A Former SEC Commish, Marshall, The Need For $250K: How UCF Got To The MAC

Connecticut v Central Florida

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The number is in the tens of millions when it comes to what UCF, Cincinnati and Houston will be paying to leave the AAC and enter the Big 12 starting in the 2023 football season. It is worth it for the jump to a Power 5 league and will pay off with the new media deal the league will have. The three, and the addition of BYU, are projected to make around $45-50M per year in the coming seasons. But there was a time when UCF needed help from others, luck and cash just to get into their first conference.

In 1996 UCF moved into the D1 level(now known at the FBS) as an independent and played for six seasons in that role. It wasn't easy. Life as an independent in the 70s and 80s was much easier with the likes of Notre Dame, Penn State, FSU, Miami, West Virginia, South Carolina and others. Scheduling then was easy to get games from the start of the season to the end. But by 1996 the list of independents may have still featured Notre Dame but the power names of the past had become such schools as Louisiana Tech, Southwestern Louisiana(now known as Louisiana, Northeast Louisiana(now known as Louisiana Monroe), Northern Illinois, UAB and Arkansas State(where current UCF AD Terry Mohajir had the same role before coming to Orlando). 

UCF had the challenge of scheduling competitive games while also finding money games to pay for the football team's move to D1. Some of those seasons as an independent included some big names- Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Penn State and Auburn. It included some of those other independents listed earlier and usually always featured a few games against teams from the MAC.

The Mid-American Conference, for decades, was comprised of midwest schools who played tough hard-nosed football with a history of great coaches all in the shadows of the Big Ten. In 1997, the MAC added Marshall after the Thundering Herd dominated the 1-AA level(now known as the FCS). The Herd instantly became the top program in the league winning four straight championships. The 12-team league added Buffalo in 1999 and played with 13 members.

After winning its fifth MAC crown in six seasons, Marshall was looking to move on to a bigger league. The Herd was willing to be a football-only member if they could move up but needed to find a home for its other programs. Conference USA, with then Commissioner Mike Slive, was discussing plans to expand to 12 schools because a meda deal with ABC would guarantee a seven-figure payday if they could stage a conference title game. Marshall was a team on their radar. Slive, who was CUSA's first commissioner starting in 1995, found the pitch to expand was not one that got instant support.

Meanwhile, UCF was selling their brand to anyone who would listen. Then AD Steve Sloan knew of the struggles to build a schedule every year. It was hard to find games in November when most schools were playing conference games. In 2000, UCF tried to pitch conferences about looking at the Knights if they were thinking of expansion. The school spent $40,000- which back then was a huge price for where the program was- on a marketing package sent to the SEC, ACC, Big East, Conference USA and MAC. The package focused on UCF's projected growth in enrollment, media market, fertile recruiting ground and destination for visiting fans. 

Only one conference responded. Then MAC Commissioner Rick Chryst found it intriguing and thought about how to sell his members on adding a Florida-based school to a midwest league. He liked the idea of his schools traveling to Orlando and opening recruiting avenues and he liked the fact UCF had a media deal with then Sunshine Network that would air games between the Knights and MAC opponents. 

UCF had hope but faced some challenges. The MAC was only interested in adding a 14th team-for football only- to balance their two divisions with seven teams. But the league also knew Marshall might bolt to another conference and if that was the case, the MAC would have stayed with 12. 

Marshall felt good about CUSA's plans to grow and UCF knew if that happened, they would remain an independent. But the Horizon League may have changed UCF's course forever. The Horizon was where Marshall would have placed its teams for all sports if the football program moved to CUSA. But the league chose to not expand and that put Marshall in scramble mode. Meanwhile, Slive and CUSA appeared to be waffling on expansion. The league had a plan to add South Florida in 2003 and Navy- then an independent- had talked about seeking a home for their football team. Those were two key reasons CUSA schools cooled on adding Marshall. Some also believe the conference didn't want to add a school that might step in and compete for the title immediately. 

Slive notified Marshall that CUSA was tabling expansion. The Herd had no choice, with no other offers to move football, but to recommit to the MAC. With that, Rick Chryst knew he was back in expansion mode. When Marshall announced plans to stay, Chryst contacted Steve Sloan about becoming the 14th member. Sloan knew many fans would wonder why he would move his football program to a midwest conference but he knew his life scheduling games would become much easier. He would have eight league games and could keep two money games against big brands and schedule other competitive games where his team could win. 

In October of 2001, UCF's Board of Trustees were pitched on a five-year provisional invitation to join the MAC. UCF's other teams would stay in the Atlantic Sun. That's also when UCF learned of the cost to join the league. The school needed to come up with $250,000 and the payment was expected to be made when UCF accepted the invitation to join. While that figure doesn't sound like much today when you are talking about buyouts and buy-ins to leagues that are eight-figure sums, it was a large amount for UCF then. Sloan and then UCF President John Hitt vowed that UCF would make the payment.

They did and UCF was added for the 2002 season to the MAC. Steve Sloan knew his team had eight conference games coming and had to quickly make some decisions on canceling and rescheduling games.. UCF had games at Penn State and Arizona State and a home game against Syracuse and those were not going anyway. A game at LSU was pushed for a later date, but was never played.

UCF played its first conference game in school history on September 20, 2002 at Marshall. The Knights opened the season losing at Penn State 27-24 and dropping a 46-13 game at Arizona State. Marshall began the season ranked 19th but after beating Appalachian State in their opener, the Thundering Herd lost at then 11th ranked Virginia Tech and came into the UCF game unranked.

Much was made by a comment from then UCF Coach Mike Kruczek about how his Knights would be able to step into and compete immediately because of their speed and talent level. That offended many people at Marshall considering how they had dominated the league. UCF battled on a Friday night in Huntington but fell 26-21 to a Marshall team with Byron Leftwich at quarterback. UCF quarterback Ryan Schneider played with broken and bruised ribs from the numerous hits he suffered in the Arizona State game. UCF had a chance in the fourth with a final drive but fell short. 

Three weeks later UCF won the school's first conference game with a 31-27 win at Western Michigan. Asante Samuel Sr.(the dad of the current Charger) had two interceptions, including one late to seal the win.

After an 0-3 start, UCF won seven of its final nine games in 2002 and finished 7-5. They went 6-2 in their inaugural season in the MAC, finishing one game behind Marshall in the east division. The Knights played three seasons in the MAC before moving to Conference USA. Marshall followed them but their dominant years were behind them. They saw UCF fly by them and become a contender in its new league.

Fast forward to today and UCF and its fans await a schedule release in a league that features Oklahoma, Texas, TCU, Baylor, Kansas State and others. It's a long way from 1996 when UCF's first game as a D1(FBS) member saw them beat William and Mary before 18,000 at the Citrus Bowl. The Knights won that game 39-33 with Daunte Culpepper at quarterback. They played their next four on the road. It was a different time back then.

But who knows what might have been for UCF if the Horizon League voted to take Marshall's teams to help their football program. The MAC would have stayed at 12. What if Mike Slive, who would go on to be one of the most influential figures in college sports as commissioner of the SEC, convinced his members to take Marshall? What if the ACC liked the marketing pitch by UCF and thought long term about adding a 10th school and second Florida based school to go along with Florida State?

Who knows what could have been but UCF's move to the MAC stabilized the football program and gave them a schedule each year and a chance to play for a bowl. 

I've spoken to Rick Chryst several times over the years on a variety of topics relating to college sports. He was the commissioner of the MAC from 1999-2009 and was truly a visionary when it came to expansion. The brother of, now former Wisconsin football coach, Paul Chryst, Rick remains in sports working as a consultant for a firm in the midwest. When UCF plays its first game in the Big 12 this coming fall, Rick Chryst might have a smile on his face. He should. He played a role in UCF's development as a football program. The cost of doing business though has gone up just a bit.

Mike Slive passed away in 2018. He was commissioner of the SEC from 2002 to 2015 and played a key role in the league adding Missouri and Texas A&M. He oversaw growth in the league that has seen it reach unprecedented success in football and annual revenue. The Horizon League features 11-members that include the likes of Cleveland State, Wright State and Northern Kentucky. Marshall is no longer a member of Conference USA, they play in the Sun Belt. The MAC? The 12-team league is alive and well and its history book includes the UCF Knights as football members from 2002 to 2004...

Final note: A commercial hen can produce between 250-300 eggs per year...

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