Of the many vacancies already opened this hiring cycle, and of those still to come, the UCF coaching search may well be the most difficult.
At the very least, it’s the most unique.
Finding a successor for George O’Leary would always be a challenge, which I posited well before the Knights started 0-9 with a series of embarrassing losses. The most recent was a 52-7 shellacking at Cincinnati, which could have been much worse had Bearcats head coach Tommy Tuberville not pulled starters in the second quarter.
UCF is an absolute mess on the field, which only compounds the inherent challenge of tabbing a suitable replacement for the coach who is the foundation, all four walls and roof of the program.
O’Leary’s tenure demonstrated the lofty potential of UCF football, but also exposed the challenges. A program in Florida has immediate access to unheralded, NFL-caliber talent like Latavius Murray. The right coaching staff can find and develop first-round prospects like Breshad Perriman and Blake Bortles, and built a team that can run to the Fiesta Bowl, as the Knights did in 2013.
But with the rest of college football invading the Sunshine State in search of prospects, even a momentary lapse can relegate a program like UCF to obscurity.
UCF football has reached a point that it could well bankrupt a local bar. That’s a new kind of futility.
The ceiling at UCF is as high as the basement is low. For a program that lacks much history beyond O’Leary, things can bottom out in a hurry as this season shows. For mid-level programs like UCF that lack tradition and established fan bases, losing can become the culture much quicker than more established counterparts.
Focus on candidates in the UCF coaching search must be narrow. The Knights need someone capable of tapping into the potential quickly. That means a head coach who can step into a program fresh off what is likely to be an oh-for season and get things back on track by Year 2.
A quick-fix isn’t the answer, however. UCF need not necessarily limit its search to candidates who will stick around Orlando for a decade-plus, as O’Leary did. But it also cannot afford a patchwork plan for quick success that fails to leave a successor with a solid foundation.
Unrelenting energy is a must. Any momentary slip in recruiting or winning can snowball. That likely leaves UCF brass casting a net for a younger coach.
O’Leary came to UCF motivated after his disgraced exit from Notre Dame, and that energy fueled the build. But the baggage O’Leary carried during his tenure should steer the university from trying to recreate its formula in hiring him.
The net is more and more narrow with each factor weighed. Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck stands as an obvious candidate, but Fleck is sure to draw interest from across the nation in the impending hiring cycle.