Just a year and a half ago, UCF was the talk of the town in college football.
The No. 15 Knights had just pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, defeating No. 6 Baylor 52-42 and capping off a 12-1 season that probably felt something like a crusade to their fans.
In the following season, UCF dropped its first two games, but then managed to string together five-straight wins to become the clear favorite to win the American Athletic Conference for the second-straight year. Sitting comfortably with a 5-2 record at the end of October, it seemed that nothing could stop head coach George O’Leary and his knights in shining armor.
But everything changed when they faced UConn head coach Bob Diaco and his scrappy band of Huskies on Nov. 1, 2014.
In a stunning upset in East Hartford, UConn earned its first and only conference win of the season in a 37-29 victory over UCF. While the Knights won the remaining four games on their schedule, the loss proved so devastating it relegated UCF to the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl after the regular season.
A far-cry from the Fiesta Bowl from the year before, the lackluster Knights lost 34-27 to an underachieving N.C. State team that had a 7-5 record coming into the bowl game.
And the Knights never recovered.
UCF began its 2015 season with five-straight losses before finally arriving at what should have been an easy win on the schedule – UConn. After all, it was a fluke that Diaco and his merry men won the year before, right? O’Leary told reporters five losses were “just what the doctor ordered” to put the team in position to win against UConn this time around.
Well, so much for that. A man who is quickly beginning to look like the Robin Hood of UConn led the Huskies to do the impossible once again.
Diaco had spent the better part of three months hyping up this game to his players and the rest of the world. He branded it as rivalry game, originally calling it “The Civil Conflict” before shortening it to “The Conflict.” He even splurged on a trophy for the winning school.
Somehow or another, it worked. The Knights were lifeless in a 40-13 loss in Orlando. Huskies quarterback Bryant Shirreffs had one touchdown on 256 passing yards and added another touchdown on 42 rushing yards. Forget the Sheriff of Nottingham – there’s a new Shirreffs in town. UConn improved to 3-3 overall on the season while UCF fell to an abysmal 0-6 record.
The fallout from the loss was swift. Only 26,669 fans had attended the game, the lowest the program had seen since 2011 when it was still in Conference USA, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Then, on Monday, O’Leary announced he would step down as the university’s interim athletic director, handing over the reigns to the athletic department’s chief financial officer.
This is likely the first step in a long-term plan that would remove O’Leary from the football program entirely. After 11 seasons of building from a zero-win campaign in 2004, O’Leary might finally bring the program full circle en route to his departure.
The battle has taken its toll on the Knights, and I genuinely believe Diaco has singlehandedly derailed UCF’s football program.
O’Leary boasted an undefeated record in American Athletic Conference games as a head coach before his first matchup against Diaco in 2014. If UConn had failed to defeat the Knights, UCF would have finished with a 10-2 regular season record – likely with a national ranking – and played in a meaningful bowl game to finish the season.
Instead, Diaco’s crafty coaching kept O’Leary from utilizing his team’s full potential.
And then once more on Saturday, Diaco struck with gutsy play calling and a squad determined to bring “The Conflict” trophy back to Storrs. If UCF had won the game, O’Leary could begin the process of salvaging the season and looking to rebuild with the pieces he has. But that was not the case. Diaco shot an arrow across the battlefield in Orlando, piercing through the Knights’ armor and likely ending O’Leary’s tenure at UCF.
If Diaco keeps this up – and there is every reason to believe he will – UConn football can and will begin to regain its legitimacy in the national arena.
Diaco is taking wins from the rich and giving them to the poor. Coaches around the conference and the country will have to take note soon. One of the characters in the Walt Disney movie “Robin Hood” seemed to have just the right words to describe Diaco’s exploits: “Oh, he's so handsome – just like his reward posters.”