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What We Can All Learn From UCF's National Championship Celebrations

Don't let anyone tell you not to be happy with yourself. After going 13–0 but missing out on the College Football Playoff, the Knights sure didn't.

The line stretching out the door of your local Simply Salad and the 40-minute wait for a treadmill at the gym can mean only one thing: It’s New Year’s Resolution season. Most of those people will be off kale and on the couch by the time the calendar flips to February, because change is hard. But perhaps we can all adopt the University of Central Florida football team’s resolution: to choose joy.

Everything is terrible. The half of the country that is not shoveling the remains of a bomb cyclone is on fire. Everyone hates everyone else and no one listens to anyone else and at any moment we might declare war on North Korea. But we still have to live here, so while we’re sorting the other stuff out, why not decide to relish what we can?

UCF opened the season as perhaps the fifth-best team in Florida; it finished as the only undefeated team in the FBS. But an American Athletic Conference title doesn’t carry much weight with the College Football Playoff committee, and the team found itself in the Peach Bowl—where it defeated Auburn, which had beaten both Alabama and Georgia.

The Knights had been critical of what they saw as disrespect by the selection committee. But as they posed with the silver trophy on New Year’s Day, their shoulders coated in white and gold confetti, they had a choice to make. Coach Scott Frost and his staff were headed to Nebraska. The season was over. They had done everything they could and had still fallen short of what they felt they deserved. They had every right to be disappointed. Instead athletic director Danny White faced a camera. “National champions,” he said simply. “Undefeated.”

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So UCF took the 40-minute drive to Disney World. The team spent Sunday afternoon marching down Main Street, U.S.A., with Mickey Mouse as a five-deep crowd roared. The next night, as pregame shows broke down Alabama and Georgia, Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer presented the Knights with the keys to the city. The school paid its coaches their contractual national championship bonuses and ordered national championship rings. It plans to raise a national championship banner.

Pundits have spent the two weeks since quarreling about the merits of UCF’s claim. There is precedent: USC holds the 2003 title even though LSU beat Oklahoma in the BCS championship. In the 1980s, Alabama retroactively claimed five titles from ’25 to ’41. But of course these all predated the implementation of the playoff, which is supposed to declare an undisputed champion. There is no question that the Knights faced weaker competition than the four teams that faced off in the playoff. UCF’s Wikipedia page had to be locked last week because the debate had grown so fierce.

Whatever! All these arguments miss the point: This rocks. The polls only matter because we say they do. Nothing in these kids’ lives would have changed if the rest of the country agreed with them except their feelings. The Knights decided not to be disappointed because this season was not a disappointment. Two years ago they went 0–12. This year they won by an average margin of 22.9 points and never let anyone within a touchdown. They beat every team they were permitted to play. This is a massive accomplishment, and celebrating it is both a great p.r. move and a wonderful way for UCF to prepare its student-athletes for the rest of their lives. There is real pain out there, but when you do something good, don’t let anyone take that joy away from you. You can control your own happiness. You must control your own happiness. In a world full of adults behaving badly, leave it to college sports to provide a teaching moment.