July 26, 2007
Orlando, Fla. (www.UCFAthletics.com) -
On June 21, 1995, UCF's petition to move up to Division I-A for football was approved by the NCAA, taking effect September 1, 1996. Sloan commented at the time, "I believe that our move to I-A will increase our visibility and the public's awareness so that UCF Athletics will have more of an impact in the sports market place." UCF would play as an Independent, and according to Sloan "become attractive to a conference toward the end of the decade."
"That day (Sept. 1, 1996) will mark the culmination of years of hard work and planning by a myriad of people," added Sloan upon the announcement. "To achieve our goal in a relatively short period of time speaks well of the tremendous potential of the University of Central Florida."
When that day eventually came in 1996, UCF became the first college football program to play in four different classes - Division III, Division II, Division I-AA and Division I-A.
However, UCF's final season in I-AA, 1995, was still ahead and it would be a mighty challenge with road games at top-ranked Florida State in addition to back-to-back visits at other Division I-A schools Hawaii and Northeast Louisiana. Along with a difficult schedule, McDowell's club had also graduated 14 starters from the year prior, including all-time leading passer and receiver Hinshaw and Rhodes, respectively, off Kruczek's record-setting offense.
UCF was returning its "double-trouble" backfield tandem of Smith and Davis, cited that preseason as the best 1-2 backfield punch in Division I-AA by The Sporting News. Pierce, UCF's All-American kicker, was also back. But the real cause for excitement was that the quarterback job was won by a true freshman out of Ocala, Fla., Daunte Culpepper. The Ocala Vanguard product and Florida's Mr. Football in 1994 stood 6-foot-4 and 230-pounds and could throw the ball 80 yards in the air and run a fast 4.6 40-yard-dash.
In the season-opener against No. 5 Eastern Kentucky, Culpepper would get sacked on the game's first play, but then he bounced back to go a perfect 5-for-5 for 84 yards on the first drive, ending with a 24-yard scoring strike to his top receiving threat Rufus Hall. Culpepper went on to complete his first 12 passes. He finished the game completing 20-of-25 passes (including two throwaways) for 254 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-32 upset of EKU, earning him Sports Network I-AA Offensive Player of the Week honors.
After a 35-21 win over Carson-Newman and an open week to prepare, the Knights' toughest match-up in program history loomed ahead, at No. 1 Florida State. A boisterous UCF crowd of 6,000 made the trek to Tallahassee to see McDowell's Knights take on his mentor Bobby Bowden and his powerful Seminoles. FSU would turn back the Knights, 46-14, but not before Smith, the former FSU tailback, rushed for 121 yards, including a career-long 68-yard scamper, and two touchdowns. He would go on to be a fifth round pick by the Carolina Panthers in the NFL draft.
Later in season, October 28, Smith would earn Sports Network Offensive Player of the Week honors after he posted a career-best 225-yard, three-touchdown effort in UCF's 34-14 win at Northeast Louisiana. Smith went on to finish the year with a school single-season record of 1,511 yards and 14 touchdowns, earning second-team All-America honors.
The team finished 6-5 in its final I-AA season, yet Culpepper's freshman performance became the talk of a nation. Even with the loss of his best receiver (Hall) in the second game to injury and playing the entire year without All-American lightning bolt Todd Cleveland, Culpepper went on to earn I-AA All-America honors, completing 168-of-294 passes for 2,071 yards and 12 touchdowns with five more touchdowns coming on the ground.
Even with an All-American at quarterback, the effects of moving up to Division I-A were in plain sight as the Knights finished with identical 5-6 records in both the 1996 and 1997 seasons. The records included playing just four home games each year, while paying their dues mostly on the road.
Culpepper missed a total of 10 quarters in his sophomore 1996 season, playing through various injuries. Without a healthy Culpepper, the team still played up to the challenge with nail-biting losses to Northeast Louisiana and at Georgia Tech and finished the year winning three straight. Culpepper's top performance came during that three-game win streak down the stretch with a 35-13 win against fellow first-year I-A member UAB, when he completed 24-of-36 passes for 421 yards and three touchdowns. UCF's "Triple Feature", senior linebackers John Bryant (119), Nakia Reddick (118) and Kendrick Thomas (107), each lived up to their billing as the unit combined for well over 300 tackles. All three would sign free agent contracts with NFL clubs after the season.
The next season, UCF would lose three straight, all on the road, to start the year. The Knights had tough-love losses at Mississippi (24-23), South Carolina (33-31) and eventual national champion Nebraska (38-24). Regardless, UCF garnered mass national attention as the "best 0-3 team" in the country after surprisingly narrow losses by a team just starting in I-A.
In the opener at Ole Miss, UCF faced as tough of a decision in program history when it opted to go for a two-point conversion in overtime and the victory. Culpepper faded back a few yards and began to streak towards the endzone, only to trip on guard Marcus Jenkins' leg along the way, falling just short of the goal line.
The next week at South Carolina, poor blocking and untimely penalties by UCF was the only thing keeping USC in the game. With Culpepper getting sacked a school-record eight times; he still found time to connect with standout receiver Siaha Burley eight times for a record 231 yards and two touchdowns. The Knights held a 24-20 lead in the fourth quarter, but an untimely fumble led to a Gamecocks' score and the lead for good.
At Nebraska, UCF was an astonishing 42-point underdog to the No. 6 Cornhuskers. However, the Knights led for most of the game, which included a 17-14 halftime lead, and if not for a 17-point outburst by the Cornhuskers in the third quarter, one of the biggest upsets in college football history may have occurred. Culpepper was on fire, throwing for 318 yards with 174 of those yards caught by deep threat Mark Nonsant.
A winless UCF club would return to Orlando for its home-opener the following week only to be greeted by a school-record crowd of 41,827 that watched the Knights beat Idaho, 41-10. The attendance marked the most fans to watch a UCF victory since 31,789 showed up to see the Knights beat Troy State in 1988. UCF would treat the fans to a perfect 4-0 mark in the Citrus Bowl in 1997, including a 34-17 win against a Toledo team that brought a 9-1 record into the season finale.
Despite playing four SEC teams on the road in 1997, plus the Cornhuskers, Culpepper set 15 school records. He passed for 3,086 yards with 25 touchdowns and finished fourth in the nation in total offense with an average of 320 yards per game. Burley finished sixth in the nation in receptions per game (7.0) and 10th in the nation in yards per game (100.55), while leading the team with 1,106 yards on 77 catches.
Culpepper was the recipient of several postseason honors and was a finalist for the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award. He was as decorated as any star player in Florida that season and, most impressively, was also named to the American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team for balancing his academics and athletics and going above and beyond in the area of community service and volunteerism.
It was also during 1997 that running backs coach Alan Gooch was recognized as the national assistant coach of the year for his work in learning sign language to coach freshman tailback Dwight Collins, who was deaf. The story caught the heart of a nation, leading Collins to receive recognition for his triumph over his handicap. This included the Giant Steps Award by the National Consortium for Academics and Sports and a trip to the White House to meet President Bill Clinton.
Two months after the season, McDowell, UCF's most successful football coach, would suddenly announce his resignation on January 20, 1998 after allegations of knowledge of cell phone fraud committed by some football players. It was a sudden conclusion to a prominent 13-year career as UCF's head football coach, and not to be forgotten, his efforts as one-time athletics director to bring the Knights program out of seven-figure-debt back in 1985. The very same day of McDowell's resignation, his longtime offensive coordinator, Kruczek, elevated into the role of interim head coach and was charged with keeping the program together.
Prior to joining McDowell at UCF back in 1985, Kruczek was quarterbacks coach with the Jacksonville Bulls (USFL) in 1984 and in the same capacity at Florida State in 1982-83. He was an All-American quarterback at Boston College from 1973-76 then followed with a six-year career in the NFL, mostly with the Super Bowl winning Pittsburgh Steelers. Kruczek's staff also featured first-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who would later be regarded as one of the best defensive minds in all of college football.
It was by far the most tumultuous off-season yet for the Knights, but it was greatly offset with Culpepper's decision to return for his senior year in 1998 in a press conference a week after the season concluded.
UCF athletics marketed the 1998 season as "Daunte's World...Orlando's Biggest Attraction". It was justifiably so as Culpepper would receive preseason All-America recognition from Playboy, Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News and Football Digest. Newspapers from New York to Los Angeles featured UCF's star player, who also drew national attention from Good Morning America, ESPN, CNN/SI, Hard Copy, George Michael Sports Machine and ABC Nightly News.
The 1998 team looked strong, also returning nine other offensive starters, including deep-threat receivers Burley, Nonsant, Charles Lee and Kenny Clark. Fred Waczewski, a Lou Groza Award semifinalist, was back and UCF's smothering defensive backfield boasted the likes of Reginald Doster, Damian Demps (a two-time team leader in tackles), Jeff Fye, Paul Miranda and Davin Bush - some of UCF's best all-time.
The year started with a convincing 64-30 win at Louisiana Tech in a showdown of two of the nation's top quarterbacks, Culpepper and Tim Rattay. A week later Culpepper did it again, accounting for seven touchdowns and earning USA Today Player of the Week honors in a 48-0 win against Eastern Illinois.
After dropping its first game of the season, 35-7, at Purdue in week three, in the Knights' first national television appearance, UCF strung together five consecutive wins for its best start in school history at 7-1. The feat led to Sloan rewarding Kruczek with a long-term contract to be the Knights full-time head coach on November 5, two days prior to facing Auburn on the road.
It was Auburn's homecoming on November 7, and the Knights would play a familiar role on the road in the SEC as they came painfully short in defeating the Tigers following a late fumble-while UCF was attempting to run out the clock. The turnover led to a crushing game-winning score for Auburn and a come-from-behind 10-6 loss.
UCF bounced back from the loss to beat Ball State and New Mexico at the Citrus Bowl to close out the year with a 9-2 record. At the conclusion of the regular season UCF was extended a conditional bid to play in the O'ahu Bowl in Hawaii on December 1, but when UCLA was upset by Miami in a hurricane-cancelled make-up game on December 5 in the Orange Bowl, it forced the bowl to take a team from the PAC-10 to fill the opening.
Culpepper stood out in 1998, breaking Steve Young's (BYU) 1983 single-season completion percentage record of 71.3 by completing 73.6 percent of his passes and became only the third player in NCAA history to pass for more than 10,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in a career. He ended the season with more than 30 school records to his credit. He was the first UCF football player to have his jersey retired.
The defense under Chizik went to 26th nationally after finishing 81st the year prior. Kruczek, who still coached the offense, saw his Knights finish sixth nationally in passing yards per game and seventh in the nation in total yards per game. Culpepper would finish third in the nation in passing efficiency and third in total offense, while Burley ranked fifth in receptions per game, seventh in punt return average and 14th in receiving yards per game. He also led the team for the second straight season with 1,142 yards on a school-record 88 catches.
The most successful season in school history finally would come to a close with Culpepper finishing sixth in the Heisman Trophy balloting and named the national co-player of the year by the Sports Network, along with Texas running back Ricky Williams. After being named the dream team player of the year by the NFL Draft Report, the Minnesota Vikings took Culpepper with the 11th pick in the first round, marking the highest draft pick by a UCF player.