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  • UCF has arrived, and with the college football world still buzzing about its unbeaten run that ended in Peach Bowl glory, the Knights’ next step is a critical one. Plus, the fine line teams have to tread when they fire a coach for cause, stone crabs (and fried chicken) in Miami and the rest of this week's Punt, Pass & Pork.
By Andy Staples
March 12, 2018

ORLANDO, Fla. — I made a mistake a few weeks ago that turned into an experiment. While answering a mailbag question about the University of Central Florida’s football team, I referred to the school at first as UCF and not Central Florida. The stylebook requires Central Florida for the first reference. The reason for this requirement is that outside of Florida, people might not recognize what UCF means without that initial reminder.

For years, athletic department officials at UCF have included a section in game notes packets explaining that the preferred nomenclature is UCF and not Central Florida, but few outside Florida have listened. Just as Merriam-Webster doesn’t add a word such as “Welp” to the dictionary until it reaches a certain critical mass in the lexicon, we don’t change a first reference term to an acronym until we’re sure most people reading it would understand what the letters mean. I realized my first reference error after sending that mailbag column to my editor, but instead of sending an email asking him to correct it, I let it go. I wanted to see if anyone would question the acronym. No one did. Not the editor. Not a single reader.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when the University of Southern California became USC for people outside the Southland or when Louisiana State University became LSU for people outside Louisiana, but it’s relatively easy to determine when the University of Central Florida became UCF to the people outside the borders of the Sunshine State. It happened Jan. 1 when the Knights beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl to cap an undefeated season and then declared themselves national champions.

Athletic director Danny White and UCF president John Hitt discussed the idea of declaring the team national champs in a suite at Mercedes-Benz Stadium before the game. But it was an abstract discussion, more whimsical than anything else. First, they didn’t know if their team would beat Auburn. Second, they wouldn’t know until later that night that Auburn had beaten both the teams that would play for the national title.

White still didn’t know the second part as he celebrated on the field with the players following UCF’s 34–27 win, but he kept hearing the Knights bat around the idea that they should call themselves national champs. “I just kind of felt it,” White says.

Then he just kind of said it. 

“That was not planned,” White says. “Our social media guy put the camera in my face. I didn’t know what I was going to say.”

White wasn’t too worried about his proclamation. “That’s something you can always kind of back off on,” he said. Of course. The biggest win the program’s history inspired a groundswell of emotion. White could have chalked up his declaration to the euphoria of the moment.

But as the video of White’s words picked up steam on social media, he realized he didn’t need to back off anything. His (relatively) young football program had just gone 13–0. It had beaten a team that defeated two College Football Playoff participants. The Knights had done everything they could within the system presented to them in the 2017 season. So why not declare them national champs?

After all, UCF only opened in 1963. The Knights only began playing football in 1979. They didn’t move to the FBS—then called Division I-A—until 1996. They missed most of the years where just about any school could declare itself the national champ. Alabama claims a national title in 1941, and the Crimson Tide got shut out by Vanderbilt and Mississippi State that season. Surely there’s room in the pantheon of declared national titles for a 13–0 team. (The undefeated 2004 Auburn Tigers, denied a chance to play for the BCS title, say hello while holding their Golf Digest national title aloft.

Instead of backing off his statement, White doubled down. The Knights got a parade at Disney World. 

They printed national championship gear that they can’t keep on the shelves. Stroll around campus, and it’s on seemingly every third body.

White realizes that most people outside his fan base consider Alabama the national champion and consider UCF’s declared title something between adorable and annoying. But he doesn’t care. It served a valuable purpose for White—energizing a young and steadily growing alumni base—while also prompting a discussion that might ultimately help UCF in the future.

“The conversation became a healthy conversation for college football,” White says. “It’s the only sport in the country where it’s not settled on the field or the court. It should be. The playoff should be expanded, and everyone should have an opportunity. There shouldn’t be an undefeated team with no chance to play in the CFP.”

The argument here is that UCF could schedule tougher Power 5 out-of-conference opponents than Maryland. Instead of asking for home-and-home matchups, they could go on the road for a check to get the wins they need to have a chance to make the playoff. Theoretically, they could play four Power 5 schools at their stadiums. If UCF were to win and a couple of those schools challenge for their conference titles, then UCF would have a case. Up the road in Tallahassee, Bobby Bowden built Florida State into a monster with an anytime, anywhere scheduling philosophy, but that was a different era of college football.

The problem in practice is that even if UCF wanted to hit the road and play four Power 5 opponents—and White does not want to do this—few of the schools UCF would need to schedule to compete for the playoff would want to schedule UCF. The Knights still aren’t a big enough brand name for one of those ESPN-arranged neutral site payday games, and few good Power 5 programs want to pay to bring in a team that might beat them.

White must juggle those issues as he tries to capitalize on this moment. Josh Heupel has the more difficult job, though. Now that former coach Scott Frost—who returned to alma mater Nebraska after the Peach Bowl win—has shown the nation UCF football’s potential, Heupel will be expected to keep the Knights playing at that level. “Everything that’s going on is the first time here,” says Heupel, who won a national title as a quarterback at Oklahoma and who later served as the Sooners’ offensive coordinator. “When I got to Oklahoma [as a player], they had not been very good for a while. There’s an energy that was there. It was just different when you’re in that process.”

Heupel’s situation is the inverse of the one Frost inherited two years ago. Then, the Knights were coming off an 0–12 season in George O’Leary’s final year. But they were also only two years removed from going 12–1 and capping the season by winning the Fiesta Bowl. Now, UCF is coming off 13–0, but only a little more than two years removed from 0–12. In other words, the good times can end quickly if the Knights don’t take advantage of this momentum.

It’ll be up to Heupel, rising junior quarterback McKenzie Milton and the rest of UCF’s returning veterans to build on the progress started by Frost, linebacker Shaquem Griffin, cornerback Mike Hughes and the rest of the outgoing players who turned 0–12 to 13–0. Meanwhile, it will be up to White to tap into a growing city that has embraced a winner—even if deep-seated allegiances lie elsewhere. White knows Orlando has been largely a Florida/Florida State town for decades, but instead of simply waiting for the UCF grads—average alumni age: 35—to overwhelm the Gators and Seminoles with their numbers as the years go on, White wants the other alums to adopt the team in their town. He knows a young alum may only be able to afford a game or two a year in Gainesville or Tallahassee. He hopes those Gators and Seminoles will make the shorter drive to buy a cheaper ticket to watch fun football on the weekends they don’t head back to their schools. “There’s room to support your hometown team and support your alma mater,” White says. “You don’t have to pick.”

Among those three last season, the choice for superior football lived in Orlando. That may change with new coaches at Florida and Florida State, but White hopes Heupel and Milton and the Knights can build on a national title that could be the cornerstone of a program—even though that title may only exist in the minds of the people at a school that forevermore needs no further introduction than the letters U-C-F.

Need more Knights? Don’t miss Andy Staples’s SI TV feature on the inspiring story of UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin, available now on Amazon Channels.

A Random Ranking

American Idol is back with new judges (Lionel Richie!) and a new network (ABC). They’ll probably forget the fact that the original was a hit because people loved watching Simon Cowell savage terrible singers in the tryouts. But perhaps the reboot will allow America will do better than the time it allowed Jennifer Hudson to finish seventh. So let’s pause, pour out a little for Brian Dunkleman, and rank the top five American Idol champs from its original run.

1. Kelly Clarkson

2. Carrie Underwood

3. Fantasia (Though Hudson still should have won Season 3.)

4. Scotty McCreery

5. David Cook*

*Cook’s career didn’t take off after his title, but I loved him on the show. He definitely would have scored big with one of the new judges with this cover.

Three And Out

1. What appears to be a basketball story now probably will wind up a football story soon. I’m not referring to the FBI investigation, though. I’m talking about firings for cause. Connecticut is firing a coach for cause, and Pittsburgh may be trying to use a for-cause firing as leverage to get its fired coach to accept a lower buyout.

UConn announced Saturday that it would fire basketball coach Kevin Ollie for cause. This makes sense. The Huskies are being investigated by the NCAA, and if they planned to self-report violations anyway, they can throw Ollie under the bus and fire him for free. (Even though they’re really firing him for losing.) Pittsburgh announced Friday that it would fire Kevin Stallings, but did not release any buyout details. A statement from Stallings’s attorney confirmed that the Panthers are trying to wriggle out of the $9.4 million buyout called for in the contract.

The contracts for coaches have gotten so huge—and athletic directors as a group are so bad at negotiating—that the price of failure has skyrocketed. The Stallings hire was one of the worst in college sports history. Then Pittsburgh AD Scott Barnes—who was soon headed to Oregon State—took a suggestion from search firm head Todd Turner (the former boss of Barnes at Washington and Stallings at Vanderbilt) and hired a guy who was about to be fired at Vanderbilt. Negotiating against no one, Barnes agreed to a massive buyout. Stallings then promptly torpedoed the program. Barnes doesn’t care, of course. He bolted for Oregon State shortly after saddling Pittsburgh with that coach and that contract. Now AD Heather Lyke has to deal with the mess Barnes left behind. And unless there is a skeleton Stallings left behind that we don’t know about, the only way out of it may be to write a huge check.

We’ve already seen this in football, by the way. Florida owed Jim McElwain $12.5 million when McElwain was fired last October. But the Gators threatened to fire McElwain for cause and McElwain’s reps agreed to cut the buyout to $7.5 million. This probably wasn’t a huge victory for Florida, though. McElwain was owed the money through 2023, and his original contract included mitigation terms that would have subtracted any subsequent salary from the amount owed. The new buyout deal gave McElwain a huge chunk of money up front ($3.75 million paid on Dec. 1, 2017) and took away the mitigation. So if he makes more than $5 million between now and 2023 at Michigan or anywhere else, he would come out ahead of the old deal.

2. Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts always pays his debts.

3. Feel free to caption this photo…

What’s Eating Andy?

Last week, Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver announced he intends to turn pro after his junior season. This seems quite logical. Oliver is a likely first-round pick. It is the best economic decision for him. It’s also something everyone knew was coming since Oliver played his first game as a Cougar. So it’s refreshing to see him announce this so he doesn’t have to play coy for a season when everyone knows he plans to go pro. Obviously, if something changes—maybe he gets hurt—he can re-evaluate that decision before the deadline if necessary, but there is nothing wrong with saying you want to do the thing you’ve always wanted to do.

I wish more players who are obviously leaving after three seasons would do this. Then we’d be spared stupid questions about whether they’ll stay or go pro, and they’d be spared having to answer those stupid questions with an “I’m not sure” when we know they’re 100% sure.

What’s Andy Eating?

When choosing restaurants I review, I usually consider price. I’m a firm believer that a great meal shouldn’t cost as much as a car payment, and I’ve made it my goal in life to find as many reasonably priced great meals in as many cities as possible. Occasionally, I’ll write about something expensive like the spinalis cut of steak, but that’s only if the item is unusual, is unavailable at a cheap price and should be tasted at least once before one dies. Otherwise, I’m looking for a deal.

Andy Staples

So why am I writing about Joe’s Stone Crab? Because that Miami Beach institution offers one of the best dining deals in Florida. This may sound crazy. The menu item included in the restaurant’s name is fairly rare and quite expensive. And if you have the means, you absolutely should get the stone crabs. They’re wonderful. They’re sweeter and more tender than any non-stone crab meat you’ve had. But if you go to Joe’s, you also should order half a fried chicken for $6.95.

Andy Staples

This is not a special. This isn’t limited to a particular day of the week. Every day, Joe’s sells four pieces of crispy, juicy fried chicken for just under seven bucks. You shouldn’t order it because it’s the cheapest thing on the menu, either. You should order it because it is great fried chicken. The skin crackles when touched. The meat inside oozes juice. It’s better than Popeye’s—and if you’ve read this space frequently you know my esteem for Popeye’s—and it costs about the same. There also may be a Rolls-Royce or a Maybach parked out front, which rarely happens at my local Popeye’s.

Why does Joe’s offer this? “The philosophy at Joe’s, for the past 100-plus years, is that everyone should be able to afford a meal at Joe’s,” reads a message on the Joe’s website. The staff at Joe’s is under strict orders to treat every diner as if he’s the one who arrived in the Rolls, so don’t feel ashamed if all you can order is that chicken. Everyone should eat at Joe’s at least once for the scene alone. Imagine every person you watched on Miami Vice crammed into one dining room. If it’s lunch on a Friday, many of those people will be the age the characters from the original series would be now. It’s a swirl of white sportcoats, skinny pants and tight dresses. Deals are being made. Scams are being run. The conversation three tables over might result in a marriage, a windfall or a jail sentence.

A meal at Joe’s is everything a meal on Miami Beach should be, and bless the people there for wanting to make sure everyone who wants one gets to eat one. 

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