ORLANDO, Fla. — Throughout his tenure UCF coach George O’Leary has never backed off the proclamation he made the day he was hired when he dubbed the football program “a sleeping giant.”
Ten years later, the 15th-ranked Knights are preparing to play in the school’s first BCS bowl game on Jan. 1 against No. 6 Baylor.
It’s been whirlwind season for sure, but is a spot that even O’Leary acknowledged Monday is happening a year earlier than he envisioned for his relatively young team.
“When we showed up 10 years ago (the program) was a low point because there weren’t any players here that could really win football games,” he said. “So we did what we should do with a coach taking over a program, we built a foundation. And then each year you put some furniture in the building. That’s what you gotta get done.
“The big thing is we got better each year and we’ve had our ups and downs, but I think the consistency of the program, and the culture of the program is in place right now to move forward and get better each and every year.”
The dominoes that fell into place this season were many.
Most Knights’ fans will probably most remember the ones that took place on the field, such as the midseason upset of Louisville or the eight-game win streak to close out the regular. But the biggest actually was set late last year when UCF officials decided to appeal a one-year postseason ban that was part of sanctions levied in July 2012 for major recruiting violations in football and basketball.
UCF accepted a one-year postseason ban in basketball, along with a $50,000 fine, five years’ probation and reduction of basketball scholarships.
But school President John Hitt and athletic director Todd Stansbury said they believed the football ban was too severe since none of the players at UCF the NCAA said had recruited illegally played football for the Knights.
The appeals’ process allowed the Knights to participate in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl in 2012.
Then, departing from their usual track record toward such appeals, the NCAA sided with UCF in April and threw out the football ban. Had UCF’s appeal not been successful, it would have served the ban this season and wouldn’t be eligible to play in the BCS.
It was gamble, but one that O’Leary said is glad they made.
“I thought it was a big decision and I guess a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon after we won it,” he said. “But I thought we had a legitimate shot at winning that because of some of the things that took place (and) why we got restrictions as far as it wasn’t much of a football deal.”
The outcome has now left the Knights with a chance to join the ranks of established in-state programs at Florida, Florida State and Miami as BCS bowl winners.
It’s also brought an instant national attention to UCF that many thought wasn’t possible after conference realignment completely reshuffled the Big East Conference that UCF originally signed up to join.
That spotlight has also included the rapid rise of junior quarterback Blake Bortles’ NFL draft stock in recent months.
While that kind of buzz could be a distraction for a young team in this position for the first time, O’Leary said he met with Bortles and his parents Sunday night and that he doesn’t anticipate that being an issue during their preparations.
Still, UCF offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe, who is in his fifth year as an assistant at the school, said that doesn’t mean there isn’t a recognition that the program must take advantage of the position it’s in.
“You have to live in the moment. You can’t dwell on the past, either success or failures,” Taaffe said “And you look too far ahead to the future. What’s important is now. What’s happening now. And obviously we’ve been a pretty good story this season. Now we’ve got one more opportunity facing us.
“That’s where the focus needs to be now as we prepare to really do something special, and not just play in a BCS bowl, but win it.”
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