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Central Florida: Another Acc Hopeful With A Very Long Way To Go

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn and staff ACC Sports Journal
September 2, 2002

ORLANDO - The assembled staff members, coaches, athletes, boosters and media came to hear big plans, grandiose plans. Steve Orsini did not disappoint.

   A freshly minted athletic director off Dave Braine's staff at Georgia Tech, Orsini stood before his new faithful at Central Florida and proclaimed unlimited potential, unseen heights.

Parroting what he said during his interview process, what other candidates also said, Orsini mentioned UCF joining the ACC. He mentioned the SEC. He said the day when UCF could join one of those kinds of conferences wasn't too far away. Never mind that the school had eight months earlier signed papers on a five-year, football-only commitment to the Mid-American Conference. Or that it remains a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference for most of its other sports.

“The question was, Where do you see UCF athletics down the road? And one of our goals is to enter a major conference down the road in all our sports,” Orsini said. “What about the SEC? Well, that's a major conference, and I'm interested in joining a major conference in three to five years. What about the ACC? That's a major conference, too. That fits my definition.”

To donors living in the long shadow of Disney World and barely out of sight of acres of orange groves, talk of the SEC and ACC is heady stuff. Playing Florida or Florida State every year in football? Consider right now that UCF's stellar baseball program can't get an even swap on games against the Seminoles.

Alas, Orsini and others know that dreams never killed anyone. Because in the land of hulking football stadiums and big budgets, the aforementioned scene drew a similar reaction: Who, or what, is Central Florida?

UCF was born in the 1970s as Florida Technological University as a companion to NASA, which resides in Cape Canaveral, some 45 minutes from campus. A fountain for high-tech grads, UCF also has a strong business school, and like most of Florida's cities and schools, it wrestles with the challenge of controlled growth.

It is a school that has 35,000 full- and part-time students and is like most urban universities. It's largely commuter, and campus life is not what it is in Chapel Hill or Charlottesville. One study found that UCF should expect a student enrollment of 48,000 by the end of the decade. That's about the current size of Ohio State.

Athletically and nationally, UCF is best known as the school that produced Daunte Culpepper. The Minnesota Vikings quarterback made a brief run at the Heisman Trophy during his senior year in 1998, when the Golden Knights went 9-2 and stayed home for Christmas. Culpepper left as the school's career passing leader and also as its highest (11th overall) first-round draft pick.

Former long-time Florida State assistant Gene McDowell rebuilt UCF's football program from a $1.2 million debt inherited from Lou Saban in the mid-1980s. UCF rose from Division II to I-AA and then, in 1996, made the hop to
I-A. McDowell lost his job after he acknowledged that he was not truthful before a grand jury about a cell phone scandal involving some of his players. His long-time offensive coordinator, Mike Kruczek, was named interim coach and, later, promoted to permanent coach.

Under Kruczek, a Boston College grad who is best known as Terry Bradshaw's backup during the Steel Curtain days of the Pittsburgh Steelers, UCF has enjoyed three winning seasons in four years in I-A. The Knights stunned Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., 40-38 in 2000, and last year they scared Clemson before falling 21-13.

The best answer to what UCF is, though, is its budget and its tradition. The Knights will operate in 2002-03 with its largest piggy bank ever: $13.6 million. That's less than half of what Florida State will have. Although UCF recently broke ground on a $6 million football facility, its booster club never has raised more than $1 million in any fiscal year.

UCF has its own television contract. It is with Sunshine Network, which pays the school $65,000 a year to do football, basketball, women's basketball and baseball games. UCF has a contract with adidas, though it won't see the seven-figure benefit heaped upon adidas clients Tennessee and Nebraska.

On the football field, the Knights never have been to a bowl game. In basketball, they've been to the NCAA Tournament twice as members of the Trans America Athletic Conference (now the A-Sun), a league in which its budget is No. 1.

“There are a lot of positives. The challenge is to translate some of those positives into dollars,” UCF president John Hitt said. “It takes money to run a I-A football program, and it take money to move up even further after you're playing I-A football.”

But it's basketball, not football, that presents the obstacles for any major conference membership for UCF. The Knights play in UCF
Arena, an on-campus fieldhouse that holds, liberally, 5,000 fans and not many of those in good seats. Hitt already plans on replacing the 10-year-old facility soon.

Worse than the building, however, is support. Kirk Speraw's program averages fewer than 1,000 fans at home games. His recruiting budget is $57,000, but that figure is deceiving. It includes, for instance, phone bills.

UCF has no big-money basketball boosters to speak of, and the recent transfers of twin brothers Joey and Stephen Graham will make
it difficult for the Knights to compete for an
A-Sun title in the next couple of years.

“We need more support in basketball,” said Orsini, referring to more money from the athletic department and more fans in the stands.

Orsini was picked to replace Steve Sloan, who spent nine years trying not to cultivate too many gray hairs while keeping the Knights' programs in the black. Sloan did exactly what was asked of him. He scheduled road football games for big bucks so UCF could pay its bills. Sloan, after a mostly private rift with Hitt, left to become AD at Tennessee-Chattanooga, located a half-hour from where Sloan grew up.

Orsini steps in with a vastly different challenge than what Sloan was presented. Sloan left UCF's football schedules completed through 2010, which was fine with Orsini. Because Orsini's job is to woo boosters and to position the school for a jump to another conference.

“The athletic director's job here used to be to find football games. That's changed,” Kruczek said. “The athletic director's job here now is to raise money.”

“I believe,” Orsini said, “I'm the perfect man for the job. ... I've talked about a major conference, but I don't know what that's going to mean in three, four, five years. I think we all understand the major conferences now are probably going to be there. But there may be others. Conference USA may be right there. The MAC may be right there. There may be others. There may be some we aren't thinking about or haven't heard of. So much can change.”

At Navy and at Georgia Tech, Orsini was considered the prime-time money man in the athletic department. He graduated from Notre Dame with a national championship on his rÈsumÈ, having been a backup fullback and special teams captain on the Fighting Irish's 1977 title team that beat Earl Campbell and Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

He went to work on Wall Street as a certified public accountant at a firm that eventually was merged into the Big Six. He left accounting to return to Notre Dame, where then-AD Gene Corrigan was assembling a staff he wanted to have a business background. Two decades later, Orsini's resume also showed more than nine years with the Dallas Cowboys, where he was the organization's primary non-football, day-to-day operations man.

At Navy and at Tech, he specialized in restructuring money. He directed refinancing of athletic department debt. He consolidated loans. He oversaw bond issues to pay for facilities.

At Tech, he also developed a key contact that helped him get to Orlando. He was the Yellow Jackets' liaison with ISP Sports, a multi-media rights holder. Orsini was so liked by ISP Sports president Ben Sutton Jr. that Sutton, charged with recommending AD candidates to UCF, placed Orsini at the top of a list given to Hitt.

Sources at Tech told UCF's search committee that Orsini, though the man who watched the budget, also was a key figure in raising money. Orsini told UCF he raised millions ahead of schedule for Tech's part of the push to bring two Final Fours to Atlanta.

“Everyone knows if you want to compete on a big-time level, you need big-time money,” Orsini said. “That's my job.”

At UCF, his primary goal will be to raise money by raising awareness that boosters don't get their football program into the SEC or ACC without writing checks with plenty of zeroes in them.

“Corporate donors are important. Private donors are important also,” Orsini said. “We need both. My job is to find both of them and make it possible to put UCF in the position we want to be in in a few years.”

To think a school like UCF - don't call it Central Florida - could step into a league like the ACC is akin to thinking East Carolina's baseball program is ready for the National League East. Sure, there's talent, promise and dreams. But reality speaks otherwise.

And let's not ignore the obvious. The story of expansion at the ACC is a short one, and there are many knowledgeable people who believe it won't have a new chapter any time soon.

In the national sweep brought on by Penn State's decision to join the Big Ten, Corrigan convinced the ACC's leadership to invite Florida State in 1991. FSU started competing as an ACC member in 1992-93. End of story. Since it added Florida State, the ACC repeatedly has said that nine is a good number. Every school plays every other school in football, and they each play one another twice in the regular season in basketball. The league cuts larger checks (reportedly $9 million for 2001-02), per school, than anyone in the nation almost every year. End of story. No more expansion, no more serious thought about it. Or not?

Pushed by FSU AD Dave Hart and also by Braine, the ACC's leadership is said to have embraced the idea of adding members. A much-ballyhooed, behind-the-scenes wooing of Miami fell through more recently, but that experience is believed to have warmed up the league to growth.

“I think it's less politically challenging now than it was a few years ago,” one former ACC leader said. “I think the ACC has gotten to a point now where getting to 10 - or maybe to 12, who knows? - isn't going to be as hard as people think. But Miami just won a national championship as a Big East member, so Miami's probably not going anywhere. So if you're the ACC, whom do you add?”

ACC commissioner John Swofford said expansion remains a back-burner issue for the league. That's today. Tomorrow the stove could burn red on all four burners.

“We're going to keep a close eye on that,” Orsini said. “I have a relationship with most of the conferences. We're going to position ourselves very well for each of those major conferences in our region and hope an opportunity comes knocking. And then make a decision. And even with the MAC, because in this business you never know.”

UCF's entrance into the MAC comes as Orlando makes some significant changes to its sports landscape. This summer marked the first anniversary of the hiring of Tom Mickle as executive director of Florida Citrus Sports, the Orlando non-profit group that stages the erstwhile Florida Citrus Bowl every New Year's Day.

Florida Citrus Sports last year added a second bowl game to its lineup, and the ACC came with it. A revived Tangerine Bowl will put a No. 4 team from the ACC against a team from the Big 12. In addition, Mickle, a Duke grad and formerly the ACC's associate commissioner, has brought in several ACC staffers to help him succeed as Chuck Rohe's successor.

Minutiae, perhaps, but noteworthy. Mickle still has close ties to the ACC, and he knows UCF's Orsini well from when the latter served at Navy and Georgia Tech. Not lost in this is that Mickle, in less than a year with control of the reins, has demonstrated complete community awareness. He gets it: The better the sports are in Orlando, the easier his job becomes and the more successful he will be.

Which brings us to the Tangerine Bowl's tie-in with the Big 12. Officials in the MAC harbor hopes of the Big 12 not qualifying enough teams for postseason play, and therefore being considered to send one of its teams (read: Marshall or UCF) to play against the ACC No. 4. However long those odds may be - that the Big 12 won't have enough teams, and that Swofford wouldn't scream at having a team have to play a MAC school in the postseason - it might mark UCF's best showcase for membership in a regional league.

Whatever impact UCF's bold talk of being an ACC member one day had on tobacco road - evidence suggests none - it had just the opposite effect in the Midwest. Members of the MAC were not amused by the fact that their newest football member had yet to tee up a football in a conference game and yet already was dreaming of winning a ring that does not say “MAC” on it.

Of course, some of this is fueled by the clumsy mouths of UCF's administrators. At a special welcoming reception for MAC football coaches, Hitt twice referred to the league as the “Midwest Conference.” Then, Orsini, his speech to potential donors so ingrained after three weeks on the job, said UCF was looking forward to being in the MAC and then making that next step to a major conference. Never mind that the audience was 98 percent boosters, two percent MAC officials. MAC commissioner Rick Chryst's jaw dropped. Marshall football coach Bob Pruett's jaw clenched.

“They come to our place this year,” Pruett said the next day of the Knights. “But after what their athletic director said, I just hope they're in the league long enough for us to return the game.”

Although it was a minor embarrassment all around, such theatre only will help the UCF-MAC union. The school is 500 miles away from the nearest conference member, hasn't played a league game, and already the Knights can win a prize for being the most despised team in the conference.

Chryst couldn't script a better opening act to drum up interest. By the time Orsini, Kruczek and receiver Jimmy Fryzel got to Detroit for MAC media day, a pot was boiling and they were standing in it.

“The point I kept hearing was, we're going to be everyone's biggest game this year,” Fryzel said after talking to peers around the league. “I guess everyone is already talking about how many fans are going to show up to see us play.”

Chryst, a Notre Dame grad who cut his teeth in the ACC as its first corporate marketing director under Corrigan and Swofford, is less demonstrative than his football coaches. Where most MAC members rightly say the league has done UCF a giant favor by bringing it in from the cold, lonely nights of being a football independent, Chryst has understood that a long-term MAC-UCF marriage is unlikely. It's as if the arrangement set for a Sept. 20 public unveiling - UCF at Marshall on ESPN2 - stemmed from a shotgun wedding.

UCF needed a conference, no question. The MAC, remember, needed a 14th member. Absent that 14th member, no matter who it was, the league a year ago believed it was a near certainty that it would lose Marshall to Conference USA. That's right, Marshall, the MAC's best football program and - oh, yeah - the one with the MAC's only high-profile Heisman Trophy candidate, quarterback Byron Leftwich.

Chryst, who has made powerful strides in the worlds of television and postseason bowls, could not afford to lose his best football program, especially just before the negotiation of a new TV contract.

“It's a great short-term fit,” Chryst admitted upon UCF's invitation. “Is it a great long-term fit? That's something that will bear out as we move along. You would have to look beyond the geographical configuration. I think it could be a great fit.”

Unlike some MAC schools, UCF does not appear in danger of not meeting recently passed standards for I-A membership. The Knights historically have been challenged to have five I-A home games, but affiliation with the MAC should take care of that issue. Where UCF can't find games, the MAC office will.

“Rick understands our position,” Orsini said. “It is the right step to be with the MAC in football and with the Atlantic Sun in every other sport. Now, we need to do well with this next step. We want to be a good member of both of those conferences.”

Lost in the expansion is that the MAC asked for all of its other members to sign five-year commitment papers. Chryst wanted at least some insurance that Marshall wouldn't bolt immediately for CUSA. The financial penalties are such that the commitment probably won't be much of a deterrent to leave at some point, but Chryst's point was made.

Chryst kept Marshall by giving the Thundering Herd a stronger football conference and more football sanity. UCF's addition balanced the MAC's two divisions at seven schools each. It allowed for every conference game, intra-divisional or not, to be counted equally. It did not spoil the current MAC championship game setup. The MAC is locked into sending at least two teams to the postseason. By next year, Chryst said, that number might be three.

“We're better off than we've ever been,” Chryst said.

The Herd, having had its moribund non-football programs rejected for membership by the Horizon League as it looked to go to CUSA for football only, had shuffled its feet and opened its eyes to see roses by its toes.

UCF's product only enhances what the MAC offers on the field. Kruczek's Knights are considered no worse than the fifth-best football team in the conference, which in a field that starts with Marshall and includes Toledo, Miami-Ohio and Western Michigan, is nothing they're ashamed of. Just ask South Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina, Penn State, Minnesota and Missouri, teams the aforementioned MAC members have beaten on the field in recent seasons.

“We know what we have now,” Orsini said. “We know we've made a big step. And it is a big step.

“The teams in the MAC, they're saying, ëHey, new guy on the block. Come get a taste of this neighborhood.' It's a tough neighborhood. There are some good football teams in that conference, and people shouldn't think we're going to waltz in there the first year and win the conference or go to a bowl game.”

Or waltz into the league and then waltz out again, trading one date for another.

- Alan Schmadtke, Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel