ORLANDO, Fla. — Is it possible to pause the bickering over UCF, its so-called national championships and its place at the college football table, and just appreciate what this team has done over two seasons?
Because at the very least, the players deserve to have their story heard, without the College Football Playoff debate obscuring a turnaround that borders on the miraculous.
For most seniors, the story begins in 2015. When they signed with UCF, they signed to play for a program coming off an AAC championship and a 2013 Fiesta Bowl victory. They signed to play for George O’Leary, believing they too would play for conference championships and elite bowl berths.
Those championships and bowl berths would come, but not before an unbearably awful 2015 season. After the Knights lost to FCS Furman in Week 3, players quit on the team and the locker room became a dysfunctional mess.
“We stopped believing in each other,” said defensive lineman Joey Connors, now a redshirt senior. “We stopped trusting. That’s the big thing. Once you don’t trust the people you work with, everything goes away.”
In late October that season, UCF lost to Houston 59-10 in the worst home loss in school history and fell to 0-8. O’Leary announced his immediate retirement the next day.
Players walked around campus with their heads down. One had a professor make jokes in class at the football team’s expense, not realizing a player was there. Fans wore paper bags over their heads to games. Attendance dipped so badly, defensive lineman Titus Davis describes looking out at the stands “like it’s a high school soccer game.”
“It was bad,” linebacker Pat Jasinski said. “No one was proud of what this team did, the players, even the fans. We could have been way more than what we were.”
When Scott Frost was hired as coach, he saw the potential, but the culture had to be fixed first. Before that could begin to happen, the returning UCF players called a meeting of their own. They had been through such an emotionally draining experience, one that often made them question their place at UCF, they vowed to never feel that way again.
“Even going 0-12, we were like, ‘Man, look, this is not going to be us,'” Davis said. “This is not where we end. This is only the beginning. We knew that from the get-go, and coming back in January, we started our quest. We started working out harder, coming in for extra film. We started taking care of our bodies a lot more. Everything lined us up to be where we are today.”
Once Frost got in front of them, he told them simply, “‘I don’t expect you to trust me, but you’re going to.'”
“So, we did a lot of trust-building exercises, hung out as a team, went out to dinner. We all trusted him,” said sixth-year tight end Michael Colubiale, the only remaining player who was on the 2013 Fiesta Bowl team.
UCF had talent. It just needed a push in the right direction, and finding a program-changing quarterback in McKenzie Milton only helped to speed up the progression.
During a quiet moment in mid-October 2017, with an unbeaten UCF starting to drum up a few national headlines, Frost sat on a golf cart outside the football facility and said, “I took this job because I knew if we did things the right way we could win here. It’s probably happened a little bit faster than what I had hoped, but that’s because this is a special group.”
In Milton he found a kindred spirit — a highly motivated, competitive winner, with an “it” factor that naturally drew teammates to his side. It was not so much that Milton willed his team to win; UCF had enough athletes to help the offense go from mediocre to warp speed. It was that Milton made everything look so effortless — and oftentimes easy — it was hard for his teammates not to fall right in line.
That was not the only decision that propelled UCF. Frost and his defensive staff moved Shaquem Griffin from safety to linebacker, creating a breakout star. Griffin endured that 0-12 season with his twin brother, Shaquill.
Frost, now at Nebraska, has been reticent to talk about UCF since leaving, but it is clear a combination of his leadership and a group of players bonded together by an 0-12 season have allowed this program to climb higher than even they imagined.
“Coach Frost would always preach it’s easy to go from 0-12 to six wins or it’s easy to go from six wins to this many wins, but it’s hard to keep doing it,” Connors said. “To go from six wins to 13 wins to 12 wins again, that’s unheard of.”
Especially when you consider these seniors are now playing for their third head coach in four seasons. When Josh Heupel came in to replace Frost, he understood he inherited a talented team that had just completed the first unbeaten season in school history.
He took a different approach than that of Frost because he had to, walking a fine line between putting his own stamp on the program and not tweaking too much of a good thing. But the mission was clear: “To not just meet the expectations and what’s been done in the past but to continue to raise the bar,” Heupel said in the spring.
“You could look at it as a high-pressure situation,” UCF athletic director Danny White said. “I guess it probably is, but there’s this awesome opportunity to really capture this moment and build the program really fast, and that’s what we’re doing. I can’t imagine anybody handling it better.”
When Milton went down with a devastating leg injury in the regular-season finale against USF, Heupel and his players did not panic, nor did they let their emotions overwhelm them. Darriel Mack Jr. came in and led the Knights to another conference championship — and another spot in a New Year’s Six game.
Now imagine being a UCF senior, bookending a career with a winless season and 25 straight victories. Imagine the hard work, the effort, the trust and belief that it takes to complete such a monumental turnaround.
And now imagine feeling as if all that has been lost in the sometimes angry debate that UCF has spurred over the past two years.
“Twenty-five games in a row is hard to come by,” Colubiale said. “Winning a game isn’t easy. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Just start to look at us as a program and not us as a conference.”
Truth be told, even they can’t believe how this all has happened.
After UCF beat Memphis on Dec. 1 to clinch its second straight conference title and stay unbeaten, Connors texted Davis and all they kept saying was, “This is unreal.”
“If you had told me after that 0-12 season we would do all this, I would have thought you were crazy,” Connors said. “But just after seeing everybody bought into what Coach Frost brought in here and what Coach Heupel kept the same, these guys … how close we are, this is crazy.
“It’s just unbelievable. You couldn’t write a better story, honestly.”
No, you couldn’t. That’s what makes it all so special. They never intended to become the hottest story in college football or the team that could one day spur playoff expansion.
These seniors just wanted to win again. Now that they have, their place in UCF history is secure: They made UCF far better than they found it.
That will never change, no matter the debate.