ST. PETERSBURG — George O'Leary understands his UCF team could have taken its lumps, serving a one-year postseason ban this fall and entering the Big East next season with a clean slate.
However, as the Knights prepare for tonight's Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl against Ball State at Tropicana Field, the veteran coach is excited to be playing in a bowl game and confident his team will be able to do the same next season.
"I would never do that to the senior class," O'Leary said Thursday of UCF's decision to appeal the NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations, potentially pushing the bowl ban to 2013.
"I think we did the right thing. I thought the sanctions were unwarranted for what we did. We didn't meet the criteria a postseason ban calls for, and I think the president and athletic director made the right decision. I think we have a great case to fight."
The appeal allowed UCF to be eligible to win Conference USA's East Division. (It lost the title game after Tulsa blocked a field goal in overtime.)
And a win tonight gives UCF's seniors 34, the school's most in a four-year period. Just as important, playing a bowl game gave UCF extra practices to build momentum toward next season.
"You head into that offseason with a good taste in your mouth," O'Leary said. "That's what a bowl does. A lot of young kids have a good experience. A win leaves some confidence for the kids coming back, so they hit the offseason conditioning with a positive state of mind."
Ball State, like UCF, has nine wins, including over USF at home Sept. 22. But the most glaring difference is experience. O'Leary is in his 13th bowl while Cardinals coach Pete Lembo, a veteran of two Division I-AA playoff runs at Lehigh and one at Elon, is in his first. The week leading up to kickoff is packed with activities that, while part of the bowl experience, can distract from a team's focus.
"I remember the first time I took a team to a bowl. They forgot we were playing a game that week," O'Leary said, referencing the 1985 Cherry Bowl in Pontiac, Mich., when he was an assistant for a Syracuse team that lost 35-18 to Maryland. "It's important that you have kids who have been to bowls before and understand what's supposed to happen."
UCF is the first team to return to Tropicana Field in the bowl's five-year history. It lost to Rutgers 45-24 in 2009, a game that saw current seniors playing as freshmen. Quincy McDuffie, who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns this year, had 165 yards on kickoff returns in the '09 game. Defensive back Kemal Ishmael had an interception and six tackles, and Largo High graduate Brynn Harvey rushed for 32 yards.
O'Leary reminded his seniors this week that the final bowl game, good or bad, will stick in a player's mind long after his career is over, so the memories forged tonight are important.
"Ten, 15 years from now, when you have a reunion, that's the one you're talking about," O'Leary said. "I'm sorry to say our guys 20 years ago had bowls they still talk about as the last game they played. You play a bunch of great games, but this bowl game is the last one you remember."