Throwback Thursday: UCF Football, Daunte Culpepper, and The Miami Connection

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Maybe not the best, but arguably the most intriguing date on college football’s Week 4 docket features a Friday night contest pitting UCF against FAU. The prominent spot on the calendar and national exposure for this Sunshine State showdown marks something of a milestone, a tangible manifestation of the potential many have long theorized Florida’s newer football programs had.

FAU played its way into the national spotlight a season ago before ever taking the field, the result of hiring Lane Kiffin after a seemingly tumultuous tenure as Alabama offensive coordinator. I thought it an odd hire at the time — and not because it wasn’t a high-profile job like Miami or Oregon, which the blogosphere seemed to collectively aim to will into existence.

Rather, I was surprised FAU passed on the opportunity to thumb its nose at rival FIU and hire Mario Crisotbal, a proven winner in the area and, coincidentally, the man who actually landed the Oregon job. But now that a season’s passed, Lane Kiffin and FAU feels like a perfect match.

Winning Conference USA with Cristobal would not have generated the national attention that going 11-3 with a league crown brought to FAU. Kiffin’s mere presence means the Owls are at the forefront of college football pundits’, and thus college football fans’ minds. It’s a position that allows Kiffin his quirks, like trash-talking Jim From Tuscaloosa on The Paul Finebaum Show or subtweeting Nick Saban.

Meanwhile, Kiffin’s able to leverage the chief motivator for that aforementioned “potential” talk when it comes to the Florida schools: a deep recruiting pool. The abundance of local, high school talent ensures these schools can stock up on outstanding players perhaps flying under the power-program radar. And garnering attention is, in its own right, a powerful recruiting tool.

But enough about the future potential of FAU, which may or may not include Lane Kiffin beyond 2018; this column’s Throwback Thursday. However, present-day context within Friday’s FAU-UCF contest resonates through history. FAU gaining attention nationally through unconventional means, and perhaps not always intentionally, resembles the rise of UCF.

UCF brass and supporters opting to tout last season’s perfect finish and Peach Bowl defeat of Auburn as a national championship has been a contentious issue; mostly among Alabama fans, but certainly not limited to the Roll Tide set.

Personally, I see it as a demonstration against the hypocrisy of the Playoff, as well as the kind of thumb-in-the-eye to college football’s elite that’s existed for decades. Programs like Pitt, Penn State and LSU called attention from myopic East Coast sportswriters in the early 20th century who inherently viewed the Ivy League as superior.

Without its national championship swagger, UCF almost certainly would not be commanding the same attention for a Friday night game against a C-USA opponent. It’s not as if the Knights were the talk of college football after a comparable Fiesta Bowl win in the 2013 season.

UCF is simply using the precedent college football’s set: exposure begets success. The football program also follows its university’s tradition of some fascinating means of marketing — intentional or otherwise.

Long before the Knights contended for football glory, the campus of UCF played a pivotal role in the so-bad-it’s-awesome martial-arts movie, The Miami Connection.

Now, plenty of university campuses have provided the set for films. Animal House is shot at the University of Oregon, and Revenge of the Nerds takes place at the University of Arizona. I spent two of the best years of my life living a few hundred yards away from the fraternity house the Alpha Betas “burn down” in Nerds’ opening sequence.

But Oregon was a stand-in for Faber, a fictionalized version of Dartmouth. The Arizona Wildcats’ white football helmets with red-block A logos were used in Revenge of the Nerds, but it represents “Adams College.”

UCF is UCF in The Miami Connection. Perhaps university brass were unaware that their institute of higher learning was a central location for a showdown between cocaine-dealing ninjas and a band of Tae Kwon Do master college students who also played in a synth-rock band; The Miami Connection wasn’t well known until recently, when Drafthouse Films purchased the rights to the movie and made it a cult classic.

Likewise, UCF football wasn’t especially well known until recently.

Throwback Thursday has focused on 1998 a few times now. If you’re a returning reader, you’ll remember I noted in the ’98 season retrospective that standout Tulane quarterback Shaun King finished a confounding No. 10 in the year’s Heisman Trophy balloting.

As much as I’d love to attribute King’s poor polling exclusively to elitist attitudes toward non-power conference players, one name ahead of him debunks that theory to some extent: Daunte Culpepper.

Now, I won’t write as if I have fond memories of seeing Culpepper at UCF; I don’t. In fact, I never saw a UCF game in its entirety during Culpepper’s three years in the program, which were also the Knights’ first three in Div. I-A. UCF was independent during its transitional phase, and cable television had not yet become quite as omnipresent around college football as it is in the 2010s.

I do vaguely remember seeing a 38-24 final score between Nebraska and UCF flash across Sportscenter in 1997, however. I confused “Central Florida” with “Florida Tech,” the latter of which a basketball camp instructor of mine coached, and I assumed Nebraska must be really terrible. I wasn’t entirely confused — the University of Central Florida was, at one time, Florida Technical University, with the Citronaut as its mascot. See the headline photo above to answer the question, what the hell’s a Citronaut — other than the apparent inspiration for The Venture Bros. Orange County Liberation Front.

Anyway…Nebraska. Turns out the Cornhuskers weren’t awful that season; they went undefeated and won a share of the national championship with future championship-winning UCF coach Scott Frost at quarterback. Culpepper was the other quarterback in that game.

When Culpepper finished so strongly in the ’98 Heisman, I had only seen clips of his exploits here and there on ESPN. It wasn’t until he transitioned into NFL stardom as one-half of the most exciting duo in pro football with Randy Moss that I started to gain some understanding of UCF football.

Around that same time, the program hired George O’Leary, not three years after the scandal at Notre Dame that prevented him from coaching the Fighting Irish. One could draw the comparison of UCF hiring O’Leary to FAU bringing in Kiffin, a decision made to capitalize on attention.

Year 1 under O’Leary was much different for UCF than Kiffin’s debut at FAU, though. Had the O’Leary hire not seemed like enough of a joke at the time, the Knights finishing 0-11 in 2004 accentuated the punchline.

I didn’t really give UCF football another thought until Christmas Eve of 2005, when the Knights and Chris Ault’s Nevada Wolf Pack played in a Hawaii Bowl for the ages. That was a milestone step in a run of four 10-plus-win seasons over the ensuing seven years.

Despite the success in between, O’Leary’s tenure book-ended with winless seasons. Scott Frost stepped in after an 0-12 2015 season and immediately righted the ship. UCF administration approved commission of an O’Leary statue outside Bright House Networks Stadium — a questionable decision, not because of the two winless seasons, but rather O’Leary’s place in the death of Ereck Plancer and ensuing lawsuit against the university.

Still, O’Leary’s seen as the architect of the program. I myself had long considered that Christmas Eve game the seeds being planted for UCF football sprouting into the recognizable program it is today. But really, it starts with Daunte Culpepper.