The wise Andre 3000 once asked, “What’s cooler than being cool? Ice cold.” When your name is Scott Frost, it is no surprise you would create the coldest college football program in the country. In just two seasons, Frost has transformed a winless UCF team into one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the nation.
This is an accomplishment in itself, but UCF is winning in style. From one of the top scoring offense in college football, to the Phil Knight by-request-only Nike uniforms, UCF is winning in all the right ways. For the War on I4 rivalry matchup against USF on Black Friday, UCF donned all black uniforms (we see what you did there), with specially designed helmets featuring each player’s photo inside the UCF logo.
UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton spoke with Heavy about the transformation of UCF under Frost.
“We got some nice new uniforms,” Milton told Heavy. “Some pretty cool helmets. I’ve just seen the people come together more than anything, and that’s a beautiful thing. The best thing about football is it brings people from different backgrounds all together. Seeing guys from Hawaii, Florida, Pennsylvania and California come together and have a common bond with different backgrounds. It’s a beautiful thing.”
For all the momentum UCF has built this season, uncertainty on Frost’s long-term future has loomed over the AAC championship game with rumors linking Frost to Nebraska in the latest move in the coaching carousel season. From everything I am hearing in Orlando, an announcement is expected to be made on Sunday on what Frost has decided.
Whatever Frost decides, he should be lauded for the complete remodel he has done on a UCF house that was badly in need of repairs. Frost recognized the foundation of the house was sound, and spent two years making sure UCF would return to prominence before he left. If the rumors of a Lincoln homecoming are true, Frost leaves behind a blueprint for how to win in Orlando, and made the UCF job even more attractive than when he took the position.
It was not always that way, and a journey back in what the Men in Blazers call the “Way Back Machine” shows how Frost brought the swag back to UCF.
From Sleeping Giant to Undefeated
My first interaction with George O’Leary was sitting outside a locked football facility on a rare cold Orlando night. I was part of a campus organization that met weekly inside the football meeting room, but O’Leary locked us out once he took over the football program at UCF. Like Tupac, O’Leary believed it was better to be feared than loved, but it is hard to imagine O’Leary rolling down Orange Avenue listening to “California Love”.
Despite his prickly persona, O’Leary left a long list of accomplishments at UCF. He helped convince the university to build an on-campus stadium and upgrade the football facilities, something the leadership had been hesitant to do with previous coaching staffs.
O’Leary led the 2013 Knights to one of their best seasons to date with a dominant Fiesta Bowl victory over a Baylor squad favored by more than two touchdowns. O’Leary had a good track record of getting players to the NFL, including Blake Bortles who ascended to the No. 3 pick after his Fiesta Bowl performance.
One thing is true about coaches who are rough around the edges, it works when the team is winning, but it quickly turns when you’re not. Fans were fed up with the unimagiative offense, boring uniform combinations and O’Leary’s resistance to change. During what would end up being his second winless season at UCF, O’Leary resigned with a few games left in the season.
A few months later, I went to bed thinking UCF had agreed to terms with Dino Babers, and awoke to dozens of text messages noting UCF had snagged Oregon’s offensive coordinator. Frost had been mentioned as a coach ready for a Power Five gig, and it was a huge get for UCF Athletic Director Danny White to lure Frost away from schools in bigger conferences.
For the better part of two decades, UCF has been described as a sleeping giant, Frost gave that giant a shot of espresso and outfitted it in Nike Dri-Fit gear.
“This place is really special. I saw a glimpse tonight of what it can be,” Frost said after UCF defeated USF in front of a sold-out crowd.
All signs point to Frost seeing what it can become from afar.
This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
We have seen this movie before, and the AAC has become an apprenticeship for coaches to advance to a Power Five job. UCF has proven this season what many suspected, a team in the Group of Five has no chance at making the College Football Playoff. Western Michigan went undefeated last season and faced similar results. Weeks later the charismatic P.J. Fleck was rowing his boat over to Minnesota, leaving Western Michigan (who plays in the MAC) in a similar position as many AAC schools.
After leading Memphis to one of its best seasons in recent memory, Justin Fuente left Memphis for Virginia Tech. Houston faced the same thing when Tom Herman left Houston for Texas, after amassing signature wins over Oklahoma and Florida State during his tenure with the Cougars.
In what should be a culmination of an impressive football season for the conference, the AAC Championship has turned into a guessing game as to whether Mike Norvel is headed to Arkansas, and when Frost is going back home to Lincoln. Successful Group of Five programs not only battle a lack on inclusion in the current college football structure, but spend the final months of their season trying to ward off bigger programs from plucking their head coach.
The American Conference has tried to combat all the challenges by launching a Power Six marketing campaign, attempting to distance itself from the kids table they have been placed.
This is not a conversation about marketing, it’s about power. The Group of Five has little representation on the College Football Playoff committee, and it is no surprise that the committee is ranking AAC teams lower than almost any other metric shows teams like UCF, Memphis and USF should be ranked. The Group of Five is in this predicament after the current conferences in the Power Five threatened to leave the other conferences behind to form their own big boy league. The group dangled a measly New Year’s Six bowl spot as part of the current agreement, and the conferences jumped at it not wanting to be completely left out of the conversation.
The situation at UCF is a bit different as Frost turned down offers from Maryland and Syracuse to come to Orlando. Frost also declined to meet with Florida about their job opening during this weekend’s game of coaching musical chairs, even though Florida is a more attractive opening than Nebraska on the surface.
If Frost ends up in Lincoln, UCF fans should take comfort in the fact that Nebraska was likely his destination regardless of what school he was coaching. He could have been coaching any number of high profile programs, but Nebraska is home. Home doesn’t mean you have the nicest house on the block, but you love it just the same because it is your house.
A Tale of 2 Cities
During the 2009 season, TCU and Boise State came eerily close to crashing the BCS party. It was a different structure, but smaller conferences were still at a disadvantage. It was arguably a lesser disadvantage than what Group of Five teams face today with the College Football Playoff, but championship aspiration were essentially still an impossibility.
The two undefeated teams ended up squaring off in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl, but the bigger story is what has happened to both programs since their bowl matchup. Boise State joined TCU in the Mountain West in 2010. However, the Horned Frogs had their eyes on a more prominent conference. Realizing they were never going to have a seat at the table under the current structure, TCU accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 conference beginning in 2012.
Boise State had agreed to join the Big East in 2013, but backed out of the deal after non-football members broke away from the conference, taking the Big East name with them.
Boise State remains in the Mountain West, but have not come close to competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Longtime coach Chris Peterson eventually left Boise for a Power Five gig at Washington. Since the start of the College Football Playoff, TCU has continuously been in the conversation near the top of the rankings thanks to their Big 12 membership.
UCF’s future lies in one these two paths. UCF and USF were under consideration for Big 12 expansion in 2016, but the conference opted not to expand after a lengthy interview process. Both Florida programs have become even stronger since this decision, and the conference would be wise to revisit it. The two schools even combined for 99 points with little defense in their latest matchup, a sign they would fit right in with other Big 12 teams.
Without the Big 12 or another Power Five conference grabbing UCF in the next round of expansion, a New Year’s Six bowl is likely the ceiling unless the committee decides to expand to eight teams.
As Frost has proven, the infrastructure is there for UCF to become a powerhouse program. With the second largest student enrollment, top-notch facilities and Central Florida location inside a recruiting hot bed, everything is in place for UCF to continue its ascent. If Frost leaves, UCF would be wise to strongly consider Troy Walters or Erik Chinander, two current UCF coordinators, allowing the program to keep Frost’s blueprint in place. With numerous Power Five jobs still open and an upcoming early signing day, this is the worst possible time to hire a new coach. Unless White can make magic happen again, signing Walters or Chinander to a short-term prove it deal may be UCF’s best option.
WTSP’s Ryan Bass reported Kevin Sumlin will be UCF’s top target. It could be the fitting end in the cautionary tale of coaches leaving Group of Five schools for Power Five jobs only to drown in the weight of unrealistic expectations. Sumlin left Houston for Texas A&M in 2011, but was forced out of College Station despite turning around an Aggies program that was in disrepair. Try playing in the same division as a college football dynasty, and see how successful you would be.
Long-term, Frost made “this place”, to borrow Frost’s own words, even more attractive than he found it. If the measure of a person is to leave a place better than he found it, Frost’s character was revealed in the results. The sleeping giant is officially woke, and much better dressed.