ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s usually easy to predict the crowd that will populate a particular press box. Beat writers that cover the home team mingle with beat writers who cover the visiting team. If the game is big enough, the columnists show up, too. A few folks from national publications may be there as well. But in coaching carousel season, there are occasional outliers. That’s why the first face I saw when I walked into the University of Central Florida’s press box on Friday belonged to Lee Barfknecht.
Barfknecht writes—very well, I might add—for the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald. “What are you doing here?” I asked. “What do you think?” Barfknecht replied. Then he smiled. Barfknecht’s readers, who are mostly Nebraska fans, want to know where their program will turn once Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos ultimately fires Mike Riley. Many of them hope the answer is former Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost, who at that point on Friday afternoon had won the first 10 games of his second season as UCF’s head coach and whose team was about to take on 9-1 South Florida with the American Athletic Conference’s East Division title at stake.
Most of the people who packed Spectrum Stadium didn’t want to hear about Nebraska. They didn’t want to hear about Florida, which also has an opening and is refocusing its search. The Gators and Chip Kelly—Frost’s former boss at Oregon—met about the job Sunday night, but both sides had moved on from one another as of Friday afternoon. Frost, who took over a program that went 0–12 two years ago and has it playing for championships, also seems like he’d fit in Gainesville. Spoiler alert: He’d probably also fit in Knoxville, College Station, Westwood, Fayetteville and anywhere else where someone might need a college football coach.
But thanks to the Knights, Friday didn’t have to be about what happens next for Frost. It got to be about what happens now for UCF. Had UCF players deflated after USF tied the score with an 83-yard bomb followed by a two-point conversion, had Knights safety Mike Hughes not seen all those creases on that late kickoff return, had a fumble not ripped away another chance for Bulls quarterback Quinton Flowers to continue a historic night, the focus might have turned to Frost’s future. The suitors would have swooped in, and if one offered an opportunity that intrigued Frost, that would have been that. Instead, after a 49–42 UCF win that allowed a great homegrown rivalry to shine on a national stage, the focus remained on UCF’s present.
It’s a present no one imagined after the Knights lost every game in George O’Leary’s final season. Had someone told senior linebacker Shaquem Griffin after that season that two years later UCF would be 11–0 and playing for the American Athletic Conference title next week against Memphis, he would have shooed the clearly insane time traveler away.
“I’d have asked what happened to the other game,” Frost cracked, referring to Hurricane Irma, which cost the Knights games against Georgia Tech and Maine. (They later added one against Austin Peay.) Frost also would have said something else. “I would have called you crazy,” he said. But it’s not crazy. “We started at the bottom two years ago,” Frost said. “I knew we could be good. I didn’t think it would happen this fast.”
But UCF wasn’t completely desolate when Frost arrived. In the 2013 season, the Knights won the Big East and won the Fiesta Bowl. The fifth-year seniors on this team redshirted on that team. UCF then won nine games in 2014. The cupboard wasn’t bare, but that last year under O’Leary had been horrific. It took Frost and his staff infusing the program with a new energy. It took them figuring out where some people should play. Griffin, buried on the depth chart at safety under O’Leary, was moved to strongside linebacker, where he promptly won the league’s defensive player of the year award. Meanwhile, the new staff also brought in new talent. Frost worked with quarterback McKenzie Milton at a camp when Frost was Oregon’s offensive coordinator. Milton, from Kapolei, Hawaii, wanted to follow in the footsteps of fellow Hawaiian Marcus Mariota. But Oregon was full up on quarterbacks. Frost knew Milton could play, though, and he signed him to his first recruiting class at UCF. Frost and the staff added more talent in the second class. Otis Anderson, an undersized burner from Jacksonville, was the first player to commit for the class of 2017. Saturday, Griffin was his usual whirling dervish. Milton threw for 373 yards and four touchdowns while running for another. Anderson, meanwhile, sliced through USF’s defense for a touchdown to stretch UCF’s lead to eight with 2:21 remaining. That score made it so USF could only tie with a two-point conversion after that Flowers bomb to Darnell Salomon. Then, with the teams knotted at 42, Hughes raced through a gaping hole and blazed in for a 95-yard kickoff return touchdown with 1:28 remaining. A Chequan Burkett fumble recovery a minute later sealed the win.
The entire stadium shook when Hughes returned that kick. It was a scene those who remember UCF the commuter school never thought possible. A packed house—on campus, no less—cheered on a champion. It stopped being a commuter school a long time ago, but it needs more moments like that one to prove it. “The crowd was unbelievable. The stadium was unbelievable. The leadership of this university is unbelievable. The students have been supportive. This community is unbelievable,” Frost said. “This place is really special. I saw a glimpse tonight of what it can be.”
Those sound like the words of a man who plans to be around for that climb—and it’s still possible he could join UCF athletic director Danny White, who agreed to a new deal this week that should keep him in Orlando—but reality doesn’t always work out that way. There were jobs to be done Friday night, so Frost had to be asked about “done deal” reports linking him and Nebraska. “Probably in the next 24 hours, I’ll get rid of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram,” Frost said when asked how he deals with the swirling rumors. He responded more directly to a question about a report that his representatives would meet with Florida soon. “I am my representative,” Frost said. “And I will be with my wife and baby.”
That’s true in a sense. Frost has an agent, and that agent likely has fielded several queries about Frost. But Frost is the only person who can decide when a deal is truly done, and college football custom dictates that face-to-face meetings between sitting head coaches and school officials don’t take place until a coach has finished the regular season (including any championship games). So watch Nebraska and Florida this next week. If either appears to be moving toward a hire that isn’t Frost, perhaps they got a backchannel answer from Frost. But don’t expect a final yes to anyone until he can meet with the people from the schools that want to hire him.
Maybe Frost will stay at UCF. But the offers that will come will be tough to turn away. Even if he leaves, he still meant what he said about what the program and the school can be. Ask Urban Meyer how he feels about Utah, and he’ll wax eloquent about his time there and the Utes he coached. He has won national titles at two other schools, but those two seasons remain special to him. That may be how Frost ultimately views UCF.
But the ride will last at least one more week. So try to enjoy it, Knights.