Chris Hill saw first-hand how a BCS berth can enhance a university.
With an 11-0 record and a Mountain West Conference title, his Utah Utes became the first non-automatic qualifying program to crash the exclusive club in the 2004 season.
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Some predictable outcomes followed. There was increased visibility for the athletic department, and local enthusiasm for then-coach Urban Meyer’s program grew at a frenetic pace.
There was a sense that the undefeated run, which ended with a 35-7 rout of Big East Conference champion Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, was the start of something special.
So Hill, Utah’s athletic director since 1987, relates to what UCF will experience soon. With Louisville’s victory over Cincinnati on Thursday, the Knights clinched the American Athletic Conference’s BCS berth, meaning a program that began as an independent in 1979 will play high-profile January football for the first time in its history.
The greatest outcome? The event can serve as a springboard to benefits enjoyed campus-wide in many future years.
“You’re not all of the sudden a whole different university,” said Hill, who also saw Utah play in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. “But the big thing was it really engaged our community and increased the interest in our program and set us on a path where people thought of us in that national discussion.
“I think how it raises your whole athletic department. Football is so visible that people look at your athletic department a little more as a national program when you have that kind of success.”
Like Utah back then, there’s a chance UCF football will never be the same after Thursday night.
The Knights (10-1, 7-0 AAC) close the regular season Saturday at SMU, but because they beat Louisville by a field goal on Oct. 18 — part of a wild 6-1 record in games decided by seven points or less — they own the tiebreaker over the Cardinals and will likely test their cardiac-kid profile against a program with more resources and visibility.
Still, UCF has already won, no matter the result at the Orange Bowl or Sugar Bowl or wherever the first days of 2014 are spent.
This is a program that saw an increased attention when it lured George O’Leary, a two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year, to Orlando before the 2004 season. Yet its national awareness paled in comparison to other regional heavyweights like Florida, Florida State and Miami.
It also fell short of similar programs like Louisville and Cincinnati, both former BCS participants. UCF had $40.994 million in total athletic revenue in 2012. By comparison, Louisville had $87.841 million and Cincinnati $48.892 million.
Before this season, the Knights had produced a humble bowl history, a resume that included the 2005 Hawaii Bowl, the 2009 St. Petersburg Bowl, the 2012 Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl and two trips to the Liberty Bowl (2007 and 2010).
With a single unforeseen run, one that could result in the program’s first one-loss season, everything can change.
“It definitely got us on the map from a national standpoint, not just athletically, but even for the school academically,” said Boise State spokesman Max Corbet, who saw the Broncos play in the 2007 and 2010 Fiesta Bowls. “Enrollment has gone up. Applications jumped a bunch — probably 10 or 12 percent — right after that.
“It’s not the focal point of the university, but it’s a great window for the university. There’s no question with how the game came out (in the first Fiesta Bowl win), and what we’ve done with the football program over the last 10 years, that window has definitely opened up.”
Boise State is a good model for UCF. The Broncos had six bowl appearances before their BCS bid, a list that included three Humanitarian Bowl berths, plus trips to the Fort Worth Bowl, Liberty Bowl and MPC Computers Bowl.
They went from a blue-turf fascination within a state known more for potatoes than pigskin to a nationally relevant program that capitalized off their window to showcase a brand nationwide, as evidenced by a “Beyond the Blue” campaign that highlighted university-wide pride points.
Certainly, a BCS berth for UCF means many things, like it did for Boise State, Utah and other non-brand-name programs: A boost in relevancy, a chance to enjoy the fruits of a historic season and a reason to celebrate the faces that made it all possible.
But there’s also an added effect of the breakthrough: An opportunity to spin it into selling the university to more eyeballs.
“You definitely need to enjoy the moment because you never know if it’s ever going to come back again,” Corbet said. “A lot of people told us the same thing — it’s going to be a lot of work. It’s going to be hard, long hours for everyone involved. But enjoy it because you never know if it’s going to happen again. It might be years down the road before it happens again. Just take advantage of opportunities to promote the school. That’s the biggest thing.”
The chances come in a quick, defined time. The games end. The celebrations end. Focus turns to next season. Then more surprise stories are waiting to be formed and told.
“It energized the entire state,” said John McNamara, Hawaii’s associate athletic director for external affairs, who saw the Rainbow Warriors play in the 2008 Sugar Bowl. “It impacted us in a number of different ways, in addition to just a lot of good will towards the university as a whole and specifically the football program. We saw increases in several areas in regards to tickets and merchandising and concessions, even activity on the donation front. It is a real morale booster for the fans, and it certainly bolsters the department’s finances.”
UCF has all this — plus more — to anticipate in the coming weeks. September through December was about high heart rates that created higher stakes. January will be the time to enjoy the outcome.
The ride doesn’t have to end there, and with the right planning, it could lead to something far more lasting.