UCF Is Top Target for Big East
Much like the picturesque view overlooking Tampa Bay from inside the Rusty Pelican restaurant, UCF's future looks pretty, pretty good these days.
"I think we're on the lips of a lot of commissioners and presidents," O'Leary told FanHouse. "All we can do is win [and] get [more] fans. You've got to have the fan base, they look at that stuff. How many you put in the stadium? How do you travel?"
With the Big Ten expected to snag anywhere from one to three Big East teams, the Big East will be looking to restock. Multiple league sources said UCF has emerged as the Big East's No. 1 target from the non-automatic qualifying BCS leagues, a sentiment shared recently by a fairly prominent basketball coach.
"If this does happen [the Big Ten takes from the Big East] we've got to be proactive, we've got to be ready for Central Florida," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said last week. "We've got to be ready to get two other programs into this equation."
While the Big Ten decides whether to expand by one to five teams, the Big East has indicated it won't stand by helplessly in the process. Last week, the league announced that former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue would work at helping mold the league's future.
What the future holds is anyone's guess – a football league with eight, nine or 12 members and/or a basketball league with as many as 20 members? Big East commissioner John Marinatto said anything and everything is in play.
Marinatto said last week that much like an athletic director keeps a list of coaches he would pursue to replace a coach, he has a list of possible schools for expansion. He will not reveal what schools.
"There has been no formal process [about the Big East expanding], no formal discussions with anyone," Marinatto said. "But like everyone else in our league, I've thought a lot about it."
The New York Post and Boston Globe have reported Maryland and Boston College might be possibilities for the Big East, but it's unknown how the Big East might lure those schools from the ACC.
UCF, meanwhile, would give the Big East another presence in Florida and to its fertile recruiting grounds. The league most likely would set up the schedule to guarantee each league team a visit to either South Florida or Central Florida each season.
After a brief two-year stint in the Mid-American Conference, UCF has been in Conference USA since 2005. The Knights have been to bowl games in three of their five seasons in C-USA, winning the league title in 2007. They were the league runners-up in 2005.
"UCF would be a great candidate," O'Leary said. "When you look at the school size, facilities, academics, the weather and the [nation's No. 19] TV market is something that Orlando brings," O'Leary said. "There are a lot of a major pluses why UCF would be considered. The big thing is all we can do is win, continue to do the things we need to do and all the other things will take care of itself.
"Obviously I think we have everything in place to move. We're working the back doors to make sure we're on the lips of people. A lot of statements are being made and UCF is being mentioned. I think that's what you want."
New South Florida coach Skip Holtz spent the past five seasons in C-USA as head coach at East Carolina. When asked who he would take from his former league to the Big East if he was commissioner, Holtz chose East Carolina, Memphis and UCF, in that order.
"East Carolina, with its success, and football attendance," Holtz said. "Memphis brings a lot, playing basketball in an NBA arena and the football stadium they play in and I believe Central Florida would be in consideration."
USF and UCF met four times in football from 2005-08 – USF won all four meetings – but the Bulls ended the series because school officials, including former coach Jim Leavitt, felt they ultimately had nothing to gain playing the Knights, who are located 90 miles from Tampa.
When asked if he wanted UCF in the Big East, Holtz didn't say yes, but he didn't scream no, either.
"I want what's best for the league," Holtz said. "Does West Virginia want Marshall in? No. But would they stop them from joining? No. I want what's in the best interest for the Big East.
"I'm all for strengthening the Big East. Whatever teams can do that, I'm all for that."
With UCF as the likely No. 1 target from Conference USA, Memphis also appears a realistic target. A league source said another option to pursue would be getting Villanova, the defending FCS national champions, to move up to the FBS ranks and join the Big East as a football member.
Since Big East members must give 27 months notice and pay $5 million to leave the league, whatever happens likely won't occur until the start of the 2013-14 school year. O'Leary said being in an automatic qualifying BCS league, such as the Big East, would be a huge boost to the school, if it happened.
"No question with the economy right now, the BCS would solve some problems that way as far as the economy and marketing," O'Leary said. "The TV exposure and recruiting – they [the recruits] want to know if you're a BCS school or not. There are a lot of major pluses just from exposure standpoint."
New UCF basketball coach Donnie Jones, who joined O'Leary and other UCF officials at "The Knights Tour" event in Tampa, said he's more concerned with the immediate future than a few years down the road.
But when pressed, Jones said joining arguably the nation's best and deepest basketball conference would help his program.
"When you get into one of those leagues, it helps your recruiting," said Jones, who was an assistant at Florida from 1996-2007. "The best players want to play in the best leagues, but until then you can only control where you're at. You recruit for the now, not for tomorrow.
"[Being in the Big East] would give you a different opportunity when you are in that league. You play against teams like Louisville. I know this: the future's bright. That's one of the reasons I'm here."
Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @BrettmcmurphY