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Conference realignment: How UCF is preparing for Big 12 move

The Knights have seen their donor base expand as they prepare to jump from the AAC to the Power Five.
UCF coach Gus Malzahn, right, is getting the Knights ready for the Big 12.
UCF coach Gus Malzahn, right, is getting the Knights ready for the Big 12. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 9

TAMPA — When UCF coach Gus Malzahn and athletic director Terry Mohajir talk with Knights fans about their impending move from the AAC to the Big 12, the excitement is obvious.

“This is what they’ve been hoping for, for many years now,” Mohajir said. “Hope is not a plan, though.”

As that move approaches, Mohajir, Malzahn and the rest of the Knights are implementing an actual plan to have UCF competitive as soon as it rises into that Power Five league (potentially as soon as the summer of 2023).

Related: NFL draft: Florida has weakest class of modern era, but Hillsborough shines

For Malzahn, the job hasn’t changed much. The first objective is to have a strong season this fall — which Malzahn believes is possible. UCF won six of its last seven games, and its 29-17 victory over the Gators in Tampa’s Gasparilla Bowl gave the Knights the unofficial state championship. The Knights have two promising quarterbacks, incumbent Mikey Keene and Mississippi transfer John Rhys Plumlee, and plenty of talent around them.

“We’ve got a chance next year …” Malzahn said last week at The Brass Tap during a stop on the Knights’ ChargeOn Tour. “Let’s make a run.”

The next step is to continue building a roster that will be ready to compete immediately, whenever the move is complete and regardless of how long Texas and Oklahoma are still there. The style of play shouldn’t change much, so Malzahn isn’t recruiting different types of athletes at certain positions. Instead, he’s focused on getting more elite prospects — a job made easier by the change in conference affiliation.

UCF won the unofficial state championship last year by beating the Gators in the Gasparilla Bowl.
UCF won the unofficial state championship last year by beating the Gators in the Gasparilla Bowl. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]

“You can tell a difference,” Malzahn said. “That’s real life to recruits, whether I like it or not. It doesn’t matter that I think we’re a top-25 program, being non-Power Five. But it does to recruits.”

UCF’s incoming class is ranked No. 41 in the country (including transfers). That’s tied for the Knights’ best haul of the modern recruiting era.

“We think we can win the whole thing here,” Malzahn said.

So does Mohajir, who believes his plan can make it happen.

The initial tasks included $4 million in facilities maintenance and upgrades. The Knights replaced the turf on their indoor practice facility, spruced up their operations center and renovated the softball locker room.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Mohajir said.

To get there, the Knights are focused on fundraising and their Mission XII campaign. UCF’s operating income ($64 million) would rank eighth in the Big 12. The athletic department wants to boost that to the top five by the time the Knights join and the top three or four within five years.

Related: How does USF compare to future Big 12 teams UCF, BYU, Cincinnati and Houston?

Mohajir said many of the Knights’ upcoming facilities projects will feature new revenue sources. Think: an upgraded stadium area opening for lunch and dinner so it’s used more frequently throughout the year.

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UCF is already seeing momentum build after September’s Big 12 announcement. The Knights have the most donors (8,800) in program history with the goal of hitting 10,000 by the end of June. Their number of major donors (gifts of at least $25,000) has more than doubled, to 270.

“You can tell it’s kind of been a long time coming,” Malzahn said. “You can just tell when I talk to our fans and our boosters — man, it’s an exciting time to be here and be in the moment.

“We’ve got a chance to really do something special. We’ve just got to seize the moment and win games.”

Related: Will USF football be another UCF or UConn?

Knight notes

· Though Florida’s name, image and likeness law is more restrictive than some other states because programs and coaches can’t cause money “to be directed to” players or recruits, Malzahn said the guardrails don’t seem to be a hindrance.

“I think there’s some schools in our state that area doing really well, so I don’t know,” Malzahn said.

USF-UCF football games will become harder to schedule when the Knights join the Big 12.
USF-UCF football games will become harder to schedule when the Knights join the Big 12. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2020) ]

· Mohajir has “no issues” trying to schedule future football games against USF when the Knights change leagues. Mohajir said he and Bulls athletic director Michael Kelly have talked about future scheduling, but UCF will probably face a nine-game Big 12 slate. Both teams already have other non-conference opponents lined up; USF’s non-conference schedule appears full through 2027.

“It’s just a matter of availability, really, to be very candid with you,” Mohajir said.

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