One year after taking the UCF Knights to Memphis and winning the Liberty Bowl, a vocal part of the Knights' fanbase is asking for Head Coach George O'Leary to be removed from his job and a bigger and more innovative name be brought in to replace him. President Hitt has heard those cries, and has said it is misguided anger and O'Leary is not going anywhere in 2012 except back on the sidelines at Bright House Networks Stadium.
It is a tumultuous time for the money-generating sports in UCF athletics. The football program that was picked by many to contend if not repeat as Conference USA Eastern Division champs is limping toward the finish line at 4-7 with the grey cloud of NCAA allegations hanging over its head as well. The basketball program is still not at full strength as the NCAA straightens out how it wants to deal with the pre-existing relationship that senior point guard A.J. Rompza had with a key figure in their allegations argument that to date will not allow himself to be interviewed by the NCAA. The school's athletic department is once again under the interim direction of retired Admiral Al Harms who in betwen stints as interim AD designed the rather unpopular gameday tailgating guidelines that the fanbase begrudgingly works around each home game.
Throughout this stressful season, and any stressful time before it, one constant remains on campus and that is President John Hitt.
Hitt has been the President at UCF since 1992 and has overseen the growth of the campus and student body to where it is now the second-largest student body in the nation behind only Arizona State. When he took over the school, it was competing athletically in Division I-AA football at the Citrus Bowl and basketball in the Education Building Gymnasium as a member of the newly-named Atlantic Sun Conference. These days, the school is on the cusp of an invite to the Big East conference for all sports on the strength of its on-campus facilities and athletic successes across all sports and through it all, Hitt has been the constant. Simply put, when he speaks, people and the fanbase listen.
Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel spoke with President Hitt yesterday and quoted Hitt as saying he is not considering making a coaching change and still believes in head football coach George O'Leary.
"I understand how the message board phenomenon gets going," Hitt said, "but I think a lot of the anger is misplaced, and we're not going to make a change."
Most of the frustration fans have with O'Leary centers around the inconsistency within the program. The team went winless in its first season under him, then won the Eastern division the following season. Since then, the program has won two more division titles, two conference titles, the Liberty Bowl, and O'Leary has taken home the Conference USA Coach of the Year award three times in his eight seasons at the helm of his program.
For all of the uncertainty on the field, nothing has been uncertain off the field in how O'Leary conducts business with his players. He demands academic excellence from the team and the overall GPA of his players has increased each year under his leadership and the amount of off-the-field issues that plagued the program under previous leadership has been reduced to infrequent isolated incidents.
He may not be the most popular person with the alumni base or the donors, but he is still just one season removed from the greatest season in program history where the school won 11 games, the conference title, and the Liberty Bowl over a team that will be playing for the SEC title in two weeks.
It is stressful enough for a school to run a search for a new Athletic Director under the scrutiny of national attention surrounding the unscrupulous behaviors of former Athletic Director Keith Tribble. It would be even more stressful to run back to back searches when making job one for the new Athletic Director to hire a head coach and presumably a new staff while changing an infrastructure that has changed the overall direction the school's football program was in for the better.
In a perfect world, O'Leary would have walked off into the sunset last season with the Liberty Bowl bell ringing him down the path home but that did not happen and now the program is back to its 2008 mood where fans wondered what would happen after a 4-8 season. Wonder no more.
E.F. Hitton has spoken.
People should listen.