Dick Nunis, former chair of UCF’s Board of Trustees, died Wednesday morning. He was 91.
“As a charter member and chair of UCF’s Board of Trustees, Dick laid a strong foundation for Orlando’s beloved Hometown University,” says current UCF Board of Trustees Chair Alex Martins ’01MBA. “Inspired by his time with The Walt Disney Company, he pushed us to dream big and always believed in UCF’s ability to unleash potential. Our entire community will miss him, and we extend our sympathies to Mary and his family.”
Known for his commitment to inspiring wonder and executing with impeccable quality, Dick proudly served on UCF’s Board of Trustees from 2001 to 2008.
“Dick and Mary were so welcoming to us when we arrived at UCF,” says UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright. “Dick had a vision for UCF to be an exceptional institution, and his enthusiasm, service, and personal philanthropy propelled UCF to where we are today. Dick’s legacy will continue to inspire us to always reach for the stars. Melinda and I offer our deepest condolences to his loved ones, including Mary, his children, and grandchildren.”
Dick’s vision also set UCF up for a historic move into the Big 12 through investment in UCF Athletics and support for on-campus facilities.
“Few individuals have played roles anywhere comparable to what Dick Nunis brought to UCF — and particularly UCF Athletics,” says UCF Vice President and Director of Athletics Terry Mohajir. “His high-level involvement and commitment to the university at large dovetailed perfectly with the out-sized growth of Knight athletics over the past several decades.”
His UCF connection began somewhere around the time he retired as chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, culminating exactly 44 years with the Disney organization.
Nunis’ phone rang. On the other end was Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Bush had decided to institute a Board of Trustees at each Florida university — and he invited Nunis to be a charter member of the UCF Board that would begin its work in 2001.
Nunis accepted, later spent several years as chair of the Board — and played a particularly instrumental role in a boom period of growth for UCF Athletics that included the opening of both the Bounce House (originally Bright House Networks Stadium) for football in 2007 and Addition Financial Arena (originally UCF Arena) for basketball that same year.
Both those were major on-campus additions — and changes from playing football at what is now Camping World Stadium west of downtown Orlando and basketball at the Venue.
The addition of those two new facilities helped create and expand UCF’s vision for an athletics village that continues to broaden today, thanks to the Mission XII initiative.
Nunis’ fingerprints (and financial support) could be found all over a lengthy agenda of athletics projects since that call from Bush more than two decades ago, as he originally worked closely with then UCF President John C. Hitt.
“I told him, ‘If you want to be an amazing university, you’ve got to be good in athletics,’” said Nunis in 2022. “There may have been a few times where we literally just bulldozed ahead — and maybe asked for forgiveness later. There was a lot of work to be done, and we had a lot of fun doing it.
“There was a great deal of collaboration required in so many areas to make those projects reality. And it’s amazing how the entire university has grown and made a name for itself during that time.”
Two decades ago the current location of Addition Financial Arena was covered with pine trees. The addition of East and West Plaza Drive — and the businesses that anchored those streets — created a much-needed college-town environment for UCF students, faculty and staff.
Nunis numbered among the Knights’ most ardent supporters — and UCF Athletics celebrated his career contributions in 2022 when he and his wife Mary received the Shareholder’s Society Donor of the Year Award at UCF’s annual Swords Awards event at Addition Financial Arena.
A Passion for Athletics
Until that call from Bush, Nunis may not have been an expert on what was then an up-and-coming yet still fledgling UCF athletic program. The Knights were a ways away from their more recent football successes — and had not quite qualified for the Orlando’s Hometown Team designation.
So Nunis quickly put his athletics background to work.
A talented six-foot, 182-pound defensive back at USC, he was a teammate of Frank Gifford — with Gifford playing strong safety and Nunis free safety. Nunis as a sophomore in 1951 led the Trojans in interceptions with six. A year later he helped USC finish 10-1, including five shutout victories, one of those a 7-0 Rose Bowl triumph over Wisconsin.
In 1952 the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) began its famed Academic All-America program — and Nunis was a member of that first team of football honorees.
That meant a lot to the Cedartown, Georgia, product: “It was the culmination of a dream I had as a kid, to be a college athlete and to get a college degree,” he said.
Sixty-two years later that relationship, too, came full circle when he was named to the Academic All-America Hall of Fame in 2014. At the award ceremony in Orlando, he wore a USC tie — and a UCF belt.
Nunis originally had hoped to carve out a career in athletics as a coach. That plan took a U-turn late in that 1952 campaign when Nunis broke his neck late in the football season during a victory over rival UCLA.
Nunis often said, “It turned out to be the best accident of my life. I’ve always believed something good comes from something bad.”
After graduation, Nunis began an hourly summer job helping train new Disneyland employees (with Walt and his executive team part of that initial training exercise) after seeing an ad in the local newspaper seeking an orientation instructor.
That was the beginning of a storybook career for Nunis. He rose quickly and impressively through the ranks, from attractions supervisor to director of park operations. Walt Disney died in 1966, Disney World opened in Orlando in 1971 (fueled by a $400 million Disney investment) — and in 1971, Nunis was named executive vice president of Walt Disney World and Disneyland. For some number of years he went back and forth from California to Florida before eventually settling in Orlando for good, after essentially serving as Walt Disney’s right-hand man.
Nunis helped shepherd Disney through unprecedented international growth. The cast member roster grew from 600 to 13,000 during his 44-year tenure, not counting another 50,000 Disney World employees.
All those details and lots more can be found in a 2022 book Nunis wrote, Walt’s Apprentice: Keeping the Dream Alive.
Nunis laughed when he recalled some of the original plans for the Orlando park. At one point, there was a thought that maybe Disney World would close for the winter.
“Now you see four generations of families walking down the streets there, all having fun,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
A Heart for Service
Nunis stepped down as chair of the UCF trustees in 2007 while continuing to run his consulting enterprise, New Business Solutions. His wife Mary for years owned and ran Top Drawer consignment furnishings in College Park (with a large UCF logo strategically placed on one wall of the structure).
He also stayed busy as a director of Give Kids the World (designed to provide premium experiences to terminally ill children) and for years he remained one of the area’s senior business leaders in roles with Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership promoting economic development in the state.
Wander the athletics facilities at UCF — and the Nunis name is hard to miss:
It’s on the windscreens at the entrance to the Knight’s football practice fields, dating back to naming of the Dick and Mary Nunis Football Practice Field (now multiple fields) in August 2003.
That same month Mary and Dick were part of the founding contributor group when the Wayne Densch Sports Center opened as the official home of the UCF football program.
And those are just a few on a lengthy list.
At a time when the Knights’ programs were growing by leaps and bounds (from both a philosophical and facilities standpoint), Nunis played a major leadership role both when it came to the direction of UCF athletics in general while also helping pave the way for many of the physical improvements and expansion from a financial standpoint.
Mary (a UCF honorary alumnus) and Dick (in 1996 UCF awarded him an honorary doctor of public service degree) have been far more than cheerleaders for the Knights. They’ve personally had their hands right in the middle of building the infrastructure of UCF Athletics — in part through financial support that began in 1998. And they never missed home football games, watching from the suite they occupied since the stadium opened.
“At one point, not that long ago, when you would mention UCF, some people would give you that quizzical look,” added Nunis.
“Boy, has that changed. And athletics has played a big part in terms of the increased exposure.
“When I first got involved at UCF, there was so much to be done and we knew we could make a difference. It’s been amazing to watch it grow.
“I think everyone could see the potential here and the chance to do something special through athletics,” he said.
Added Mary, “And we’ve loved every minute we spent with UCF.”
Nunis never was one to particularly seek the spotlight at UCF.
His contributions instead suggest he truly earned it.