NGSC Sports

From the War to Heupel, an Emotional Affair for the UCF Knights

Those connected with the UCF Knights football program have been experiencing seismic shifts in emotions over the last couple of weeks. From the War to Heupel, UCF has had a very busy couple of weeks, full of strong pulls along the emotional spectrum. Before talking about new coach Josh Heupel, let’s look back at the events that led to his arrival.

It started with the excitement and heart attack inducing game against rival South Florida. The War on I-4 made ESPN very happy as their game was a see-saw spectacle on ABC where the Knights outlasted the Bulls 49-42 to advance to the conference championship game of the American Athletic Conference and maintained their undefeated record. The game attracted over 4.7 million viewers and was one of the highest rated Black Friday games in over a decade. This game was highlighted by the last three touchdowns coming within seconds of game time from each other.

Throughout the following week between the game against South Florida and the championship game against West Division champion Memphis, the growing noise of the fate of head coach Scott Frost was reaching a fever pitch. Frost, the prodigal son of Nebraska, was a prime candidate for the vacant head coaching job at Nebraska. Frost’s ties to Nebraska ran strong. He went to Nebraska after a stint at Stanford and won a national championship. His parents went to Nebraska. His father always envisioned him one day coaching the Cornhusker football team.

The pressure on Frost was immense. Not only did he have to juggle his feelings about Nebraska and UCF, he had to prepare for the upcoming game against Memphis. As we found out in retrospect, Frost signed a memorandum of understanding the Monday after South Florida game and while he wavered a bit, knew it was he felt he had to do. His story is similar to what Paul “Bear” Bryant said about why he left Texas A&M for Alabama. He said, “Mama called, and when Mama calls, then you just have to come running.” In Frost’s case, it was Dad, but the idea is the same. As fans found out after the fact from UCF play by play announced Marc Daniels and local television sports anchor Pat Clarke, Frost struggled mightily with the decision to head home to Nebraska.

UCF athletic director Danny White was aware of Frost’s plans due to their open dialog and respect, so contingency plans were already being put in place. Danny White comes from an athletic administration family. His father, Kevin, is the athletic director at Duke University. One brother, Michael, is the head basketball coach at Florida while his other brother, Brian, is an assistant AD at Missouri. Brian ended up playing a role in UCF’s search and acquisition of a new coach. We will get to that later.

The AAC Championship Game was nothing short of epic. It pitted UCF, the number one scoring team in the country against Memphis, the number two scoring team in the country. You knew defenses were going to struggle and points would be in heavy supply. At stakes was not only a conference championship trophy but an invitation to a New Years Six bowl, the Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl. Both teams traded strikes back and forth. UCF had as much as a 14-point lead and Memphis had a 7-point lead at one point. Neither team could hold their respective leads and the game ended up at 48-48 and going to overtime. One of the common memes today is to do something crazy that can’t be topped, only to respond with “hold my beer”. Comparing the UCF/Memphis game to the UCF/South Florida game could go something like this:

UCF Fan: “The UCF vs South Florida game was crazy. They can’t make it more heart attack inducing.”
UCF: “Hold my beer”

UCF ended up sealing the deal in the 2nd overtime as Tre Neal intercepted a rushed pass by Riley Ferguson to win 62-55 and receive the invitation to the Peach Bowl. Winning the game also continued UCF’s perfect season at 12-0. Unfortunately, during the game, news was leaked that Frost had accepted the Nebraska job. It created an awkward moment after the game that was well deflected by Frost and the team. An hour after the game had ended, Frost tendered his resignation and was introduced as the new head coach of Nebraska the next day and took almost all of his assistant coaches with him. There are a couple of coach’s fates that are still up in the air.

While it’s confirmed that his assistant coaches at UCF will come back to coach the bowl game, Frost wants to be there with his team as well. Time will tell if he is there or not. The lead up to Frost’s resignation pulled at the hearts of Knights fans. Their emotions ranged from sadness to anger, to disgust, to panic, and sympathy.

With Frost gone, UCF needed to act fast and retool their staff. With the early signing period looming, White and UCF president John Hitt first looked to former Texas A&M and fell AAC member Houston’s former head coach, Kevin Sumlin, to become the new head coach. When talks fell through, White moved on and the speculation machine went rampant. Various names were thrown around the sports world, but there were no concrete leads. On Tuesday, a mere 3 days after Frost submitted his resignation, White, using social media as his platform, slyly announced that a head coach has been hired.

When did the public find out? They found out after the team did when he walked into the room to meet the players. The new head coach is Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Heupel. How did White bring in Heupel underneath so far under the radar? To refer above, Brian White is an associate athletic director at Missouri. Much like how Nebraska AD Bill Moos needed to use people who knew Frost personally to bring him in, White was able to utilize his network to bring in Heupel.

Who is Josh Heupel? (that’s pronounced “high-pull”)

Josh Heupel shares a lot of similarities to Scott Frost. Like Frost, Heupel is the son of a coach and is a student of the game. Also like Frost, Heupel has an aptitude for the offensive side of the ball. Also like Frost, he started his college career in one school and transferred to the school that made him famous. Heupel is a national champion quarterback from Oklahoma who won a number of accolades in the 2000 season. He was the Associated Press Player of the Year, the Walter Camp Award winner, the Archie Griffin Award winner, a consensus All-America player, and runner-up for the 2000 Heisman Trophy, among other awards.

His coaching career started in 2004 as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma, where he won two more national championships with the Sooners. During that time, he mentored Jason White, who won the Heisman Trophy. After a year away as the tight ends coach at Arizona under the brother of Oklahoma’s head coach, he returned to Oklahoma as the quarterback’s coach. He ended up coaching Sam Bradford, who won the 2008 Heisman Trophy and ended up being the top pick in the NFL draft.

In 2010, Heupel was elevated to co-offensive coordinator until 2014. His offenses ranked in the Top 25 each year as co-OC at Oklahoma. Head coach Bob Stoops changed his offensive philosophy for 2015 and Heupel was shuffled out. After a year at Utah State as the associate head coach and offensive coordinator, he became the offensive coordinator at Missouri. During his two year stint at Missouri, he elevated a Tiger team that ranked 124th in offense in 2015 to 13th in 2016 and 7th in 2017.

When White hired Heupel, he insisted that a specific available coach is brought on as his defensive coordinator. That DC is former Miami head coach and Florida assistant Randy Shannon. Randy Shannon is a long time coaching veteran dating back to 1991 as a graduate assistant for Miami. In 2001, he became the defensive coordinator at Miami and head coach from 2007-2010. While DC at Miami, with the exception of 2004, his defenses ranked in the Top 10 in the nation. While his wins and losses as head coach were less than stellar, his push for academic success is something that is heavily valued at UCF. 

For the last few years, UCF has had the highest academic progress report rating among all public schools in the football bowl subdivision. During Shannon’s tenure, Miami was ranked 3rd in the APR and he ran a very clean program, with players causing very little trouble with the law and keeping away from Nevin Shapiro. After being let go from Miami, Shannon spent a year at TCU as the linebackers coach, two years as linebackers coach at Arkansas, and three years as the defensive coordinator at Florida, where he assumed the interim head coach position after Jim McElwain was fire. Shannon has very strong recruiting connections in Florida, especially in the talent-rich Miami area. 

In today’s day of instant media, White did an amazing job keeping the Heupel hire a secret. It drove the UCF fan base absolutely crazy and sportswriters around the country wondering who he was bringing in. With Heupel in place as head coach, the UCF administration and fan base have turned their attention to the Chick-fil-a Peach Bowl, which will be held in Atlanta on January 1st against the Auburn Tigers, the SEC West Division champions and conference runner-up.

The New Year’s Six bowls require an allotment of 12,500 tickets to be sold or the cost picked up by the school. UCF sold out their allotment in record time. While this is not UCF’s first major bowl, they defeated Baylor in the 2014 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl to close the 2013 season and the BCS era, this is the first major bowl that is more easily accessible to the UCF fan base. UCF fans are very excited for the upcoming bowl game against Auburn. 

There is a lot on the line for the Knights. UCF has a 12-0 record and is the only remaining undefeated program in FBS. As a team from a non-power conference, there is a chip on their shoulder for the lack of respect the College Football Playoff committee has shown them. For the players and now former UCF coaches, there is the desire to cap the season off on top and close this chapter. There is a strong bond between the players and this coaching staff. For UCF, it had been called a sleeping giant of a program many times over the years. 

It is very possible, in light of the 2017 season, the talent set to come back in 2018, and the staff being brought in to run the team, the giant might have awoken.

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