June 16, 2007
Orlando, Fla. (www.UCFAthletics.com) -
The following story is part one in a series of eight feature stories detailing the history and heritage of UCF Football, entitled "Saturday Knights Live...the History of UCF Football." Michael O'Shaughnessy, a star defensive end on UCF's inaugural football team and longtime supporter, along with Assistant Athletics Director Joe Hornstein authored this series of short stories earlier this summer. A special thanks to University Archives, Central Florida Future, the Orlando Sentinel and UCF Sports Information for their outstanding chronicles of past UCF football seasons.
To the players on the University of Central Florida inaugural football team, it all began on a dreary and rainy September Saturday in Dade City where the new Fighting Knights were set to play St. Leo College in the 1979 season-opener. However, many of the players would tell you it really started much earlier, in March, when they learned that the UCF athletics director was hosting a meeting for prospective college football players on the university's golf driving range.
There stood Dr. Jack O'Leary in front of an assorted crew of over 100 prospective players. Some were talented and some were not; some came ready and seasoned, while some were just too dumb to know any better. The group would spend the afternoon performing an audition in agility and physical fitness.
O'Leary was the school's second athletics director, hired by the university's founding president, Dr. Charles Millican, in August 1976 when the campus was still known as Florida Technological University. At the time, O'Leary's mission was to continue to build on the successes of the school's first AD, Dr. Frank Rohter, who had began the FTU athletics program in 1969.
Even though FTU had no varsity football program at the time, O'Leary brought a wealth of college football experience with him, having served as an assistant, head coach and administrator for nearly 25 years prior. This included the 1968-70 seasons under Paul "Bear" Bryant while earning his doctorate at the University of Alabama. This experience proved beneficial just a couple of years later in 1978 when the university's second president, Dr. Trevor Colbourn, took office and spoke of the importance of starting a varsity football program during his January 15, 1979 inauguration speech. Colbourn felt having football would increase the visibility of a young university that opened its doors just over a decade ago, in addition to exposing its recent name change from FTU to the University of Central Florida.
A new charge was there for O'Leary. Working with Bill Goldsby, who managed the athletics business office, O'Leary now focused on raising the necessary funds to make football a reality. It was thought that costs would exceed $40,000 to field a club program, $150,000 to start at the Division III level and close to $500,000 to begin at Division II.
A deal to play in the Tangerine Bowl was inked in February. Media partners, WDBO and WKIS, were lined up to air public service announcements and eventually game broadcasts. The Gridiron Club was formed alongside the athletic department's Black and Gold Club, today's Golden Knights Club, specifically to fundraise for the football program. Flyers were sent out to area high schools, junior colleges and current UCF students advertising tryout dates. A one-day "blitz" was held on June 13 by the Orlando Chamber of Commerce Sports Committee in June that raised an excess of $40,000 through area businesses. Along with money raised at a luncheon hosted by Senator George Stuart, UCF had built enough funds to start its first football season. A day later, June 14, an eight-game home schedule, dubbed "Saturday Knights Live", was announced along with a season ticket campaign that promoted "1949" prices: $13 for the four-game package, with single game tickets available for $4 each.
At first, O'Leary anointed himself the team's head coach because there was no money to hire anyone else. He was also able to lure a staff of six volunteer assistant coaches who were already on campus going to graduate school. UCF would eventually be granted access to play in Division III, but that didn't matter. Area players were ecstatic that there was now an opportunity to play in front of a hometown crowd. When the group of prospective players met with O'Leary for the first time, they knew history was about to be made.
O'Leary gathered the players to a half circle while holding a brown paper grocery bag he slowly pulled out a football uniform for display and proclaimed "We are going to look like Notre Dame." With black jerseys, gold pants and solid gold helmets, the team would be known as "The Fighting Knights."
UCF's players would learn there were going to be no locker rooms. The closest place to take a shower was in the education building. Practice sites would either be right there on the driving range or the undeveloped interior of the school's track. Another meeting would later take place at Lake Claire in late April and with enough prospects showing up, scheduled workouts to begin in May. One of the practices even turned into a surprise lesson in landscaping as the interior of the school's track was designated for football use and everyone in attendance was asked to help lay down the sod in order to practice. When the sod ran out on the team's lone football field, the offensive and defensive lines practiced in sandspur-infested sand pits in 95-degree heat.
The task of managing an athletics program, coupled with building a football team, was daunting. As a result, O'Leary tapped former pro quarterback Don Jonas, who was working as a promotions specialist with the City of Orlando, to become the team's first head coach, with Jonas agreeing to do so in a voluntary capacity. The coaching hire completed a rather quick turnaround in starting football at UCF, which would be granted access to compete at the NCAA Division III level, less then a year after Colbourn championed the cause.
Jonas knew football. He was an offensive star for Rip Engle's Penn State Nittany Lions in the early 1960s and would later go on to star in the Canadian Football League, earning league MVP honors three times. His ties to Orlando began in the late 1960s when he starred for three seasons with the Orlando Panthers of the semi-pro Continental Football League, prior to jumping to the CFL.
When the first session of two-a-day practices started on August 28, nearly 150 players showed up for the start of the preseason. All of them were asked to bring their own cleats, shirts and shorts and pay $14 a day for room and board to stay in the school dormitories. A dressing room was now available. It was a small building that was originally built for softball and provided a quarter of the needed space with the offense using the men's side and the defense using the women's side. Nothing like hot sand, sweaty pants and sandspurs to leave an indelible memory, and without any shower facilities it was an unforgettable welcome to college football. It was a modest and humble beginning. Everything the team had was either given or donated to the program, from rusty blocking sleds to meals provided by the coach's wives.
The preseason concluded with a 6-0 exhibition victory at the UCF football practice field against nearby Southern College, a two-year technical college that had recently hired former professional coach Charlie Tate for their fledgling program. Southern, ironically, was in their inaugural season, too, but would not last a second season.