Will UCF answer the bell?

By https://www.flickr.com/photos/breezy421/2009955797/https://www.flickr.com/photos/breezy421/2009955797/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45796930

Read more: How FSU, Miami and South Florida scheduled to build national profiles.

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.

The Florida-Miami series began in 1938. It’s the oldest active rivalry in the state. Florida did not play Florida State until 1958. Photo by Kartik Krishnaiyer

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.”

Once upon a time Miami fans were obsessed with beating Florida. They moved on. This button is from the late 1970’s. Photo by Kartik Krishnaiyer

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.

Florida has.

It’s a shame UCF won’t answer the bell.

8 comments

  1. […] by UCF about respect and the desire to being given home-and-home series by UF Neil Blackmon has properly outlined in his outstanding piece, it has to be pointed out the process taken by Miami, Florida State and most recently South Florida […]

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  2. First, using “lack of motivation” as an excuse for Auburn’s loss to UCF in last year’s Peach Bowl is absurd. Only fans and pundits would justify their team losing a big game that way.

    Second, forcing G5 teams to play blue-blood programs under terms that put them at a financial disadvantage is illegal. The UF AD is openly admitting to monopolistic behavior that violates US anti-trust law.

    I applaud UCF for calling out the oligarchs of college football. This isn’t about proving it on the field against P5 programs (they’ve already done that). This is about disrupting a model that structurally prevents elite G5 programs from gaining access to CFP money.

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  3. I certainly agree about the absurdity of using “lack of motivation” as an excuse and have written as such elsewhere. The remark above was a nod to that sarcasm.

    The UF AD is making no such admission nor is that a compelling antitrust claim.

    On the contrary, he is doing what Danny White asked– and giving UCF a “chance.” It makes excellent financial sense for UCF to reject it given the current system essentially involves a categorical exclusion of Group of Five teams from the Playoff– after all, why risk losing a game and not being the Group of 5 team selected?? But UCF has had no problem with 2 for 1 in the past (Texas, Penn State, etc). It’s a bizarre thing to reject it now.

    Hopefully they will reconsider, or at least join the Big 12 (they’d be a great get!) in order to do that.

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  4. You are still talking about wins and losses, as if G5 schools can somehow earn their way into a CFP or P5 conference. Utah and TCU didn’t earn their way into the club. Their on-field success was certainly a catalyst, but they ultimately gained access to all that money via political disruption (see Orin Hatch and Texas politicians after B12 defections).

    The UCF AD probably sees Boise State still languishing after years of performing well against elite P5 programs. They ultimately mortgaged their budget playing 2:1s trying to prove themselves worthy instead of leveraging their success to make noise like Utah and TCU.

    This leads us to antitrust law, which is the article you really should be writing. Check out this ESPN article from 2009. You could replace “BCS” with “CFP”and it would be virtually the same.
    http://www.espn.com/college-football/news/story?id=4030992

    A key quote from the article:

    “To win the lawsuit, [one] must prove that the BCS has total control of the postseason bowl market for its games, that it uses its control to help some conferences and schools at the expense of others, and that the BCS system has damaged the University of Utah.”

    Well, P5 programs still control the postseason; They admit that G5 schools (with ~$2M/year in TV contracts) won’t get access unless they schedule these financially damaging 2:1s with traditional powerhouses (with ~40M/year in TV contracts); and finally, It’s not difficult to calculate the specific damages to a school like UCF based on this behavior.

    There’s a reason other sports don’t do it like college football. It’s unfair to college athletes and anti-competitive to the marketplace. I know most fans don’t understand yet, but this battle isn’t really about UCF and UF.

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  5. A lot to unpack above.

    First, I’ve argued repeatedly in other columns that the current system categorically excludes the Group of Five from the playoff.

    Second, I haven’t argued anyone “earned their way” into the club, though I have argued that UCF playing Florida is beneficial from both a donors standpoint and a recruiting standpoint, which ultimately benefits the school. In that respect, this debate is most certainly about Florida vs. UCF. I’ve also identified unique reasons playing Florida is valuable for White, while also recognizing that UCF has incentive not to strengthen their schedule in the status quo.

    Third, I’ve advanced the argument elsewhere and above that UCF would be attractive to the Big 12. Your examples and Utah are quality examples of when pressure led to expansion but there are counter-examples that better fit UCF’s situation: where a quality program adds value on the field and unique market value off of it.

    Miami, Virginia Tech and to a lesser extent, Boston College fit that bill when the Big East expanded in 2003: ultimately, that was a boon for that conference until realignment. Miami was especially valuable, as it allowed a fledgling football league to have access to a national power and its immense TV market.

    Interestingly, of course, Richard Blumenthal (then the Connecticut AG) sued under the Sherman Act, arguing there was “collusion” to weaken the Big East. He took an L.

    Utah lost their antitrust suit too, or rather, abandoned it after two different attorney generals evaluated it and felt it wasn’t worth continuing to spend taxpayer money fighting. The year Utah filed, they were undoubtedly wronged: the problem was the way they made the argument, which would also apply to UCF.

    Utah (and UCF) argue that the system excludes them even when they have on-field merit. The problem here- and this was an issue in the US Soccer litigation I personally worked on– is that you still have to win that the anti-competitive nature of the CFP outweighs its benefits. Utah wasn’t able to do this with the BCS: the BCS didn’t discriminate against any conference, it simply placed the best two teams in the national title game regardless of conference. Granted, because schools like UCF play weaker schedules and refuse (or, in the case of UCF’s series with Texas, abandon) 2 for 1s with power schools that would boost their resumes, it is virtually impossible for a Go5 to get into the CFP. But proving that has to do with the Playoff’s “conduct” would be virtually impossible.

    Anyway, I’m happy to write more at length about that argument here if asked.

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  6. Geaux Tigers!!!

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  7. […] by The Florida Squeeze on 2018-12-26 09:41:04", "UK English Female"); } }; Originally posted by The Florida Squeeze on 2018-12-26 […]

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