I remember when UCF was for selected for a bowl game for the first time in 2005.

I am the guy who reports graduation rates and academic progress rates for all the bowl bound teams each year. I felt badly that I had to report that year that UCF had the worst graduation rates and next to the worst academic progress rate among all the bowl-bound teams.

Obviously George O’Leary was getting the team to be better on the field since it made a bowl game that year. Nearly a decade later not only did we win our biggest sports contest ever on the field against Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, but we also have scored enormously with a successful record in the classroom due to Coach O’Leary’s prioritization of academics and athletics together.

Coincidently on the day that UCF’s poor academic record was published in the Sentinel, I had a 4 p.m. meeting with UCF President John Hitt. I had been getting emails and phone calls from faculty and staff across the campus during the day saying, ” You work for UCF. Why are you writing these terrible things?” John and his wife Martha and my wife Ann and I have been friends long before I came to UCF in 2001. We talked that afternoon about family, the campus, and John’s vision for the future. At the end of the session as I was leaving John simply said to me, “thank you for holding our feet to the fire. We will be better as a result.”

UCF saw improvements in most areas of the 2013 graduation rate study released in December. It’s Academic Progress Rate (APR) increased from 974 to 975. The overall football student-athletes Graduation Success Rate (GSR) increased two points from 81 percent to 83 percent. The GSR for white football student-athletes moved up from 86 percent to 90 percent while the overall student-athlete GSR improved to 89 percent from 85 percent in the 2012 study.
While the GSR for African-American football student-athletes dropped slightly from 78 percent in the 2012 study to 75 percent this year, that was still 10 percent higher than the national average.

We not only beat Baylor on the field, but we had better academic records in every category I just mentioned.

This performance was strong enough to land UCF among the Top 15 schools in APR, overall football student-athlete GSR, and overall student-athlete GSR as well as in the top 20  in African-American and white football student-athlete GSR among bowl bound schools in 2013.

In the last three semesters, the football team had a collective grade point average (GPA) of between a 2.91 and 3.09. The latter was a school record. In UCF’s last two years in Conference USA, our football team was honored for the highest GPA in the conference.

UCF student-athletes are well known for their community involvement. Our student-athletes work on various causes including health issues like Autism, Alzheimer’s and Juvenile Diabetes. They spend time with children at the Boys and Girls Club of Central Florida, Florida Hospital for Children, Boys Town of Central Florida and the Central Florida Children’s Home. They work in numerous elementary and middle schools in Orange and Seminole counties. Student-athletes helped in youth sports leagues including Central Florida Youth Football, the College Park Little League, the Oviedo Babe Ruth Little League and the Miracle League. Fighting hunger is also on the list at the Second Harvest Food Bank and the Community Food Outreach Center. Many have volunteered at the Seminole County Women and Children’s Shelter.

The UCF football team volunteered at the Oviedo-Winter Springs Regional Chamber of Commerce Luncheon, UCF Day of Caring for Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Florida, the D.A.R.E. program-Lawton Elementary School, the FC Sports Camp at Florida Citrus Bowl, the Special Olympics Winter Formal, Nemours Hospital, and the Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

So my hat goes off to UCF for not only creating an exciting winning football team that we can cheer for but also one we can be proud of for everything they do on and off field.

Richard Lapchick is the Director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program and The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. TIDES annually publishes reports on graduation rates and racial and gender hiring practices. Lapchick is the author of 16 books that primarily focus on racial and gender issues and ethics in college sport.