How did UCF get so good, so fast? A coaching change, and a culture change, helped
When junior running back Adrian Killins committed to Central Florida back in 2015, he certainly wasn’t joining the football powerhouse that the Knights have become today. As new coach Scott Frost’s first recruit, he was signing on for a team that was in shambles.
UCF had just suffered through the most disastrous campaign in its short history, finishing with an embarrassing 0-12 record. It was a stunning collapse for a program that had been steadily on the rise for the past decade, culminating in a Fiesta Bowl win after the 2013 season. Killins was joining a team that would essentially have to hit the reset button on its entire program and had no prospects for imminent success on the horizon.
How could Killins have known that, barely three years later, the Knights — who play LSU in the Fiesta Bowl at noon Tuesday — would be just one win away from becoming the first team in more than 20 years to finish undefeated in consecutive seasons?
“I don’t believe anyone expected for this to happen as fast as it did when I arrived as a freshman,” he said. “But everything takes time.”
Time has moved just a little bit faster in Orlando, Florida, it seems. UCF, the first team to ever go undefeated two years after a winless campaign, is 31-7 since that disastrous year. Those 31 wins include two conference championships, a Peach Bowl win and, to some close to the program, a national championship.
“It’s a great tradition here at this program,” Killins said. “It’s a brotherhood and a great culture … so the more you buy into the program, greater things that happen.”
To outsiders, this meteoric rise might seem almost impossible. It just doesn’t make sense for a team that couldn’t even manage a single win in a season to be virtually unstoppable just a couple of years later.
But in reality, the Knights have a long history of bouncing back and exceeding expectations. In 2004, UCF also finished winless in George O’Leary’s first season as head coach. A year later, the Knights played in their first conference championship game and their first bowl game. The program has always benefited from “wake-up call” seasons, giving the team a chance to reset.
A reset was certainly needed in 2015. While O’Leary had led the Knights through their most successful era, the program simply hadn’t kept up with the pace of the rest of college football. After O’Leary retired and new athletic director Danny White hired Frost, things changed very quickly for UCF.
Frost and White’s arrival triggered an immediate shift in the program. Dressed in unassuming uniforms and running a pro-style offense under O’Leary, the Knights seemed to evolve overnight. Suddenly the team was dressed in flashy Oregon-esque jerseys while running a thrilling style of offense — and piling up wins along the way.
Since going 0-12, UCF has played in three straight bowl games and will play in its second straight New Year’s Six Bowl on Tuesday.
Frost left for the coaching vacancy at Nebraska after last season, but UCF’s new identity has lived on under new coach Josh Heupel, in part thanks to the strong culture in the locker room.
“I think that’s just what the culture is around here,” senior linebacker Pat Jasinski said. “It’s guys that work hard, that like to work hard and compete every day, from the coaching staff to the players to whoever’s part of the program. And it’s just that constant competing that’s really helped this program grow.”
With a solid recruiting class (it helps that UCF is situated in the middle of a recruiting hotbed) and with many young players stepping up, the Knights are primed to be players on college football’s national stage for the foreseeable future.
But for the seniors who went from 0-12 to 25-0, all that matters is the chance to get one more major win for what has become a nationally recognized program.
“It’s the last one for the senior class, and we’ve been through a lot here,” Jasinski said. “It’d just be the perfect ending.”