George O'Leary can be tough to understand. He's old school. He wasn't for everyone. He did things that maybe didn't make sense to some, but he believed it was the right way. Ask many of his former players at UCF and they would tell you they would run through the proverbial wall for him, not all, but most would.
I saw many sides of George O'Leary during his time at UCF, not all pretty. But I also saw and knew of many things that George O'Leary did that were never written about, talked about or known by many. I saw the gentle and kind side of a man who quietly helped others and didn't want the attention. I saw a man who made some people uncomfortable with his way of doing things and a coach who at times truly didn't care what fans thought about him.
But George O'Leary rebuilt UCF's football program when it needed to be broken down and built back up. He established a culture of accountability, discipline and structure. He truly cared about the education side of things and understood what it meant for some of his players to get a chance to go to college and change their lives and impact their family as well.
I saw O'Leary on Tuesday night at the Mikey's event where he was honored along with former UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton and others. Seeing O'Leary and watching what is happening in college football in regards to conference realignment, NIL, pay-for-play and the squashing of many traditions- I thought about his biggest win and how it forever changed the direction of UCF football, the athletic department and the university.
UCF is headed into the Big XII starting in the fall of 2023 and by the time the Knights play their first game in their new league, it likely will have expanded again. UCF may end up in a 16-18 team league that stretches from Orlando to the west coast. And the Big XII may go from the brink of extinction to maybe the third best league in the country. That is a huge leap from 2004 for UCF when O'Leary and his team went winless while playing in the MAC.
But despite the rebuild, the opening of an on-campus stadium, the division and conference titles and big wins over ranked teams and national brands, George O'Leary's biggest victory may not have been one where the scoreboard was inside a stadium with tens of thousands of fans.
In 2010, UCF was accused of several NCAA violations. The NCAA would take almost two years to hand down their penalty.
In 2012, UCF received a one-year postseason ban on the football and men's basketball teams as part of widespread sanctions for major recruiting violations. The NCAA also charged UCF with a lack of institutional control. In addition, UCF received a $50,000 fine, adding two more years to UCF's proposed three years probation, reduction of scholarships in basketball, vacating basketball wins and limiting football recruiting visits. The Knights accepted the penalties but took issue with the postseason ban for football. O'Leary and the school felt the ban was too harsh and challenged that part of the ruling.
UCF could have accepted the bowl ban for the 2012 season and be done with it as a member of Conference USA where bowl slots and payouts were not that big. That appeal was risky and just about every legal expert with experience in NCAA appeal cases thought UCF had little to no chance to win.
The NCAA appeals process operates on their own timeline so when UCF filed its appeal of the bowl ban it was September 17, 2012. Then NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn said the average appeals process for a case like this took about 110 days.
The 2013 season would see UCF play in the Big East(which then became the American) and had a guaranteed spot in the BCS and with that came a place in a major bowl game for its champion. Why would UCF possibly sacrifice a chance to play in a major bowl game since the appeal process could last past the 2012 season? Because O'Leary and then UCF President John Hitt felt it was worth it despite many telling them they were making a mistake.
UCF went 9-3 in the regular season in 2012. The Knights lost in the C-USA title game to Tulsa and accepted an invite to play Ball State in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg. Many laughed at UCF for choosing to appeal and ending up in a bowl game against a MAC school and then possibly face a bowl ban in the 2013 season with a BCS berth available.
The Knights beat Ball State 38-17 in the bowl game and finished the season at 10-4. But now the wait continued about whether the appeal would work.
UCF was returning a loaded team for the 2013 season that included future NFL players Blake Bortles, Storm Johnson, Breshad Perriman, Clayton Geathers, Jacoby Glen and a rarely used cornerback named Shaquill Griffin.
On April 22, 2013 UCF received the news regarding its appeal. The Knights proved the doubters wrong and won the appeal. UCF would be bowl eligible for the 2013 season. In its release, the NCAA stated the following:
"...the football postseason ban is excessive such that it constitutes an abuse of discretion."
Now, with a chance to play in a major bowl game, UCF had to go out and win the American on the field.
After opening the season with wins against Akron and at FIU, UCF went to Penn State and won 34-31. They lost two weeks later against Steve Spurrier's 12th ranked South Carolina team 28-25. UCF would not lose again.
The Knights won eight straight conference games, including the come-from-behind win at 8th ranked Louisville and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. There was the goal line stop against Houston, the JJ Worton ESPY winning catch at Temple, the late game interception to beat USF and the road win in icy Dallas against SMU that secured the outright title and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl to face Baylor.
The Fiesta Bowl was a defining moment for UCF. The biggest stage for the program and a win over an offense that most experts thought was unstoppable. The brand of UCF football had arrived. The Knights finished 10th in the final polls and the gamble paid off. The appeal was a risk worth taking and the reward was priceless.
That victory for UCF changed the image of its program. It cemented UCF as the team to beat in their new league and truly kickstarted their brand.
The 2014 team tied for a conference title with the famous Hail Mary play at East Carolina and UCF went 9-4. Things began to unravel for O'Leary in 2015 and UCF went winless and he was dismissed after eight games.
But despite the 0-11 season, then new athletic director Danny White had something to sell when he went looking for a new coach. Does Scott Frost come to Orlando if UCF didn't succeed in 2013 and 2014? Maybe, but Frost told me in 2016 how big the Fiesta Bowl win was because it proved UCF could have a season like that but it also opened recruiting doors to players in Florida who never used to look at UCF and helped his pitch to convince recruits to not leave the state but stay home and be part of something.
Frost's two year run only added to UCF's brand with the undefeated season in 2017 and Josh Heupel parlayed the momentum into another New Year's game and a return trip to the Fiesta Bowl in the 2018 season.
No one knows that UCF would not have had success if the team failed to get to the Fiesta Bowl that 2013 season or lost the bowl ban appeal, but no one can argue that season and that bowl was a pinnacle moment in the program's history. The 2017 season kicked off a run that saw UCF go 41-8 over a four-year period and positioned the program to be an attractive choice when the Big XII decided to expand after Oklahoma and Texas announced plans to move the SEC. Would UCF have gotten an invite if the program went 25-24 over that stretch? Maybe, but it would have been more about the enrollment, TV market and hope of its ability to compete. The 41 wins made the choice a lot easier.
When George O'Leary took over in 2004, UCF was in the MAC and many thought the geographical map never made sense for UCF. The school needed a home to compete for bowls and fill a schedule. Less than two decades later UCF went from the MAC to Conference USA to the American to the Big XII and a league that may end up as the third best in the country.
O'Leary remains a huge UCF fan. He likes Gus Malzahn and thinks the program is in good hands and will be competitive when it enters its new conference. Both O'Leary and Malzahn came to UCF with a vision and a plan of where to take UCF. Malzahn is in year two of the mission. O'Leary spent 12 years at UCF. He won 81 games during his time, but maybe his biggest win that impacted the program the most, was the choice to challenge a bowl ban and maybe it was a Hail Mary like gamble that paid off and gave UCF a chance to be Power worthy...
Final note: Blake Bortles was UCF's second leading rusher in that bowl game. Bortles ran for 93 yards and a touchdown in the game.