“When I left the pro game to come to this program I knew that UCF had the capacity to win,” O’Leary said. “It was facilities first and I had to trust the people of UCF to do the necessary things to get the program in the right direction. You have to have commitment first. Second, we had to improve the facilities. We got that done.”
And the Knights are also getting it done on the field. In 2010, UCF won 11 games and the Conference USA championship. It also upset the University of Georgia in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Between the results of last year and the upgrades on campus, recruiting has greatly benefited. In fact, UCF has put together two very good recruiting classes and things are only going to get better for the Knights on that front.
“We have been in our championship game three out of six years and won it twice,” said UCF associate head coach David Kelly. “Then we beat Georgia, so that was two big hurdles for us last year. We beat a tradition-rich SEC school. That was a tremendous barometer of where we are. “I sincerely feel that the long term potential is there for us to compete and win a national championship. We are putting together outstanding recruiting classes and we are going after some of the best prospects across the country. Now we can attract those athletes. The facilities are there. NFL coaches and scouts can’t believe our place because all of the elements are there.”
NFL coaches aren’t the only ones impressed with the Knights, just ask UCF signee Leilon Willingham. The surprising thing is that Willingham is not from the Sunshine State or the state of Georgia. Willingham starred at Denver Mullen High School in Colorado.
“I saw that the Knights have been prospering as of late and that coach O’Leary has a very high graduation rate,” Willingham said. “I saw that the Knights are a very underrated team and they work for every bit of credibility they get. I loved the area surrounding the campus. Who wouldn’t want to go to college under sun and palm trees? The direction of the program has me very excited. After getting down there for my spring break to actually see the team work, I really feel anxious to get on the field and make plays with the fellas. It’s a great group of guys who are focused on putting UCF on the map as one of the top up-and-coming teams in the NCAA.”
Of course in today’s era of college football you have to have the facilities to really compete in the recruiting wars. Under O’Leary’s watch the Knights raised millions of dollars to pour into an indoor training field (Nicholson Field House), weight room, coach’s office, etc.
They used to play in the city of Orlando at the Citrus Bowl, but their latest achievement was their on-campus stadium, Bright House Stadium. That has been a huge boost to their recruiting efforts.
“Getting that campus stadium was huge for us,” Kelly said. “We played in the Citrus Bowl and recruits would come to see UCF but not see UCF. They were not getting exposed to campus. Now we get prospects on campus and this is a huge selling point for us in recruiting. Now the thrust is to continue to get recruits on campus to see what we have to offer. We can compete with everyone and that’s what’s important.”
With around 12 or so scholarships available in the Class of 2012 you likely won’t see UCF climb into the top national recruiting rankings on national signing day because the quantity won’t be there. But if things get better in recruiting as the UCF coaching staff anticipates, the quality certainly will.
“There is a newness about us,” Kelly said. “I think we are becoming somewhat of a fad. We have a beautiful resort-like campus, brand new facilities and we are in an international city like Orlando. There’s recognition there with young people with Orlando and Disney. We are looking for the special type of kid who is looking for something a little different.
“We want to get a little bit better each and every day. We are inching closer and closer every year. People are becoming aware of what we are bringing to the college football landscape. We are a sleeping giant.”
Source: ESPN,ESPN Recruiting, UCF on the rise: George O’Leary’s sales pitch of a winning record, new facilities and location is working, by Jamie Newberg, originally published April 14, 2011