TAMPA — The Bulls celebrated the first end of the USF-UCF rivalry with a golden shovel.
They planted it into the end zone in 2008 after defeating the Knights for the fourth time in four meetings. There was no thought of a fifth. The War on I-4 was dead as the so-called rivals headed in opposite directions.
The Bulls were enjoying one of the fastest ascents in college football history, rising from nothing to a major conference (the Big East) and No. 2 Bowl Championship Series ranking in only 11 seasons. Two games into Year 12, USF was a top-20 team on the verge of joining Florida, Florida State and Miami as the state’s fourth preeminent football program.
The Knights, meanwhile, were mired in a 26-38 slump and stuck in USF’s former mid-major home, Conference USA, after trying and failing to ride their younger brothers’ coattails into a power league. Despite an 18-season head start, they were so irrelevant that they needed political intervention just to schedule USF.
“They were ahead of us in everything,” said Steve Orsini, UCF’s athletic director from 2002-06.
On Saturday, the Knights officially join the Big 12, a Power Five conference with more prestige, bigger opponents and an eight-figure annual revenue boost. USF, meanwhile, is left behind in the Knights’ former mid-major home, a watered-down American Athletic Conference.
The divergence was hard to miss in November during the teams’ last scheduled meeting. Black and gold Big 12 flags waved in the Raymond James Stadium stands, and UCF celebrated its sixth consecutive rivalry victory with a dig of its own:
“Horns Down” hand gestures that mocked USF’s symbol and will soon taunt Big 12 colleague Texas.
Though conference realignment is usually a complicated process involving everything from population and politics to doctoral degrees and bowl wins, there’s a simple explanation why UCF was promoted and USF wasn’t.
It’s not academics. Both are top-tier research universities.
It’s not all-around athletics. Both have comparable success in non-revenue sports.
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It’s not enrollment, market size or location. Both are massive schools in top-20 TV markets in one of the nation’s four biggest recruiting states.
It’s football. Then-Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby admitted as much in September 2021 when he said his league wanted schools “we felt would move the needle for us in football first.”
The Knights do. Since being buried by USF that September night 15 years ago, they have five conference championships, three major bowl appearances and one perfect season.
USF does not. In that same span, the Bulls have had more losing seasons (eight) than winning ones (six), have lost 47 of their last 51 games against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams, and are still looking for their first conference title.
There’s no single reason why the Knights rallied to win the Realignment War on I-4. Rather, they triumphed in battle after battle in boardrooms and living rooms, on football fields and TV screens, crucially, on a private jet somewhere between Orlando and Muncie, Ind.
“We didn’t win ‘em all,” Orsini said, “but we won enough of the key ones.”
Enough to leave USF behind.
How the Bounce House boosted UCF football
UCF and USF officials spent years having separate versions of the same conversation about building an on-campus football stadium.
The Knights balked at a nine-figure price tag to move from the Florida Citrus Bowl. The Bulls’ thoughts are best summed up by then-president Betty Castor in 1999, when she said a stadium was “not part of my vision,” though she was open to the idea if someone wanted to give the school one.
The Knights’ vision shifted in 2004 when they saw Marshall’s recent facility expansion. If the Thundering Herd could add 8,000 seats for only $2.5 million, maybe a stadium wasn’t out of UCF’s price range after all.
That’s the pitch booster Jerry Roth made two weeks later aboard his private plane en route to a game at Ball State with UCF’s powerbrokers, including president John Hitt.
“I guarantee you, probably 98% of university presidents out there would have scoffed at it and said, ‘Can’t do it,’” said Tim Leonard, then a Knights administrator and now the athletic director at Southern Illinois.
Hitt was in the 2%. Thirteen months later, UCF’s trustees approved funding for a $51 million stadium. The Bounce House was coming.
What is now called FBC Mortgage Stadium is not a football cathedral or architectural masterpiece. Bulls fans have ridiculed its Erector Set aesthetics since it opened in 2007, and one USF trustee even joked about its lack of water fountains during a recent meeting. But the 44,000-seat stadium has done its job.
“It changed the symbol of UCF,” said Marc Daniels, the longtime “Voice of the Knights.”
The Knights averaged 26,075 fans over their last four years at the Citrus Bowl. Excluding the 2020 COVID season, average attendance at the Bounce House has never dipped below 30,000. It has topped 40,000 in four consecutive seasons and outdrawn USF in eight of the last nine.
The spike helped boost the budget. In 2006 (the last year at the Citrus Bowl), the Knights reported $4.3 million in football revenue to the U.S. Department of Education. That figure doubled in 2008 and again in 2013. Since the Bounce House opened, UCF has cumulatively reported $67 million more football revenue than the Bulls.
Bill Sutton noticed other, everyday changes as the associate director of UCF’s sports management program. He rarely, if ever, saw Knights gear around campus before the stadium, then saw the number of UCF shirts and hats balloon.
“It was like an unbelievable transformation,” said Sutton, who later directed USF’s Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program and led two Bulls athletic director searches. “I had never seen anything like it.”
The fan base swelled. UCF football’s combined following on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok exceeds 504,000. That’s almost double USF’s following (256,000) and larger than at least three Big 12 incumbents (Baylor, Kansas and Iowa State).
Twenty-six UCF games have drawn at least 1 million TV viewers since 2018, according to the website Sports Media Watch. Half topped 2 million. USF has had only seven games hit the 1 million mark with none over 2 million.
That matters. One of the reasons UCF appealed to the Big 12 was its “region that is rich in fans,” Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec (a former Big 12 board chairperson) said in 2021. Those fans have been energized, in part, by 16 years of on-campus football — 16 more years than the Bulls have.
USF is in the process of fixing that. Its trustees recently approved initial plans to open a $340 million stadium in 2026.
The skepticism surrounding USF’s decision is similar to what Leonard heard at UCF two decades ago. The Knights had the nation’s longest losing streak during its stadium push, while USF has four wins in three years. Both had been rejected in realignment. Both struggled with attendance.
Despite the doubts, UCF bought into a vision for what it could become and believed a stadium was necessary to make it happen.
“OK, what do you think about it now?” Leonard said. “Because it worked out pretty dang well.”
‘UCF read the room right. USF didn’t.’
Though a stadium was UCF’s biggest win, there were other, smaller ones that also centered on the biggest buzzword in college sports.
“It has to start with that alignment,” Orsini said.
Alignment is hard to quantify, but it looks like a scene Orsini remembers after hiring George O’Leary to coach the 2004 season. O’Leary pulled a full, single-spaced notepad from the right-hand drawer of his desk with everything he thought the Knights needed. Then Orsini and O’Leary went through the list, line by line, marking who was responsible for what.
They wouldn’t have gotten far without the buy-in of Orsini’s boss.
Hitt, UCF’s president from 1992-2018, was an ex-Tulane professor devoted to education. He was also a former small-college football player who sat next to linemen on team flights. He believed two key things: that a big-time football program was vital to the academic success of a Southern school, and that there was no reason why UCF could not have a big-time football program.
“At some point, the sleeping giant has to wake up…” Hitt told the Orlando Sentinel in 2006, 17 years before his death. “At some point, you have to have the will and the guts to go for it.”
With Hitt, the Knights had the guts to go for it. Between 2003-05, UCF:
· Hired O’Leary, the 2000 national coach of the year at Georgia Tech.
· Provided a larger assistant coaching salary pool than Florida, FSU and Miami.
· Formed a direct-support organization, the UCF Athletics Association, to streamline the department.
· Opened the Wayne Densch Sports Center with new spaces for training and sports medicine.
· Built the state’s first indoor practice facility.
· Gave athletics a bridge loan to help cover an expected $1.4 million shortfall.
Compare those actions to the ones at USF.
The Bulls announced plans for an indoor facility under one coach (Charlie Strong), built it under a second (Jeff Scott) and formally opened it under a third (Alex Golesh). A direct-support organization? USF didn’t certify one until June.
“They did it right 15 years ago,” former USF star quarterback Matt Grothe said, “and we’re just trying to catch up.”
The Bulls are trying to catch up on smaller, day-to-day items, too. Though USF’s football budget topped the Knights from 2006-09, UCF has outspent the Bulls every year since. The collective total in the last decade, according to figures submitted to the U.S. Department of Education: $51.5 million.
Clifford Snow is surprised the gap is that small. He saw its effects daily in his two years as Strong’s director of football operations. Snow had been warned by former Bulls staffers from Skip Holtz’s tenure that USF was a hard place to get things done.
“That was a program where you begged for things,” Snow said.
Begged athletics for facilities upgrades. Begged dining services to do more with nutrition. Begged housing to separate a dismissed player from former teammates. Begged administrators for more academic spaces so film studies and tutoring sessions wouldn’t have to fight over the same room.
It wasn’t like that at Snow’s other stops, including Louisville — which shared a conference with the Bulls then before jumping to the ACC.
“The light kind of goes on, and you’ve got to make a decision: Is it something you want to be in the game or not?” Snow said. “And USF never took that step.”
But why not?
One explanation is that USF deemphasized sports by prioritizing education — an understandable choice for a school. It’s one president Rhea Law raised during a recent committee meeting.
“I think the important point here is that unlike many other universities that already have stadiums in our state and even outside our state, we did this a little different,” Law said. “We focused on being preeminent first.”
USF became the state’s third preeminent university in 2018 and hit another milestone this year with an invitation to the Association of American Universities, a select group of elite research schools. But the attention to academics came at a cost to athletics.
Another is that UCF’s hires were better fits who made the right calls. In 2004 — as USF was trying to establish itself as a football power — the Bulls hired athletic director Doug Woolard from Saint Louis, a school without a football team.
The Knights have cycled through athletic directors who had similar visions and weren’t afraid to fight. Todd Stansbury helped UCF challenge an NCAA bowl ban for major recruiting violations; without its successful appeal in 2013, the Knights could not have beaten Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. His successor, Danny White, was jeered for anointing UCF as the 2017 national champion, but the stunt caused interest and engagement to skyrocket.
“I think they had the right people in place for the majority of time, and they believed in sports,” USF all-time leading tackler Auggie Sanchez said. “And I think we’re just now getting to that point.”
A final explanation is that USF’s brass became complacent because of budget constraints, hubris, apathy or some combination of the three. The Bulls didn’t need fancy facilities to rise to No. 2 in the country under program architect Jim Leavitt. Why did they need to borrow or raise millions of dollars to build them now?
“UCF understood it was about more than just on-field success…” said Shaun King, a former Bulls assistant and Bucs quarterback who hosts a daily show on DraftKings Network and YouTube TV. “And whatever sacrifices on the academic side they had to make, whatever sacrifices from a strategic-planning standpoint they had to make financially, they knew to be a viable option — to ultimately end up in one of the big conferences — they had to upgrade the athletic infrastructure.
“UCF read the room right. USF didn’t.”
The collapse of USF football
You could interpret Jeff Scott’s comments in the aftermath of USF’s damning 48-28 loss to East Carolina last October as an attempt to save his job as his 4-26 tenure skidded to an end.
Or you could view them as an explanation why he was the program’s third failed hire since Leavitt’s controversial exit in 2010.
The teams ahead of USF, Scott said, got there after winning one battle after another in facilities and alignment — battles the Bulls lost.
“This is not a program that you can just come in two years and change a few things, and all of a sudden you’re winning 11 games,” Scott said.
UCF is; Scott Frost won 13 games in his second year, and Josh Heupel won 12 in his first. The Knights attribute it to O’Leary, who established a baseline of stability in the weight room and classroom that survived his messy departure.
The Knights established a brand. They are modern on the field (lightning-fast offenses) and off it (putting QR codes on spring game uniforms to boost players’ name, image and likeness visibility). Their coaching hires have been relatively consistent: Frost, Heupel and Gus Malzahn were all offensive minds with up-tempo systems.
USF’s identity has been much less obvious; even its logo has been a point of contention after the school introduced, then scrapped, a separate academic symbol.
The Bulls swung from a conservative offensive coach (Holtz) to the cutting-edge Gulf Coast offense of Willie Taggart to an old-school defensive mind (Strong) to a pair of first-time head coaches (first Scott, now Golesh). Holtz, Strong and Scott failed for their own reasons: Holtz had the country’s worst turnover margin, Strong grew disillusioned with stagnant facilities and Scott fielded the three worst defenses in program history. But there were systemic issues, too.
The onfield gap between USF and UCF grew from two major factors, starting with recruiting. Though the Bulls landed the AAC’s top signing class in the league’s first two years (the 2014-15 cycles), UCF has held the edge every year since.
Five of UCF’s last eight classes ranked either first or second in the conference, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. USF has only one finish in the top four. The Knights have signed six blue-chip high school recruits since USF added its last (four-star receiver Darnell Salomon in 2016).
The Bulls’ recent lag has coincided with a south Florida drought. In 2014-2015, USF landed nine high school recruits from Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties, including dazzling quarterback Quinton Flowers. In the past five years, USF has landed seven total prep recruits from those counties, according to 247Sports.
“You could look after a few classes and say, ‘Dang, did USF even really try to go out and recruit?’” said Sanchez, the former Bulls star who now coaches Seminole High. “And that’s not a knock on anyone. I mean, recruiting is one of those things where you think you’re getting something, and a lot of times they don’t pan out to be that way.”
Most troublingly, UCF has weakened USF’s biggest advantage by invading Tampa Bay. In the past 10 cycles, the Knights have signed more top-700 national recruits from Pinellas or Hillsborough County high schools (four) than USF (three). Their top commitment in the 2024 class is running back Stacy Gage, a Hillsborough native on track to be UCF’s fifth-best signee of the modern recruiting era.
The Knights’ local presence has grown strong enough for them to host a recent name, image and likeness gathering in Tampa, where they billed themselves as “Tampa’s Hometown Team, Too.”
The second glaring problem stems from the game’s most important position: quarterback. In the last decade, UCF has produced a top-three NFL draft pick (Blake Bortles), a two-time AAC player of the year (McKenzie Milton) and the nation’s leader in passing yards per game (Dillon Gabriel). The Bulls had three transcendent seasons of Flowers but have started nine different quarterbacks since he left after 2017.
“(USF) just didn’t land a dynamic quarterback through all that,” said Josh Newberg, a longtime Florida recruiting analyst who is a national host for the college sports site On3. “I think that’s kind of the difference.”
The factors fed into each other on the field. Since USF buried the Knights in 2008, UCF has posted six seasons with at least 10 wins. USF has two in its entire history.
The Knights’ highs include two Fiesta Bowls, a Peach Bowl and a 25-game winning streak. USF finished ranked once under Taggart and once under Strong but has finished with a losing record in eight of the last dozen seasons.
“You can have all these intangibles,” said Crakes, who advises conferences and TV networks as a consultant, “and if you don’t win, it can become hard to be asked to join the club when the time comes.”
It’s a painful but important lesson. One UCF learned two decades ago.
Timing is everything
After Bulls supporters crammed into a ballroom at the Marshall Center in 2003, then-president Judy Genshaft delivered a three-word declaration.
“USF has arrived.”
The Bulls had, earning a bid to the Big East.
UCF had not. Though the Knights sold themselves as a running mate with the Bulls, UCF was in a 27-28 funk and 84th nationally in attendance. USF was 49-25 and on the rise.
“We wanted that, but we weren’t ready yet,” said Orsini, the Knights’ then-athletic director. “We were still building a foundation.”
They built it, brick by brick, battle by battle, over the next 18 years until Texas and Oklahoma announced they were defecting from the Big 12 to the SEC.
“It just so happened the gates opened up,” Knights athletic director Terry Mohajir said during the conference’s announcement, “and we were there.”
Had the Big 12 expanded in 2016, perhaps USF would have been there, too. The Bulls were considered along with the four teams the conference eventually admitted (UCF, Houston, BYU and Cincinnati). Or maybe USF would have found a different home if its leadership had positioned itself better before the Big East split a decade ago, as Rutgers (Big Ten) and Louisville (ACC) did.
Or maybe the Bulls would have gained momentum if they had pulled out any of their recent tight games with UCF. What if a defending holding penalty in 2017 hadn’t negated a fourth-quarter interception in a one-score loss in one of the greatest games in state history?
But the realignment dominoes fell as USF football floundered, with potentially disastrous consequences. If major conferences move toward consolidation, not expansion, USF could be doomed to a generation of games against unremarkable opponents like Rice and Charlotte.
Crakes, the conference and TV consultant, sees another option.
“If you want to stop being doomed to play them, start beating them,” Crakes said. “Beat them all the time. Consistently.”
That’s what UCF did. Since the 2008 loss to the Bulls, the Knights have an 83-37 conference record plus attention-seizing triumphs over Penn State, Florida, Georgia and Auburn. USF is 40-74 in league play and has seven consecutive losses against power teams.
If the Bulls win enough to add football relevance to their academic prestige, large enrollment, growing market size, promising location and success in softball and women’s basketball, USF may look back on this snub the same way the Knights view their realignment defeat two decades ago. As a blessing in disguise.
While USF was thrown into the deep end of a power conference, UCF waded in deliberately. The Knights’ powerbrokers bought into a shared vision that prioritized athletics with an on-campus stadium as a swaying symbol of unity. O’Leary stabilized the football program, and his forward-thinking successors recruited well enough and developed the right passers for the sleeping giant in Orlando to wake up.
The big victories, countless smaller ones and fortuitous timing all led to a reversal that would have seemed incomprehensible in 2008, when the St. Petersburg Times compared the USF-UCF rivalry to that of a bug and a windshield, and assistant Carl Franks laughed at how the Bulls were clearly out of UCF’s league.
“We’re trying to build a rivalry with Miami,” Franks said then. “Maybe they should get one with FIU or FAU.”
Fifteen years later, the Realignment War on I-4 is over, for now. UCF is headed to the big time to play Oklahoma and Kansas State and Baylor, leaving a splattered USF in the rearview mirror.
The Bulls’ new annual rival?
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