June 20, 2006

O'Leary the key to sleeping giant at UCF

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Since he took over the program two years ago, George O'Leary has called the football program at the University of Central Florida a sleeping giant.

If the Knights have their way, that tag won't fit much longer.

"At some point that giant is going to wake up," UCF President John Hitt said.

And the Knights just purchased a rather expensive alarm clock.

After leading UCF from a 0-11 season in 2004 to a Hawaii Bowl berth last year, O'Leary was rewarded with a 10-year contract extension worth $1 million per season. That will keep O'Leary around when the Knights move into an on-campus stadium that should open in 2007.

The program that has spent its entire history in the shadow of Florida's Big Three – Florida, Florida State and Miami – suddenly has big-time facilities, a big-time coach and big-time ambitions. That became apparent recently when Hitt discussed the possibility of UCF reaching the top 10.

"As George reminds us from time to time, there's not much value to aspiring to anything less," Hitt said.

UCF in the top 10?

The thought would have seemed preposterous as recently as last September, when the Knights were suffering through a 17-game losing streak. Even then, however, O'Leary believed in UCF's potential.

He knew UCF's location gave the Knights a recruiting advantage that could help him build a winner if school officials made a long-term commitment to football.

"You have not only the state of Florida, but also the city of Orlando," O'Leary said. "It's a great city. It's an easy city to sell, with the attractions and everything they have. It's a school where you can get pretty much any kind of degree you want because of the expanse of the school. That's attractive to kids, more than anything.

"And when you get on campus, it's as nice as any I've been on as far as the student body and the buildings."

The one thing missing from that campus was a football stadium.

UCF has held its home games at the 65,438-seat Citrus Bowl in downtown Orlando since starting its football program in 1979. Playing in a half-empty stadium away from campus doesn't exactly create the festive Saturday afternoon college football environment that appeals to recruits and alumni.

Knights in shining armor?
Here are the major reasons why Central Florida believes it's on the verge of establishing itself as a football power:
New practice facilities: UCF has laid the turf on two new outdoor practice fields that should be ready by this fall. Two years ago, the school moved into a 120-yard indoor practice complex that is the only facility of its kind in the state of Florida.
New stadium: Construction began last month on a 45,000-seat stadium on campus that should be ready for the 2007 home opener against Texas. UCF has played its home games at the Citrus Bowl in downtown Orlando since starting its football program in 1979.
Returning coach: Instead of pursuing other job opportunities after leading UCF to a bowl berth last year, George O'Leary signed a 10-year extension that includes a $5 million buyout clause.
Returning players: UCF returns 19 starters from a team that went 8-5 last year, which explains why it's a popular choice to win the Conference USA title.
That should change soon.

Construction has begun on a 45,000-seat stadium on campus that should be ready in time for the 2007 season. UCF will start using two new outdoor practice fields this fall and already has an indoor practice facility on campus.

"Once (recruits) are on campus, they're in awe of the facilities," O'Leary said. "With the addition of the stadium, that's the last piece of the puzzle."

Adding these facilities helped keep O'Leary at UCF.

O'Leary already had a taste of the big time when he led Georgia Tech to a 52-33 record from 1995-2001. He left Georgia Tech for Notre Dame, only to resign five days later because of inaccuracies in his résumé.

UCF's turnaround last season represented a personal comeback for O'Leary, who could have parlayed the big season into job opportunities at BCS programs.

"We were concerned a little bit at one point," senior center Cedric Gagne-Marcoux said. "But the way he was talking to us about the future at UCF and how he wants to build it up, we were sure he wanted to stay here. We didn't want to lose him, no matter what. He's a great coach. I don't think you can find a finer coach."

UCF won't have to worry about losing O'Leary anymore. His contract extension includes a $5 million buyout aimed at preventing other schools from pursuing him.

"I've never been a guy (who wonders) where the grass is greener," O'Leary said. "I'd like to see this program get to where it needs to get to. I trust the people have done everything they said they'd do when I initially took the job. That's a two-way street. If they're going to do what they're supposed to do, I see us as having a great opportunity to get to where we need to get to."

UCF certainly has an excellent opportunity to improve upon last year's 8-5 finish.

The Knights return 19 starters and 42 letterwinners this fall. Running back Kevin Smith and cornerback/punt returner Joe Burnett made the All-Conference USA team as freshmen last year.

O'Leary plans to make sure this team is no one-year wonder. He said the Knights have no reason to feel overconfident after ending the 2005 season with back-to-back losses to Tulsa in the Conference USA championship and to Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl.

"I've never let a team have any type of complacency,'' O'Leary said. "You either get better or worse every day. You don't stay the same."

UCF officials know they must seize this moment in the spotlight. The team already failed to capitalize on a similar opportunity.

The national media heralded UCF as a program on the rise in the late 1990s when Daunte Culpepper led the Knights to several near-upsets of established programs. But the team failed to build on that momentum once Culpepper left for the NFL.

UCF now has another chance to establish itself as a consistent winner that can build the same type of weekend atmosphere already seen elsewhere in the state.

"That's what the top 10 programs have every year,'' O'Leary said. "They have tradition. We're not there yet, but we're slowly creeping up."

For more coverage of the UCF Knights, check out UCFSports.com.


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