TAMPA — As new UCF athletic director Todd Stansbury has made the rounds to booster gatherings around the state this spring, the excitement and buzz among Knights fans about their future in the Big East is enough that he has to remind people that first there's a farewell season in Conference USA.
"Everybody's extremely excited about joining the Big East," Stansbury said last week at UCF's Tampa-area gathering at the Rusty Pelican restaurant. "There's been a lot of energy, a lot of anticipation getting ready for the Big East. One of the things that the coaches and myself keep saying is that we can't overlook today's opponent."
UCF is one of six programs joining the Big East in summer 2013, along with C-USA's Houston, SMU and Memphis and football-only additions Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West. It's a move the Knights wanted to make for a long time, but football coach George O'Leary said he wants his team to leave C-USA on a high note first.
"We've got to take care of business in Conference USA," said O'Leary, who won league titles in 2007 and 2010. "The Big East will come soon enough."
O'Leary said he already sees the benefits of a more highly regarded league — though the designation will be short-lived, the Big East still carries an automatic bid in the current BCS bowl system. That status symbol carries weight with recruits.
"It's amazing, once you get that BCS tag you're in the same room with everybody else," said O'Leary, 50-51 in eight seasons at UCF. "Even though we were playing those people anyway, you still have that stigma of a non-qualifying (automatic BCS bid). It's opened up a lot more doors. We're recruiting this class for the Big East."
UCF is part of a new wave of Big East schools, brought in to keep the league afloat after Pittsburgh and Syracuse announced they were leaving for the ACC, with West Virginia and TCU opting for the Big 12. Temple joins the league this fall in football, and in its other sports next year; Navy will join in football in 2015.
The biggest challenge for UCF might be in men's basketball, where the Big East has a reputation for being the toughest and perhaps deepest conference. The Knights won 22 games and went 10-6 in C-USA but settled for the NIT, still a step forward under coach Donnie Jones. He'll be hard-pressed to match those records in the Big East, but he's encouraged by what USF did this past season in making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years.
"You look at USF and the success, what they've done this last year especially in basketball, and they've been doing it in football," Jones said. "It's exciting for our school, our program and our coaches. We know what a big step that is."