Skip to main content

The Big Picture

What UCF’s move to the Big 12 Conference means for the university and Orlando.

On the steps of City Hall in downtown Orlando, roughly three weeks after UCF officially joined the Big 12 Conference, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer issued an official proclamation:

“Whereas the Knights’ move to the Big 12 Conference will create more exposure for the university and our city and is a major milestone worthy of recognition and celebration;

and whereas the City of Orlando is proud and thrilled that UCF will serve as the Big 12’s flagship school in Florida;

Now, therefore, I … do hereby proclaim that Orlando is a Big 12 City.”

— Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer

On July 1, 2023, at just 60 years old, UCF became the nation’s youngest program in the Power Five conferences, which are considered the premier competitors in college athletics.

The UCF Athletics program stands to benefit greatly from this major milestone. UCF will be able to competitively recruit the best student-athletes in the country and regularly go toe-to-toe against some of the country’s most prestigious programs while gaining a clearer path to access the College Football Playoff.

The Knights will enjoy more resources — its media-only revenue in 2023 will weigh in around $18 million and in two years will increase to $36 million to $40 million annually (compared to $8 million to $9 million annually as a member of the American Athletic Conference).

With a commitment to upgrading facilities in the Kenneth G. Dixon Athletics Village to catch up to and even surpass its Big 12 counterparts, UCF will be in the running to host high-profile events — welcoming fans from all over the globe and adding to Orlando’s reputation as a leading tourism destination.

UCF is already seeing the effects. All of its Big 12 home games this season sold out — the first three (Baylor University, West Virginia University and Oklahoma State University) announced as sell-outs before the Knights officially joined the conference July 1.

“This will be the No. 1 trip that [opposing fans are] going to circle,” says Nicole Auerbach, senior writer for The Athletic. “They’re just going to [say], ‘Oh great, a trip to Orlando. Let’s just make this a long weekend.’”

UCF as a whole stands to benefit greatly, too. In addition to more exposure, universities typically see a rise in applications when their athletics programs thrive.

Support UCF’s new era in the Big 12 by contributing to the ChargeOn Fund.

Colleges whose men’s basketball teams qualified for March Madness saw a 2.4% average increase in the total number of applications within the following year, according to a 2018 article in The Economist. That increased to 5.8% for colleges whose teams made the Final Four and to 10.9% when those teams won the championship.

This is great news for UCF, which just joined arguably the best men’s basketball conference in the country — a selling point to entice top recruits to become Knights. Seven Big 12 teams made the 2023 NCAA Tournament and Big 12 programs (Kansas and Baylor) have won two of the last three NCAA titles.

As the UCF Athletics program has grown over the years and shined under some of the brightest lights, so too has the entire university.

Andy Staples, a Central Florida native and national college football host for On3, has watched UCF evolve into a powerhouse in both academics and athletics.

“You look at some of the programs that UCF said, ‘OK, this is going to be a priority for us’ — [UCF was] looking into the future,” Staples says. “[It’s] become a place that people want to go when they’re studying computer science, when they’re studying hospitality. They understand that it’s a great education and they’re going to get the traditional college experience now.” And with a Big 12 backing, the possibilities are endless.

“This is a special institution. What we need to do is make sure we get our message out there, and there’s no better vehicle for that than athletics.”

— UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright

“The fact that we will have ads on major games that can be seen around the country, that matters to us academically,” said UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright at a September 2021 press conference announcing the university’s invitation to the Big 12. “People will see what is coming out of UCF. And we need them to realize that when you’re an exceptional institution, you decide you’re going to be exceptional at everything. Athletics is one of those things. We’re going to also be exceptional in our research and everything we do academically for our students and our community.”

The following moments and milestones outline the meteoric rise of the Knights and UCF’s journey to the Big 12.

The Climbing of Conferences

The Knights were previously involved with eight conferences, each increasing in prestige. Most recently, they finished their decade in the American Athletic Conference with 52 conference titles — more than any other league counterpart.

“A lot of the national powers right now were playing [football] at the turn of the 20th century. … And to understand what you’ve got to make up in that time — it’s generations of donors, it’s generations of parents taking their kids to games, it’s generations of players growing up watching the team play and saying, ‘I would give anything to play for that team.’ UCF, without the advantage of decades and generations of all this, has put itself in position to be very competitive in its new league.”

— Andy Staples, national college football host for On3, and former senior
writer for Sports Illustrated and The Athletic

The Wonder Women of UCF

Since UCF’s first varsity women’s team in 1975, the Knights have dominated their field of play and work.

A collage of Konya Plummer holding a UCF flag and a black and white photo of Michelle Akers

UCF’s women’s teams have won more than 115 conference regular-season and tournament titles in the past three decades. These Knights have earned gold at the Olympic Games, served as team captains in the FIFA Women’s World Cup and fulfilled key leadership roles in athletics departments around the country. They’ve also become doctors, Emmy winning producers, educators, coaches, engineers, marketing professionals, art directors and more.

A major reason many of those teams have been so successful is UCF’s commitment to empowering strong women leaders.

At UCF, 90% of women’s teams are led by women head coaches — more than twice the national average of 43%, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics data.

The Dynasty of UCF Cheer

Under the leadership of UCF Athletics Hall of Famer Linda Gooch ’85, the Knights cheer team has placed among the top 10 nationally in 28 of the past 30 years.

A UCF cheerleader holds another cheerleader in the air.

“We are an aircraft carrier of a university. Positioned in Orlando, right in the middle of Florida, it was our geographic birthright to be competitive at whatever we applied ourselves to. Athletics is just one of those areas where we are going to excel. We knew it was just a matter of time when all of our sports would eventually be competing on a national stage. Our goal was to make sure our spirit program was ready when that happened.”

— Gooch

The Ultimate Game-Changer

The Knights had been playing football games for 28 years, but never in an on-campus stadium. That changed September 15, 2007, and UCF history was made.

UCF’s campus stadium was filled with fans during the first game held at the location in 2007.

“[The late] UCF President John C. Hitt and several prominent UCF supporters saw the vision of what an on-campus stadium could be. They believed the football program and a stadium could help elevate the university and its brand. They were right.”

— Marc Daniels, director of broadcasting for UCF Athletics

The Cardiac Knights

Seven games in the 2013 football season were decided by five points or fewer as quarterback Blake Bortles led the Knights to upset No. 6 Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl — helping kick-start a national brand.

A man holds a football while his teammates hold off players from the opposing team.

“A decade later, it’s incredible to see how much more the program went through and achieved before finally getting entry to the Big 12. I know a lot of people will point to [former football head coach] Scott Frost’s undefeated season as UCF’s big moment in the spotlight, but I still think it was 2013 that started it all.”

— Paul Tenorio, senior writer for The Athletic, and former sports reporter for the Orlando Sentinel

The Rivalries

From UCF’s early days battling Rollins College to dominating the War on I-4 series against the University of South Florida, the Knights’ rivalries have continued to evolve.

The War on I-4 trophy

The War on I-4 trophy.

“American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco talked often about the need for his league to build more interest via rivalries, and used the UCF-South Florida version as the conference’s best example. UCF took home the inaugural War on I-4 trophy in the all-sports competition and it has never left Orlando.”

— John Heisler, senior associate athletics director, strategic communications for UCF Athletics

The Tweets and Timelines

In a state that boasts three other Power Five institutions, UCF has had to strategically rely on its youth to find ways to break through the noise. Enter the power of social media and UCF’s big, passionate fan base.

Knightro with his arms up and flames behind him

UCF first used this meme when it cracked the top 10 of the 2018 College Football Playoff rankings, and Knight fans continue to share it.

“Those folks are very online. They’re very savvy. They know how to get our attention in the media and they know how to keep the discussion going. They will defend UCF tooth and nail. They will not let you get away with slandering UCF in any way, shape or form. And there are other fan bases that are like that. But [UCF] seems to be a little more in on the joke than some of the others.”

— Staples

The Star Power of Space Games

With the university’s origin directly tied to supporting the nation’s growing space program, it’s easy to understand why UCF’s annual Space Games — first held in 2017 — means so much to Knight Nation and have become a buzzworthy event nationally.

A woman soccer player running after a ball and a patch with a Knight sword and rocket behind her.

Women’s soccer forward Dayana Martin wears the 2023 space game uniform during the Oct. 5 match against the Texas Longhorns.

“That’s my hope with the Space Games — that not only does it inspire more people to check out UCF and the SpaceU brand, but [that it] also attracts the best-quality students. It’s not just about cool uniforms to get recruits here. It’s about telling the story of what our people have already accomplished and are working on for the future. And hopefully [that] inspires future students across the world to say, ‘SpaceU — that’s where I want to go.’”

Jimmy Skiles ’06, senior executive associate athletics director and chief branding officer for UCF Athletics

The Historic Win Streak of 2017 and 2018

The UCF football team rose to the height of popularity and disrupted the college football world with a 25-0 run that spanned 745 days. The accomplishment ranks among the NCAA Division I FBS’ top 25 longest win streaks of all time. It cemented UCF as a national brand, but also exposed access barriers to the College Football Playoff.

A marching band player holding his hand up while in the FBC Mortgage Stadium with the words "2017 National Champions" displayed

The FBC Mortgage Stadium displays 2017 National Champions.

“It’s hard to win a game, much less all your games. I think there’s got to be some magic.”

— Scott Frost, 2016-17 UCF football head coach

A football player holding a ball and running from a player on the opposing team.

2016-18 UCF football starting quarterback McKenzie Milton ’19

“The players, to me, were really the key to what happened. They were the underdog story. … You have a team filled with players that were overlooked their whole lives … and a football program that has been overlooked by the entire country … starting to find this energy [and] this chemistry that made them feel invincible. You could see that every time they lined up. This team never felt like they were going to lose.”

— Andrea Adelson, senior writer for ESPN

“I think trendsetters, trailblazers, whatever you want to call it, that’s what we were. That’s what UCF is going to continue to be.”

McKenzie Milton ’19, 2016-18 UCF football starting quarterback

“In my view, those two seasons really set the stage, not only for playoff expansion, but for UCF to join the Big 12. … I think we learned that anything is possible at UCF. It doesn’t matter what your conference is, where you’re recruiting your players from. All that matters is getting your teammates, your coaches, your players, the administration to believe.”

— Adelson

The Battle of the Giants

The legacy of 7-foot-6-inch Tacko Fall ’19 and the UCF men’s basketball team’s near-upset of No. 1 Duke University in the 2019 NCAA Tournament became an instant March Madness classic — but it was much more than that.

Tacko Fall hitting a basketball as Zion Willamson tries to grab the ball.

Former UCF center Tacko Fall ’19 and the men’s basketball team pushed Zion Williamson and No. 1 overall seed Duke to the limit in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Despite the 77-76 loss, the game showed the evolution of the program.

“We would have had a legit shot to make it to the Final Four if that tip-in [went] in. That’s the kind of team UCF had become over those last four years. It was quite a journey to watch it all happen. The fact that it came on the heels of the football team’s 25-0 run was the perfect ante up. We doubled down and it made the nation wonder, ‘What can’t UCF do?’”

— Daniel Forcella, former associate athletics director, strategic communications for UCF Athletics

The Official Invite

Seven months after Terry Mohajir was announced as UCF’s vice president and director of athletics, the Knights accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference.

Two men in suits standing at a podium with a backdrop with UCF and Big 12 logos behind them.

UCF’s Vice President and Director of Athletics Terry Mohajir (left) and UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright (right) during an event announcing UCF’s invitation to the Big 12 Conference.

“We need to pay homage to all the people who got us to this place. There was a foundation already being built before we got here. We have all kinds of really cool opportunities to be the first to do things in the Big 12. What can we do that hasn’t been done before? We’re starting from scratch a little bit. It’s a new beginning.”

— Mohajir

To read the full stories for each milestone, visit