This is not a post about who UCF might hire to be their next head football coach. The school lost athletic director Danny White and head coach Josh Heupel to Tennessee in successive weeks, and it’s doubtful a new coach will appear in Orlando before his new boss will.
The list of rumored names and interested parties needs to be narrowed by the preferences and plans of the A.D. Here’s an example: If you see North Texas’ Wren Baker hired, that might mean someone like USC O.C. Graham Harrell is a possibility. If Oklahoma Senior Associate A.D. Zac Selmon is the pick, maybe he brings Sooners D.C. Alex Grinch. But until the A.D. is hired, the field’s too big to handicap.
That’s why UCF is one of the best coaching opportunities in recent memory, and maybe the best in this 2020-’21 cycle.
Yes, I know the ‘20-’21 cycle includes Texas. No, I do not think UCF is a better job than Texas. Or Auburn. But it is a better opportunity to win a lot in the immediate future and is considerably less stressful than either of those places. UCF is also a check-plus for every possible category a prospective coach would evaluate, save for Power 5 conference membership. The Knights themselves proved in 2017 that going undefeated in the Playoff era is not enough to earn you consideration for a national championship.
Other than that one significant hitch, UCF is a legit dream job. (Fair warning: I also believe Mark Stoops has the best job in the sport. If national title chasing is a disease, pragmatism and good contracts are the cure.)
They’ve Spent Their Way Into Relevancy, Part 1:
I asked multiple sources what the distance between UCF and its Floridian Group of Five counterparts was, and received varying degrees of laughter and general incredulity.
“Do not compare them to USF. They’ve spent past the Bulls in every conceivable way. And there’s no reason to compare them either FAU or FIU in terms of finances,” an agent said.
Unlike many of its American Athletic Conference peers, UCF has an on-campus stadium, The Bounce House, opened in 2007 and renovated multiple times since. It built the state of Florida’s first full-sized indoor practice field in 2005. In every manner of physical construction, UCF has acquitted itself like a Power 5 program.
“The comparison between USF and UCF is that one school has said ‘Hey we’re in Florida’ and one has said ‘Hey, we want to be a P5 in Florida,’” a former USF assistant said.
They’ve Spent Their Way Into Relevancy, Part 2:
Heupel’s starting salary was $1.7 million annually at UCF, the same as Scott Frost’s contract in Orlando, which at the time was considered to be big money. That figure now trails the G5’s richest contract, Houston’s Dana Holgorsen, by about $2 million annually. Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell is now making $3.4 million a year.
But the most important number might be the assistant salary pool. The Knights offered Heupel a $2.5 million pool in ‘17. The Bearcats pushed theirs to $3.85 in 2020. Every source I spoke with expects UCF to, at the very least, keep pace with their AAC rivals if not exceed them either immediately or via incentive-structures.
Orlando Is A Recruiting Heaven, Part 1:
Florida is really good at growing oranges, idiosyncratic criminals, and high school football players. Orlando is smack dab in the middle of the state, meaning that most of the nation’s third-largest population is accessible by car.
“If you’re creating a radius from campus, Orlando might have one of the best 100 miles in America,” a FBS head coach said. “You think about who you can get by car, that’s what impresses a coach. You don’t have to get on a plane unless it’s a special case,” the head coach said.
Those special cases are called “spot recruiting,” a term I’ve asked my former coworker Bud Elliott, terminal Floridian and author of The Sunshine Scorecard, to define: “If your normal recruiting area doesn’t have the talent necessary for a particular position, then you’ll go outside to find it. This happens everywhere; Alabama went west to get [quarterbacks] Tua Tagovailoa and Bryce Young.”
As I’ve written in the past, geography is king. So even though an increasing amount of high-end Florida talent might be leaving the state right now, coaches will always, always, always opt to play a home game in recruiting instead of logging airline miles to lure talent.
“Take Boise State’s entire program, put it in Orlando, and you can improve every single position on the field without getting on a plane,” a FBS head coach said.
Orlando Is A Recruiting Heaven, Part 2:
The city itself presents enough opportunity, diversity and population to cater to any assistant coach regardless of background or phase of life. It’s a large yet affordable city in a warm weather climate. It’s got a major airport and a lot to do, which means it’s a better option than 90 percent of American “college towns” for young families.
“I think you can land any qualified assistant with one of the following: There’s no state income tax, the public schools are great, and you can golf 12 months a year,” the agent said.
“Sometimes you really have to sell ‘em at home on some 20,000-person town they’ve never heard of in a state they’ve never been in because you know a coordinator who can get you a job,” a former assistant head coach of a G5 Florida program said.
“I’ve never heard of having to hard-sell Florida to a coach’s wife, especially Orlando. Assistant coaches, our families are built to move. A few years in a place like Orlando or Tampa or Miami, that’s a win.”
You’re The Guy Following The Guy Who Followed The Guy
Scott Frost came to Orlando in 2016, and took a George O’Leary roster that went 0-12 the year prior to a bowl game. The next season he went undefeated and beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl, which got him a Big Ten job at his alma mater. That stratospheric rise is why UCF fans weren’t crying when Heupel and his very good 28-8 record left for Knoxville. The next staff in the building won’t have to fully eclipse Frost’s shadow the same way. That’s not to say expectations won’t be high among a vocal, nouveau riche fan base, but as one FBS head coach described it, “You’d rather deal with ‘a tradition of winning’ than ‘Hey, be that guy.’”
You’re Stuck In The G5 — Or You’re Not!
This might be the secret to this entire deal: You don’t have to win a national championship at UCF because you can’t. Your fans, donors and the media knows this because they just saw it happen in ‘17. How many Power 5 programs with unrealistic expectations can claim this? None. The deepest pockets at every one of those programs — especially where Forst and White and Heupel landed — wholeheartedly expect a result that is by all practical estimates unrealistic. You certainly better win a lot of games, win the AAC, and stay banging on the glass of the Playoff debate, but no one is asking for that particular miracle now.
OR: You get into the P5! There are no current indicators that UCF will be included in a specific expansion of the P5, but logic and history inform us that the Knights, Houston, Cincinnati and Boise will be first in line for consideration. Overseeing a program’s transition isn’t a net positive for a sitting head coach, but there’s certainly a model for it in TCU’s Gary Patterson and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham. Not to mention a bigger salary (and salary pool!).
“I don’t think it’s a realistic way to sell the job right now, but imagine if you’re discussing UCF as-is, but with the idea of being a P5 as well [to a potential coach],” an agent said.
“There’s an increasingly small delta in the argument about who is the second best program in that state. You can pose a strong case UCF has more of a strategic advantage and better resources than Miami and maybe even FSU, but the P5 argument ends the conversation. So if you take that away, you’re looking at something major.”
To review: The weather’s nice, there’s football everywhere, and the postseason system is rigged against you. Just win enough to let your fans complain loudly. That’s when they’re at their happiest.