The Birth of Saturday Knights Live...The History of UCF Football

GO KNIGHTS Ted Wilson was a superstar receiver for the Knights as they moved to Division II.
Ted Wilson was a superstar receiver for the Knights as they moved to Division II.

March 23, 2010

Orlando, Fla. ( - The following story is part one in a series of eight exclusive feature stories detailing the founding and heritage of UCF Football, entitled "Saturday Knights Live...the History of UCF Football."

Prior to the opening of Bright House Networks Stadium and the start of the latest era of UCF Football in 2007, former lettermen Michael O'Shaughnessy, who played on the inaugural Black and Gold, and I sat down to recount all of the old tales, myths and legends associated with our historic Fighting Knights. Those forgotten tidbits of history were all sewn together to create this enjoyable series of short stories.

I've noticed since the conclusion of our 2009 St. Pete Bowl season, that the "buzz" around UCF Football is back and as close to the 2007 season as we've seen since. With that, I am re-launching this historical series, along with a few new edits. Once again, thanks to Michael, UCF University Archives, Central Florida Future, the Orlando Sentinel and UCF Athletics Communications for their outstanding chronicles of past UCF football seasons.

Joe Hornstein
Associate Director of Athletics

The Birth of Saturday Knights Live...The History of UCF Football

Part 3 of 8: The Knights Move Up to Division II

The results were not always positive the next few seasons. With the move to NCAA Division II for the 1982 campaign and the advent of scholarship football, UCF was now playing more established programs, even facing many top-10 Division I-AA powerhouse teams.

After going 4-6 in 1981, UCF made another bold hire, naming Bill Peterson as its new athletics director in May 1982. "Coach Pete", as he was affectionately called, helped Florida State reach a level of national prominence in the 1960s as the Seminoles' head coach from 1960-70. He then went on to Rice as the Owls' head coach and athletics director for a season in 1971, before taking on the head coaching reigns with the National Football League's Houston Oilers from 1972-74.



Peterson's first season in 1982 was tough. UCF battled week-in and week-out against a schedule that featured several top-20 Division I-AA teams, but didn't win a game, going 0-10. Interim head coach Sam Weir had announced with two games remaining in the season that he would not be seeking the post full-time the next year.

Tight end Mike Carter became the first UCF player to sign with an NFL franchise, joining the Denver Broncos. Three others, Giovanetti, again the team's leading tackler with 121 stops, Gantner and offensive tackle Mike Sommerfield, all signed with the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League.

Peterson knew he needed to inject the Knights with some energy to shake off the hangover of a 0-10 season and growing program debt. He did just that with the hiring of Lou Saban as the team's next head coach on December 23, 1982. Saban, who had been out of football for two seasons working as President of the New York Yankees, brought 29 years of major college and professional experience to UCF. He was at Northwestern, Maryland, Miami and Army in addition to the NFL's Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos and Boston Patriots.

"Being away from football I realized that I missed it terribly," said Saban shortly after his introductory press conference. "I belonged in football and wanted to get back. When I heard about UCF, I got very excited. This area has all the potential in the world to be a success. The administration and the community both want quality football, and that's what we want to give them. It certainly is a challenge."

Coupled with Saban's hire, Peterson also announced on June 2 that UCF would petition the NCAA to move up to Division I for all sports, including going into I-AA football a year earlier than planned, the fall of 1984, rather than in 1985. The state of the program started to take an upswing. To help defray the programs near $1 million debt, Saban reached out to his former Buffalo Bills All-Pro running back O.J. Simpson to help with a charity auction, "O.J.'s Gate Crasher", which raised more than $200,000 for the program. Another of Peterson's first projects was developing the K-Club to help fundraising for the football program and tapped O'Shaughnessy as the first president. He also conducted UCF's first spring practice, from March 11 to April 2, where the offense defeated the defense, 14-6, in the first Black & Gold game.

UCF started a tough 1983 schedule winning the first two games, including a 33-29 victory over Georgia Southern the second week in Statesboro, Ga. Despite their unwillingness to give up, the Knights would only win three more times. One of the victories served as UCF's first win over a Division I-AA opponent. The Knights topped host Austin Peay, 10-7, on the road behind kicker Scott Ryerson's school-record 50-yard field goal before halftime.

Receiver Ted Wilson emerged as a special teams threat, finishing second in the nation with his 30.5 kick return average, including a national-high 100-yard touchdown return in the team's first loss of the season at Southeastern Louisiana. He finished the year as the team's top return specialist for both punts and kicks. Running back Elgin Davis led the team in rushing (786 yards), touchdowns (nine) and scoring (60 points). Quarterback Dana Thyhsen threw for over 2,000 yards (2,058) with 19 touchdowns. The defense was led by tackle Darrell Rudd, who set a school-record with 150 tackles, while leading the team in sacks (seven) for a second straight season.

Oddly enough, the 5-6 record was the program's second-best mark through its first five seasons and a cause for optimism heading into 1984.

However, UCF would drop its first three games to start the 1984 season before a one-point win, 35-34, at Western Kentucky. In the game, Rudd tied O'Shaughnessy's school-record of five sacks. Unfortunately, the team couldn't capitalize on the win and again lost three straight. The program then took a major jolt in its development. Saban stepped away from the program with the team at 1-6, replaced by assistant Jerry "Red" Anderson. The team responded to the circumstances by defeating Illinois State in week eight, Anderson's first game, but would drop its final three to finish 2-9.

Wilson continued to build a national reputation for himself, leading the team in receiving (483 yards), scoring (44 points), punt returns (96 yards) and kickoff returns (952 yards). Rudd totaled 93 tackles along with a school-record 19.5 sacks that still stands today. The USFL also came a calling for the final time with the New Jersey Generals signing center Dan Burke and Ryerson getting notice from both the Tampa Bay Bandits and the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.

The stain of the season was felt throughout athletics, the campus and the community. It was uncovered that athletics was still struggling mightily with its finances and an impending move to Division I-AA was put off (eventually taking place in 1990). The low-point was discussion around the community to possibly dismantle the football program. To add to the growing list of concerns, Peterson also announced his retirement as UCF's athletics director.

With help from Bugsy Engelberg, an official with the USFL's Orlando Renegades who had a long history working in pro football front offices, Colbourn looked again to Tallahassee and named 16-year FSU assistant Gene McDowell as both head coach and athletics director. McDowell got his coaching start as a graduate assistant ironically under Peterson in 1965 and was later elevated to head freshman coach in 1968-69 and recruiting coordinator in 1970. After Peterson's departure to Rice, McDowell headed to Kansas State before coming back to Tallahassee in 1974.

McDowell was FSU's first football All-America pick and a member of the FSU Athletics Hall of Fame. He was at FSU when it transformed into a top Division I-A program under Bobby Bowden and knew what it would take to get both the Knights football team and the UCF athletics program back on track and competing at high levels. Among McDowell's first hires was former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mike Kruczek as offensive coordinator.

The 1985 season began with another 2-0 start, including UCF's first win over Bethune-Cookman in the Knights season-opening Mayor's Cup game. With the Wildcats leading, UCF had the final drive of the game. Eventual All-Americans Aaron Sam, the team's leading rusher, and Davis each paced the team with big runs on the last drive, getting the Knights close enough for kicker Eddie O'Brien's game-winning field goal attempt. O'Brien nailed the 55-yard field goal as time expired to win the game, 39-37, still marking the longest field goal in school history.

The program had been reeling on several fronts and needed an emotional win. At the time, it was thought that field goal had probably saved the program. There was pandemonium and the entire stadium chanted "U.C.F., U.C.F., U.C.F." while filing out of the Citrus Bowl gates.

Unfortunately, the ride got bumpy again as the team dropped seven straight after its week two win, 27-21, over Southeastern Louisiana, its worse stretch since the 0-10 season in 1982. McDowell kept on pushing and UCF completed the 1985 season winning the last two games against Savannah State, 31-7, and Samford, 35-14, for a 4-7 finish.

UCF played its first Division I-A opponent during the 1985 season, traveling to Louisville on November 2, only to fall to the Cardinals, 42-21, in front of 21,391, the most fans to watch a UCF game at the time. Wilson was still causing havoc when he had the ball, hauling in 112 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions in the game.

Serving in a dual capacity, McDowell helped UCF find its way out of some hard times. McDowell even waved his salary from being the school's athletics director to help reduce the program's debt. Some of McDowell's early teams even wore used uniforms and cleats donated by his mentor Bowden to offset cost. Through it all, the program continued to develop and persevere during some of the toughest times in its young history.

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