Editors note: We’re proud to welcome Neil Blackmon to the TFS team. Neil has been a confidante and close friend of TFS founder Kartik Krishnaiyer for many years both politically and in the world of American soccer. Neil who is a distinguished Civil Rights attorney and activist who support progressive candidates and causes also writes for Saturday Down South. He is the co-founder of the critically-acclaimed US Soccer website The Yanks are Coming, which Kartik also writes for.
Related: The path FSU, Miami and South Florida pursued to gain national relevance.
Many people, myself included, hoped to see Florida and UCF in either the Peach or Fiesta Bowl this season.
Mainly, I thought it would be a great football game with intriguing matchups: Florida’s spread run game against UCF’s porous run defense; UCF’s electric offense against Florida’s ferocious defensive front. I also thought it could help settle the lingering debate since UCF’s dominant win over Auburn in last year’s Peach Bowl about whether UCF could handle a high-caliber opponent from the Power Five that was motivated to play.
The Peach Bowl opted for Florida-Michigan instead: the result, according to multiple outlets (first reported by Brett McMurphy) of a handshake agreement between the Peach Bowl committee and the College Football Playoff Selection Committee to not send a Group of Five team to the Peach Bowl for a second consecutive season. Before UCF folks, recognizing that Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin is on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, wander down the conspiracy rabbit hole, it’s critical to note that Stricklin engaged in zero discussions about Florida’s bowl destination due to a recusal rule that forces committee members to sit out when and if their own programs are discussed.
The Knights, as it turns out, will get an opportunity to play a motivated Power Five team anyway when they face an LSU team whose leader, Devin White, has called the game “essential to having a successful season” and whose coach, Ed Orgeron, has called a once-a-lifetime “chance to end a 25-game winning streak.”
After the LSU-UCF matchup was set, however, the conspiracy chatter that Florida was “ducking” UCF triggered a larger debate about whether Florida would be willing to play the Knights in the future. That debate escalated at a Peach Bowl event when a reporter, presumably bored with what will be round three of Florida-Michigan in the past five seasons, asked Stricklin whether the Gators would be interested in playing the Knights in the future.
Stricklin’s response was that Florida would be willing to play UCF “in the right situation,” which, per Stricklin, would involve a “2 for 1” where the Knights play two games in the Swamp and the Gators visit Spectrum Stadium and UCF once.
UCF Athletic Director Danny White, ever the spin-master, quickly rebutted:
“Top-10 programs don’t schedule 2-for-1 series where the balance is not in their favor. Our growing fan base and our student-athletes deserve better than that.”– Danny White, UCF Athletic Director
Cue the chaos.
Knights fans, and the always rational folks on UCF Twitter, tossing mud at the Gators for being bullies and only scheduling opponents on their terms.
Gators fans mystified that UCF, the program always complaining about being left out of the playoff, rejecting a chance for a resume-building win.
Some national pundits, including predictably FSU alum and Broward County’s own Danny Kanell, were incredulous that the Gators would offer a two-for-one—nevermind that South Florida, a program that only a decade ago was #2 in the BCS rankings in November at a time UCF was backing out of agreed games with Florida, felt a two-for-one deal was appropriate.
Other pundits chaffed at Florida’s offer, referencing UF’s ignominious history (perceived, at least) of “ducking” in-state opponents.
Presumably, this is a reference to Florida’s decision to no longer play Miami annually, which Florida Athletic Director Bill Arnsparger made in the late 80s and which, despite a one-one-one series Jeremy Foley honored during his storied tenure at Florida. Fair point, I guess, except Stricklin isn’t Arnsparger and with all due respect to UCF’s accomplishments, the Canes had won multiple national championships by the time Florida backed out, citing its already-difficult conference schedule.
Of course, there’s much more to the end of the Florida-Miami series than meets the eye, but people don’t much care for nuance in the era of hot takes.
Much of Florida’s decision to abandon the Miami game was informed by politics.
The reality was that in the mid-80s, Florida sought to expand what was then simply “Florida Field” by filling in the north end zone- what is now known as the “Sunshine Seats” and “Touchdown Terrace” area at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Steve Spurrier Florida Field.
The bonds issued by the University Athletic Association for stadium expansion had a covenant requirement that a minimum of six home games be played each season. For most schools, this would present no problem.
But Florida, according to a high-ranking University of Florida source TFS spoke to this week, was faced with a difficult choice.
“What was clear was that Florida was going to continue with stadium expansion. From a revenue standpoint and an interest standpoint it was necessary. But because Florida played a neutral site game with Georgia in Jacksonville each year, the University, athletic director and President Criser faced a difficult choice. Florida had to live up to its obligations under the bond covenants. Florida could either go home and home with Georgia, keeping the Miami series; or, they could drop Miami and keep the game in Jacksonville,” the official told me.
Why not drop FSU? After all, Florida-Miami was an “older” and at least at that time, more nationally-interesting football rivalry.
“Dropping FSU was not an option. The politics were just too messy,” the official said.
The politics were messy because in the 1980s, an increasing number of Florida State alums were prevalent in the Florida Legislature, and with their growing numbers, they threatened to revive a bill mandating Florida play FSU. Home and home with Georgia could have solved the problem, but there were several years on Florida’s contract with Jacksonville at the time and neither the Gators or the Bulldogs, who at that time were winning frequently and, as the late great Larry Munson said, “packing those condos on Amelia Island”, had any real appetite to leave the Gator Bowl and Jacksonville.
“Florida lost money on the Miami game for two decades,” the university official told me. “It was hard because of the tradition but in truth, a no-brainer. Merely reducing the frequency of Miami games didn’t work because understandably the Hurricanes wanted a home game, and due to the bond covenants and the FSU series and neutral site with Georgia, that wasn’t really an option for Florida. Once the SEC expanded from six games to seven, there was no wiggle room.”
Miami alums and fans, of course, see it differently. They note that they had turned the tide of the rivalry in their favor in the 80s and find it convenient the Gators stopped playing the game just when Miami became a national power. All that is true and fair—but doesn’t change the underlying forces that shaped Florida’s decision.
It should be noted at the time of the annual UF-UM series ending, Miami had won two national titles and had entered the bowl season with a chance to win two more. They were a national program and losing Florida on the schedule, while a blow for fans allowed the Hurricanes to schedule more aggressively. In the decade after Florida left the Hurricanes scheduled, Miami was able to play home-and-home series with BYU, UCLA, Arizona, Wisconsin, Arizona State, Cal, Iowa, Colorado, Baylor and Penn State while maintaining a yearly rivalry with Florida State. Florida not being on the schedule allowed Miami to be very aggressive in who to play with an extra game open, giving us a lesson in the benefits of schedule flexibility., particularly after UM joined the Big East in 1991.
Miami even agreed to play a 2-and-1 with Arkansas between 1987 and 1991, similar to what Florida is offering UCF. It didn’t matter to the Hurricanes, as crushing the Razorbacks twice on the road just further increased the programs national relevance especially since Miami coaches had in that period become dependent on cherry-picking top players out of Texas and Louisiana.
But back to UCF and the Gators.
In a way, I get where White is coming from.
After all, while Florida has wandered the wilderness this decade under four coaching staffs, finishing with 7 or more losses twice and appearing in only one marquee bowl game (the 2012 Sugar Bowl, where they were crushed by Charlie Strong and Louisville), UCF has qualified for three New Year’s Six Bowl games in the last six seasons, previously winning both the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl.
While the opponents of UCF in those bowl games make excuses about motivation—the reality is neither game was particularly close and the Knights won both comfortably. These impressive wins are a testament to UCF’s rise to prominence this decade.
The Knights have also won ten games or more five times this decade (to Florida’s two ten-win seasons) and currently hold the 22nd longest winning streak in the history of college football.
In other words, UCF has made every argument it can make on the field for inclusion in a “Big Four” in the State of Florida (joining Florida State, Miami and UF). A Florida victory over UCF might not receive much acclaim on message boards or with casual fans, but it would be a respected win in football circles.
For all these reasons, a Florida-UCF matchup in a New Year’s Six game—or anywhere- has intrigue.
What I don’t get is why UCF would refuse an opportunity to play Florida, even if it involved a two-for-one.
Sure, the Gators have not formally “offered” the deal Stricklin proposed, as reported first by Saturday Down South. But the fact UCF felt the need to officially clarify that tells you the national debate is trending against them, which is odd for a usually lovable underdog.
White is one of the rising stars in the industry: a young, smart, visionary athletic director from a family of talented athletic directors.
The fact so much copy has been spent on the Florida-UCF debate proves, to some extent, that White’s very public opposition to Stricklin’s proposal and the current Playoff system are helping keep attention on the Knights and expand UCF’s brand.
But his comments last week that after a brief back and forth, “discussions with Florida are basically over” are foolish and a missed opportunity.
By not taking a 2 for 1, White is failing to give his student-athletes the “chance” he thinks they should have.
Here’s what White told College Gameday in October, when the Knights winning streak reached 20 and too many fans offered smarmy dismissal of the streak because “UCF ain’t played nobody except an unmotivated Auburn, Pawwwlll…”
The key language here: “College Football is the only sport not settled on the field…” and “our student-athletes don’t want anything given to them.. they just want a chance.”
A two-for-one offer, from an in-state college football blueblood, is just that—a chance.
UCF’s fundamental critique of the system at present is that they aren’t given a chance, and when people point to their schedule, they tend to say “well, no one will play us.”
It’s bizarre that now, at the height of your program’s prominence, when you finally have an in-state “big three” program willing to play you, your position changes from “give us a chance” to “our program is better” and “we won’t do it unless it is on our terms.”
Wanting to set the terms of the debate is fine, I suppose.
But if that’s the hardline stance White’s taking as UCF’s athletic director, he should cease and desist with the strident, self-righteous insistence the Knights will play anyone, anywhere, anytime. This is evidence they won’t, and now White is moving the goalposts.
That’s a shame, because UCF should.
To be fair, in the past, UCF has taken on plenty of comers.
Since 2010, including bowl games, the Knights have played or scheduled the following Power Five schools: NC State, Kansas State, Georgia, Boston College, Ohio State, Missouri, Penn State, South Carolina, Louisville, Rutgers, Baylor, Stanford, Michigan, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Auburn, Pittsburgh and North Carolina. Of those opponents, South Carolina, Missouri and Maryland went home and home with the Knights; Penn State opted to play one in State College (which UCF won) and one in Ireland. UCF has also played Texas in recent memory, with the final game of an agreed two-for-one, set for 2023, being cancelled by the Knights this past spring.
In the end, White may feel that the current system, which he calls an “invitational” and not a Playoff, disincentives a two-for-one against an in-state giant.
White may think that any revenue benefits of playing a brand as large as Florida three times is offset by the potential a loss to the Gators could eliminate UCF from the revenue guarantees inclusion in the New Year’s Six would provide as the top-ranked Group of Five team. It’s easier to stand on the “It’s not fair” soapbox and slam the system when you’re bank account is still benefitting from it, isn’t it?
Financially, UCF is still program-building and its alumni base, while expanding, is very young, with less monied donors than its in-state counterparts Florida, FSU and Miami. The revenue from the NY6 structure is a boon to UCF’s athletic department.
And thanks to UCF’s participation in a mediocre conference, the Knights should be able to benefit from the current system as long as it remains in place.
UCF’s conference, the American Athletic, has been abysmal in bowl games.
The league runner-up lost to a bad Wake Forest team out of the ACC. Houston, who finished third, lost by the staggering score of 70-14 to Army, for goodness sakes. USF was crushed by Marshall. In other words—UCF’s in-conference contemporaries have a lot of catching up to do with the Knights.
Given that’s the league competition, why put a clear path to NY6 revenue at risk by toughening the schedule?
You can argue that’s a cynical view, but it’s certainly a sensible one. This year, thus far, it’s one borne out on the football field too.
It’s also short-sighted. As nice as the Knights games with Michigan or Penn State or Texas before them have been from a brand standpoint, there’s nothing like the chance to play the flagship institution in your home state.
From a recruiting standpoint alone, standing toe-to-toe with the monied, snobby Gators is immense if UCF wants to make the state a “Big Four” in the minds of blue-chip recruits, which is UCF’s fastest path to the big-time one that will matter immensely if the Knights are invited, as they should be, to the Big XII when expansion again becomes inevitable.
Want to fire up your fan base and get your young, expanding and thriving alumni base to open their checkbooks? Beat the Gators, the top-ten public whose alumni UCF alums have to work with and take lip from, season in and season out.
Financially, I suppose, it makes sense for UCF to duck Florida, and then wax poetically about how Florida is being a bully by insisting the game play out on Florida’s terms.
But here’s the thing about bullies: they typically don’t offer a fight to begin with.
It’s a shame UCF won’t answer the bell.