they didn’t stay and moved to the TAAC/Atlantic Sun and stayed there for a baker’s dozen. Ironically, the commissioner of the American South and post-merger Sun Belt was none other than Craig Thompson, the current commissioner of the Mountain West, but I digress.

2004 NCAA 1st Round: UCF v Pittsburgh
UCF basketball player Dexter Lyons, 2004
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For football, it was a long span of being an independent. UCF was considered as a football-only team when Conference USA first formed in 1995 since the then Golden Knights were in the process of moving from I-AA to I-A (now FBS) for the 1996 season. UCF’s athletic administration was trying for a bigger play in the Big East or ACC, so football remained an independent until 2001 when it was agreed that they would become a football-only member of the Mid-American Conference. Unfortunately, UCF’s time in the MAC largely did not go well. UCF missed out on winning the East division on a couple of occasions and then the wheels fell off in 2003 and 2004.

UCF’s time in as an independent/A-Sun member and in the MAC allowed other programs to grow and make themselves attractive in the realm of conference realignment. It was in 2003 when the ACC made its big move to expand by inviting Miami and Virginia Tech. Boston College would join later. Due to a poor on-field product and poor facilities, UCF’s prospects were as a football-only invite. Boston College defecting to the ACC sealed UCF’s fate of not being included and nearby South Florida got the call instead.

It was in 2005 that football and other sports reconciled into Conference USA. Once again, UCF joined another conference after a large-scale exodus. This time, it was going from low-major to mid-major. This is where UCF’s form of manifest destiny laid its egg. Under the leadership of then-president John Hitt, athletic director Steve Orsini, and head coach George O’Leary, UCF began upgrading their facilities.

It started with an indoor practice facility in 2005 due to the number of lost practices caused by lightning. There were two additional events involving the City of Orlando, owners of the Knights’ then-home, the Citrus Bowl. The city reportedly told Hitt and Orsini that the Knights would have to find a home for at least a year once the hoped-for renovations to the stadium began (which would not take place for a decade).

Then, when the city was putting up a new video board, according to Hitt:

“There was a take-UCF-for-granted attitude...When Steve was talking about a share of the revenues on the new video board, he was told the value of UCF’s fans was nothing - zero. That didn’t sit too well with us and got us looking in other directions.”

In 2007, along with an athletic village of housing, shops, and other facilities, UCF opened up Bright House Networks Stadiums and the UCF Arena. This replaced the downtown and decaying Citrus Bowl and the old and subpar UCF Arena. Now, UCF had facilities that could rival some of the other schools that have received the call up into the top major conferences.

Texas Longhorns v University of Central Florida Knights
UCF football player Kevin Smith, 2007
Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Fast forwarding a few years, UCF became the center of Big East expansion controversy. The Big East’s media deal was coming to an end and a new one was due. The eight-member Big East felt it was time to expand to ten.

The first call was to Texas Christian University, who had a lot of recent football success out of the Mountain West and wasn’t an entire country away. The second candidate wasn’t so clear. The conference threw around UCF, Houston, and elevating Villanova from the FCS level. The obvious choice was UCF, but they were blocked by rival South Florida, who did not want UCF to climb up to equal footing with them. Despite Bulls fans claiming this to be false, it has been confirmed by multiple media members close to the story at that time.

It came down to UCF and Villanova, which largely pissed off other members of the conference. Villanova was not prepared or equipped to make the move. This, along with turning down ESPN’s media deal, which involved inviting UCF, led to more defections in the Big East. Once TCU backed out of their commitment and joined the Big 12, prompting Pittsburgh and Syracuse left for the ACC, the Big East finally invited UCF in a large-scale retooling of the football side of the conference.

Add in even more defections and additions, and the non-football members, also known as the Catholic Seven, had enough. They broke away and bought the Big East name. This new conference was eventually named the American Athletic Conference.

The damage wasn’t done yet. The Bowl Championship Series was going away, being replaced by the College Football Playoff. With this new system, the upper and lower echelon conferences changes. The now AAC was dropped from the auto-qualifying conferences of the BCS to one of the “Group of Five” of the CFP.

Again, UCF was a step behind. At least this time, they had one season to enjoy the perks of the BCS and the Knights took full advantage, sweeping the conference and winning the Fiesta Bowl over highly-ranked Baylor.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Central Florida v Baylor
UCF football player Blake Bortles, 2014
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Let’s fast forward a few more years. In 2016, the Big 12 toyed with expansion. They had been a ten-member conference for a few years after Texas A&M and Missouri left for the Southeastern Conference. After a dog and pony show, putting multiple expansion candidates on the spot with a week of presentations, they opted to not expand at all. This left a bad taste in a lot of mouths of fans and administrators, but as we all know, time heals wounds.

Earlier this year, Texas and Oklahoma surprised the sports world by announcing their departure for the SEC, leaving the Big 12 with eight members and an unknown future. The Big Ten considered expansion but decided against it. The PAC-12 considered it even more and they too declined.

Once the PAC-12 decided to stay at 12 members, this created a new sense of stability and expansion became a primary objective. Instead of going back to ten, they decided to go back to their original twelve. Despite the loss in membership, this is still a conference with a contract bowl in the current CFP, a decent selection of bowl games, one of the autonomous conferences, and a conference that has had success in a multitude of other sports.

Now, during this time, UCF was not complacent. Aside from building new facilities, they invested in coaching, administration, and other services. The results on the field improved. The Knights went from winless in 2004 to a division championship in 2005, a conference championship in 2007, a bowl victory in 2010, a BCS bowl victory in 2013, a perfect season in 2017 capped with a national championship as part of a 25-game winning streak that caught the entire nation’s attention.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - UCF v Auburn
UCF football players Shaquem Griffin and McKenzie Milton, 2018
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

UCF had the resume and now they have received the call.

On July 1st, 2024*, UCF will become a member of the Big 12 Conference.

It’s been a long road getting from there to here and there’s definitely change in the wind.

*The date could be negotiated to 2023.

CORRECTION: This article previously mentioned that Florida Citrus Sports were UCF’s landlord at the Citrus Bowl and had a part in the Knights leaving that venue and building the Bounce House. It has been corrected. The Citrus Bowl is owned and operated by the city of Orlando, as was the case when UCF played there, and FCS did not play a role in forcing the Knights’ move to on campus. We regret the error.