It's time for yet another chat with a writer from Underdog Dynasty. Today's victim: Chas Short (@CFBAsterisk), who covers Central Florida for UD.
Jon: First off, on a scale of 1-10, how badly does the fanbase want the Big 12 to extend an invite?
Chas: I’ll be surprised if fans of any of the other programs floated as possibilities think otherwise: it’s a ten. Fans believe to miss on Big 12 expansion, if it occurs, would be a big missed opportunity.
Jon: How about the administration? Any sense of their enthusiasm beyond the obvious financial benefits?
Chas: The administration held off publicly stumping for Big 12 admission for a long time, though we know UCF President John Hitt was in in Gordon Gee’s ear about it. More recently, Hitt went public with UCF's Big 12 aspirations.
While that public pitch is... somewhat... subdued, it's hard to imagine the administration is not exceedingly enthusiastic given the administration's history. Hitt has been at the helm for a tremendous period of growth and development for UCF overall and has already presided over multiple conference changes – the Atlantic Sun and MAC (for football), then jumping to Conference USA, and then into the AAC.
Jon: We’ll get to the things which the suits focus on – money, academics, and success – in a minute. What wacky benefits which the administrations don’t care about would UCF bring to the Big 12?
Chas: If UCF joins the Big 12, you now have one of the easiest to attend road games from basically anywhere in the country. Existing in the long shadow of that famous mouse, Orlando is a huge tourist destination and the ease with which you can get there reflects it.
And once you accept that you’re flying, this is one of the easiest road trips to package/get your family on board with. Combine the trip with theme parks. Or jumping over to the east coast for a couple beach days.
Jon: If UCF joined, who do you think they’d quickly form rivalries with? What Big 12 cities are you most excited about potentially visiting?
Chas: I think the answer for the first question has to be – ‘whoever else newly joined.’ It would just feel so natural, especially if you assume that the other addition would also be from the AAC.
I’ll give what is probably an unoriginal response and say I’d be most interested in visiting Austin.
The chance to see some felony couch burning in Morgantown though . . .
Jon: UCF is largely a massive commuter school –
Chas: Whoa. Are you sure you’re not asking me the USF questions by accident?
Jabs at our rival aside, this is just plain wrong. UCF has more student housing than the University of Florida. And it’s not like it empties out on the weekends -- far from it.
I hope that you get the chance to see that for yourself at a Big 12 conference game in Orlando someday...
Jon: —and rightly or not it’s sometimes viewed as Orange County Community College. What are the academics really like there?
Chas: Wrongly viewed. Dude, where do you get your information?
The academics are comparable to any other large public university.
Frankly, I tend to think questions like this aren’t very useful in discussions between fan bases. It inevitably becomes an exercise in cherry picking data or rankings. Is it useful to know that the Carnegie Foundation classifies UCF as a doctoral university with the highest tier of research activity and community engagement? Or that U.S. News and World Report ranked UCF as one of the country’s "Most Innovative" universities? Or that UCF has the highest student-athlete graduation rate among all FBS public universities (we are talking sports here, after all)?
As an academic institution, UCF is in step with the Big 12’s current members.
Jon: Why do WE want to come visit UCF? What’s great about Orlando, beyond the obvious? What’s your fan base REALLY like (warts and all)?
Chas: What did you think the obvious was? The beautiful weather all year? The theme parks? I’ll add to my list of reasons why you’d have a great away game trip the fact that downtown Orlando has really matured into a fun spot within the last ten years or so.
Let me focus instead on the fan base question. The UCF fan base is young. The student body and alumni numbers have exploded in recent years (see this chart), coinciding with the period during which UCF athletics have been relevant. I mean, if you watched Daunte Culpepper play at UCF, you have been a Knights fan for a really long time. And that was 1995-1998.
I choose to embrace this as a positive. It means that there are many fans out there who have seen every major achievement or milestone. To focus on football (and why not, since it’s what’s driving the expansion bus):
You could have been a freshman when the Knights moved into the MAC (2002). You’d have still been in undergrad when the Knights moved into Conference USA and played in their first bowl game (2005). You would have been just out of college when UCF opened its on campus stadium, with a game in which the Knights nearly upset Texas (2007). The Knights would win their first conference championship that year. And not long after you could have seen the Knights win a bowl game for the first time (over Georgia, in 2010). You could have watched the Knights seize the first AAC title, thoroughly stomp Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, and end the season ranked in the top ten for the first time (2013). And then a year later seen UCF share the second AAC conference title as co-champs with Memphis and Cincinnati (2014). And you would still probably be in your very young thirties. You wouldn’t have missed any significant milestone.
(You would have also seen two winless seasons to bookend George O’Leary’s UCF head coaching career, but hey, who’s counting?)
Look, I think it’s cool to have a long and storied athletic history. But it’s also pretty cool to say that I (and my closest Knights friends) have personally watched every achievement of note.
Jon: And now, the big one. Pretend we’re the Big 12 Board of Directors. Why should we invite UCF as opposed to anyone else?
Chas: UCF has the strength of demographics behind it in a way that none of the other reasonable expansion candidates do. It is located in the 18th largest television market. It’s the second largest university in the country (63,000 students) and it is producing a huge number of alumni. UCF would expand the Big 12’s reach into a part of the country with a booming population (and which nicely widens the Big 12’s footprint for recruitment purposes, of course). The weight of these numbers will make UCF the best long-term play for the Big 12.
Will Philip and Elizabeth and the kids ever make it to EPCOT? Wait, wrong blog. UCF certainly has some qualities, but are they Big 12 qualities? Jon himself will handle today's rebuttal in a couple of hours. Tomorrow, we'll check in with our last AAC member candidate, Houston.