On Monday, former UCF President John Hitt passed away at the age of 82. I've stated numerous occasions that UCF athletics would not be where it is today if not for the vision of John Hitt. He believed a successful football program would showcase the university and play a prominent role growing the UCF brand. He pushed for an on-campus stadium when many said it was not possible. He pushed for the school to join an athletics conference and was a key voice in getting UCF into the MAC, CUSA, Big East(which eventually became the American). I wrote the column below for UCF Athletics back on December 10, 2011. It highlights some of what Hitt did in advancing UCF Athletics and some of the key moments in the growth of the Knights on a national level.
From December 10, 2011
Rightfully so, UCF President Dr. John C. Hitt had a well-deserved smile on his face and a sense of accomplishment. There are many things UCF's president will be long remembered for and the rise of an athletic department will be high on that list. So when Hitt was joined by interim athletic director Admiral Al Harms and UCF coaches for the school's formal announcement that it was joining the Big East Conference, he knew the long hours of work and effort that was put in to make such a move to one of the top leagues in the country.
When Dr. Hitt arrived at UCF in 1991, the athletic department battled every year for survival. The efforts of many local leaders kept the program going but there was a need for direction, funding and long-term vision. The one-time college football player knew how a healthy sports program could aid the growth of a university viewed more as a commuter school.
In 1991, UCF played football at the I-AA level. After back-to-back winning seasons, Hitt announced in 1992 that UCF would move to the I-A level by 1996. That move was aided by the arrival of Daunte Culpepper in 1995. The product from Ocala helped put UCF football on a national map with his amazing performances and close calls in big money games UCF had to play to help fund the planned move to the highest level of college football.
But the long journey was just beginning for Hitt and UCF in relation to its sports growth. In a time where something like conference expansion was not seen, heard of or expected, the Knights entered big time college football as an independent. Scheduling was tough and the path to get a bowl game was challenging. Not even a 9-2 record in 1998 earned a bowl bid after Miami beat UCLA late in the season costing the Knights a slot in Hawaii.
Needing a conference for scheduling and any chance of playing in a bowl, UCF joined the MAC in 2002. Yes, that's where it started. Long before national media critics started mocking the thought of Boise State and San Diego State in the Big East, UCF was the first to play odd-geography.
Hitt knew the long-term future was not playing games at Eastern and Western Michigan and bringing Northern Illinois and Akron to Orlando, but it was a conference and that was needed because unless you are from South Bend, you cannot survive as an independent.
In 2003 we were all introduced to what real conference realignment and expansion was all about. The ACC pushed the domino when it plucked three schools from the Big East in Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College.
The Big East had to make a move. Hitt saw what was happening and knew his growing university and athletic department could make a huge leap. Was it possible for UCF to jump to the Big East now? Could the Knights go from MAC in football and Atlantic Sun in all other sports? Would USF, under consideration to move from C-USA to the Big East, endorse the perfect travel partner? Could UCF join the Big East as a football only member? (Yes, UCF was a candidate for such a thing long before national media critics mocked the idea of football-only playing members.)
To this day there are many that speculate UCF needed just a big check to join the Big East back in 2003. Whether that was true or not, President Hitt also knew such a check would be challenging and what was really the best for the athletic department? What was really feasible? In the end, C-USA offered UCF full membership, something that was important for UCF's leader.
While UCF made its transition to its new league something else was happening on the UCF campus. For a period of time, UCF's school colors were black, gold, orange and silver. The latter two represented barricades and construction cones of the largest athletic expansion plan in the country.
There is no new conference today if not for the work of Hitt and a list of UCF believers. Believers, because few thought there would ever be a day that this east Orlando campus could have something that would become its "Empire State Building." That would be Bright House Networks Stadium. No school had ever taken on the task of building an on-campus football stadium and on-campus basketball arena at the same time. But Hitt and others found a way to do something that is impossible to duplicate today.
When Bright House Networks Stadium opened in 2007, UCF entered a new sports era. It was the culmination of Hitt's vision that was seen by other school and area business leaders to do something most said could not be done. But it also was a message to the rest of the college athletics world. A message that UCF was a major player and all you needed to do was take a look at what was built and the commitment to invest in facilities, coaches and players.
Hitt had more going on when it came to his campus. He was opening a medical school, new college buildings and saw unprecedented growth in enrollment that has seen UCF become the second-largest university in the country. It has become a destination school that features some of the top professors and students in the higher education system.
Then it came again. That "it" was rumblings of massive conference realignment. The Pac-10, SEC and Big Ten were all growing. The Big 12 was fighting for survival. The Big East was trying to maintain and UCF was watching it all. Hitt's network of contacts in college athletics has risen to elite level. If someone was planning a move or a league was contemplating growth, Hitt would know.
This time UCF would be ready for any and all moves. The school's resume in regards to athletic success, commitment and long term vision was attractive for anyone looking for new members.
The move to the Big East is more than just a money move. It provides UCF with exposure into some of the largest media markets in the country. It puts the UCF brand in a company with some of the most prestigious schools in the country.
In relation to sports, UCF will compete on a higher level in most sports. It joins the best basketball conference in the country. It will play in a football league that is deeper than where it has been. Many have wondered about the long-term plan of the football league in relation to the BCS and its automatic qualifying status. For starters, no one knows what the BCS will look like when the new TV deal is in place. In regards to AQ status, it doesn't matter. It will not have an impact on the Big East new media package and if there is a Big East team that goes 13-0 or 12-1, it will play in a major bowl game.
Many speculate about future conference expansion and the Big East still has work to do. Current members have committed to the league and new members are opening up new markets. There will be a significant increase in television revenue. Why? Because there will be not one, but three large companies bidding for the rights. Do you know what league provides the largest television markets in the country and the most television households? The Big East.
The journey has been a long one. When Hitt arrived at UCF, athletics survived. Now UCF athletics thrives. The future is big and the future is bright. You are hard pressed to find any school that has grown like UCF has in relation to its affiliation. In less than 20 years, UCF went from independence to the MAC to Conference USA to the Big East. That doesn't happen these days in college sports.
President Hitt had a plan. No plan goes perfectly without a curve or an unexpected bump. But he stayed the course and not only had a vision and long term plan, he executed it. Today, UCF has some of the best facilities in the country. It will have new athletic leadership that will be given the resources to compete for conference championships in its new home and play at the highest level nationally because the school's leader led. So allow John Hitt to enjoy the moment. He made it happen.