UCF and Baylor: Fateful rise of two programs that once played a great game

On January 1st of 2014 UCF and Baylor met in the Fiesta Bowl to cap off two fantastic seasons from perennial after-thought programs. The University of Central Florida needed to overcome multiple controversies on their way to a #15 overall ranking while Baylor’s controversies had yet to come to light on the way to a #6 ranking. Driven by two very different program leaders and the emergence of two ‘household name’ Quarterbacks- the programs met for what was a great match-up where UCF prevailed 52-42 on Blake Bortles 4 touchdown passes. Who knew that the two programs would be oh-so-aligned on that chilly night in Phoenix.

The Knights began their program’s existence in 1979 as a Division 3 football program. After a short stint with Lou Saban, the Knights were taken over by Gene McDowell in 1985- and Gene pushed them through D2 and FCS on the way to FBS independent status. McDowell himself was pushed out of UCF because of scandal which has become a staple of UCF’s head coaches since 1985. McDowell’s case was a federal offense over cell phones (pretty forward thinking for 1997). It’s not a good sign to have your head coach making plea deals. Yet some how UCF decided it was smart to let a member of McDowell’s staff, Mike Kruczek, take over the helm. Kruczek’s claim to fame was being the back-up that didn’t lose for the Steelers while starting QB Terry Bradshaw was out injured. Between 1998-2003 Krucz led the Knights to four winning seasons before falling victim to controversy himself.

As head coach, Kruczek benefited from having Daunte Culpepper on campus from the McDowell era and led the Knights to a victory over Alabama in 1998. But he ran the program in a similar way to McDowell, bringing in a rougher type of player which was his downfall. Between the suspensions of QB Ryan Schneider forcing UCF to burn prospect Steven Moffett’s redshirt to arrests and suspensions of other players in 2003, Krucz met his mentor’s fate and was fired as well. Kruczek was a winner, but at what cost to UCF and the athletic program’s reputation?

In comes another controversy and scandal stigma carrying coach, George O’Leary. O’Leary came to UCF from the Minnesota Vikings, where he wound up after his resume scandal in 2001 cost him his job at Notre Dame. While Coach O’Leary did have 7 winning seasons over his 11 and a half as head coach, he didn’t come without his own controversies at UCF. In 2004, the Knights went 0-11 as the coach “cleaned house” of his predecessor’s players for players of higher academic and character standards. Once again, college sports proves that winning and money are more important than lives as the Knights’ kept O’Leary on even with the implications he played in player Ereck Plancher’s death in 2008, and a recruiting scandal that got the Athletic Director and Assistant Head Football Coach David Kelly fired which involved agents and money (also involving basketball recruits). Coach O’Leary met his demise under the rumors of retiring, becoming the AD, and capping his UCF career with an unvictorious season going 0-12 in 2015 (even though he quit/was fired before the end).

So what did hiring three coaches whose tenures at UCF ended in controversy do for the school and program? A lot, actually. UCF grew from a commuter school of 15,000 students and an off-campus stadium that had more tailgaters than butts in the seats to a mega school with 60,000 students, an on-campus stadium and raise after raise for President Hitt whose pay has doubled since I started there in 2001. Winning more games brought an in-door practice facility as well which attracts top coaches and recruits to UCF including former Oregon OC turned UCF header Scott Frost.

So the question now is what do UCF and George O’Leary have in common with Baylor and Art Briles? Enough to make this worth writing. They were different in exterior approach: O’Leary professed a “return to the old school” with his Penn State looking uniforms, pro style offense, and hard-assed approach. Briles was new school with his high powered spread offense, Oregon inspired uniforms, and awe shucks let ’em do what they want attitude.

Both coaches got their teeth cut at the high school ranks with GOL coming from New York while Art Briles coached in Texas. Both then jumped into college coaching as assistants for coaches with prolific coaching trees. O’Leary came to Syracuse to work for Dick MacPherson who employed names like: Jim Tressell, Scott Pioli, Paul Pasqualoni, George DeLeone, Randy Edsall, Dave Campo, Jeff Stoutland, Tony Wise, Clarence Brooks, and my mentor Hugh Dehnert. While Briles is from the Leach tree which includes: Sonny Dykes, Dana Holgorson,  Briles, Greg McMackin and Ruffin McNeill.

Both coaches brought new stadiums and in-door practice facilities with their winning ways, too, as well as having a top 3 pick at Quarterback put their program on the map. UCF rode the coattails of Blake Bortles (after riding Kevin Smith to a 2,000 rushing yard season and some Heisman hype) while Briles and Baylor moved up with Robert Griffin III winning the Heisman Trophy and being drafted #2 by Washington in 2012. Baylor however had a much different history on its way to national prominence.

The Bears started playing football 1899, only a mere 80 years before UCF. Baylor jumped to the Southwest Conference or SWC for its inception in 1915 and stayed through the demise in 1996. The SWC was known for controversy, even when Baylor was not, with teams being accused of all kinds of cheating antics including the “Death Penalty” for SMU. Only one coach before Briles had any success at Baylor, which was Coach Teaff who had 12 winning seasons with 8 bowl trips from 1972-1992. However the move to the Big 12 was tough in Waco and saw 14 losing seasons for the Bears.

In comes Art Briles in 2008. Briles has two 4-8 seasons before finishing 7-6 in 2010 and starting a meteoric rise to fame. From 2010-2015, Baylor has six straight winning seasons, six straight bowl bids (3-3), a Heisman winner in RGIII, and a head coach’s salary that inflated to $4.2 million before his firing, which was almost 5 times more than the president of Baylor was making (and of course he was controversial in his own right). But with winning and improving facilities came scandal, something Waco and Baylor know too well. Waco has the famous case of religious zealot David Koresh in the 1990’s and the murder of Bears basketball player Patrick Dennehy in 2003 which saw the firing of coach David Bliss and an investigation that showed Bliss was even a cheater back at, you guessed it, SMU.

Briles is now accused of some involvement in the cover up of sexual assault cases dating back to 2012 and a lack of good judgment on transfer students he let into the program. Briles, who was fired on May 26, 2016, may never coach in college athletics again. He, the school president, and the Baylor AD were fired for their involvement in this scandal.

So what was the price of winning? The Baylor AD will never work in college athletics again. Art Briles will never work in college athletics again. Mike Kruczek is coaching high school football, Gene McDowell hasn’t coached at all since his firing, former UCF AD Keith Tribble doesn’t have much of a Wikipedia page post-firing, and George O’Leary has been ‘retired’ after his three scandals and two unvictorious seasons. However, we saw UCF’s president double his salary while the student body tripled. How do you get students on-campus to a relatively new university in a relatively new city? Athletics and Greek life (also maligned with controversy at UCF). Frost is at UCFast now and there are high hopes. And where will the Baylor Bears Football program go from here? Probably back to obscurity. And what about Baylor University? I would imagine hit hard because of the implications about sexual assault and cover-ups. I know my daughter wouldn’t be a Bear.