A look back at the ultimate what could have been
The hors d’oeuvre spread was perfect and the open bar was spry with the vibrant energy of late twenty-somethings as we celebrated the union of my really good friend Rettew and his bride, on a balmy St. Augustine day on a terra cotta bricked terrace overlooking the water at dusk. It was the first real barrage of friends getting married in my young adult life. Felt like every other month it was either giving a decent envelope enough to at least cover your plate or tossing another $500 on a tuxedo rental to join a bridal party. This wedding was on the third week of September well within the midst of college football season and a date specifically chosen months in advance because UCF had a “cupcake” FCS opponent on the schedule.
At that time, we had a penchant for Jameson and Ginger Ale; the fumes of a summer study abroad in Dublin. We found our table settings, nursing the perfect wedding attendee buzz, where you have no real responsibilities to the bride or groom but just rounding out a fun wedding and always being the first ones on the dance floor. One of our friends had mentioned how good WatchESPN was on their new iPhone 6s and decided to broadcast the Knights football matchup to the table. We passively watched, growing slightly more uncomfortable as the game crept into the fourth quarter. Matthew Wright’s leg got us on the plus side of a dreadful game to watch offensively. We all looked at each other flat, thinking there was “no way we could lose this game, right?” As we stared down the barrel of starting the season 0-3, Jon Croft Hollingsworth, a name reserved for a Netflix true crime doc serial killer, hit a 55-yard field goal to put the Furman Paladins up 16-15. We all sat at the table stunned. We disappeared for the remainder of the 4th quarter.
Hell, we disappeared for the remainder of that entire season.
You know the rest of the script. Eight games in, George O’Leary (GOL) resigned, and contrary to our fixed memories, Danny Barrett took over as interim head coach, not Brent Key. He was our offensive coordinator for that 2015 campaign though. Two years removed from a Fiesta Bowl run, it marked the first loss to an FCS team since ascending to Division I-A (FBS) in 1996 (20-1), as well as our first 0-3 start since 2004. Abysmal. We all remember the snarky reply Key delivered, responding to fans unhappy with the results of his play calling to come to his office to watch 4 AM game film with him as the season took a nasty spiral. Brent Key took a lot of heat that season, unjustly so. Man poured himself into our program and there was definitely “Head Coach in Waiting” language in his contract terms. He was GOL’s hand-selected successor. There are rumors that George wanted to retire after the Fiesta Bowl victory but was asked by our administration to hang on a bit longer.
Key was a native son of Birmingham and attended Georgia Tech in the late 90’s, where he linked up with George O’Leary who was the head man in charge. Key started 44 games for the Yellow Jackets at Guard. His sophomore year in 1998 the Yellow Jackets went 10-2, beating Georgia in the Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate Rivalry. This was their first win since 1990 and they would reel off two more consecutive victories against the Bulldogs during his time in Atlanta. Key even played against a Mike Kruczek-led UCF in 2000, resulting in a 21-17 victory for the home team at Bobby Dodd Field.
Key served as UCF’s recruiting coordinator beginning in 2007, in addition to being UCF’s offensive line coach. After the 2012 season, Key was promoted to assistant head coach and then to offensive coordinator following the 2013 season. He was tapped by O’Leary to help build a program in the middle of Florida. Everything started for Key here. He met his wife in Orlando, a UCF alumna who worked in our Athletics marketing department during his tenure. Key was with O’Leary for eleven years in several capacities, including running backs coach, tight ends coach, special teams coordinator and recruiting coordinator. He won four conference championships here, made eight bowl appearances, and set up our program’s foundation.
He built the 2013 offensive line that gave us an incredible Fiesta Bowl run and was courted by the University of Alabama-Birmingham for their head coaching vacancy soon after. He staved off the promotion, eager to take the reins in East Orlando and blaze his path. He minted the McCray twins, Chris Martin, Joey Grant and countless other sound units. After being dismissed in Orlando, Key’s time at the Nick Saban School of Rehabilitation and Reform was unlike any other. Those three years after he left UCF he orchestrated the Tide’s offensive line to three College Football Playoff appearances, two SEC Championship titles, and a national championship in 2017. He seasoned himself in Tuscaloosa, finding a balance between the grind of game-planning for the nation’s premier conference week in and week out and carving time out to build his family. We all go through that at some point in our careers. Refining what’s most important to us and calibrating ourselves for optimal output.
He is no doubt, a damn good coach.
But just imagine if we had scraped by and gone 4-8 in 2015. Key would have been our head man going into 2016. Would have been acceptable given the circumstances too. We had the youngest team in the country and lost the most games per starter due to injuries in all of FBS. We were also coming off NCAA recruiting sanctions and lost a handful of scholarships, senior leadership and 12 starters from the year before. Starting quarterback Justin Holman broke his hand, bruiser back William Stanback got booted off the team, starting TE Jordan Akins tore his ACL, Dontravious Wilson tore his PCL, Bo Schneider had to play quarterback as a true freshman, Breshad Perriman and Jacoby Glenn left early for the Draft, starting DB Chris Williams missed the season after he got shot in an altercation, and to top it all off we didn’t even have an athletic director until late November. The perfect maelstrom of horrors.
This means no Scott Frost in 2016, no Danny White magic, no impetus for a UCF Athletics renaissance that electrified our brand and truly broadcasted to the nation how special This Place is. Maybe no Big 12 invite. The Sliding Doors moment of that season still makes me think where the hell we would have been now, had it not occurred as such. We paid Key $700,000 to NOT be the Head Coach in Waiting as his contract stipulated. Make no mistake, Brent Key was still very much a part of that resurgence though. Fingerprints we are all over the 2016 bounce back and 2017 run. No transfer portal, NIL entitlement or quick pivot existed back then. Those boys were down in the mud, having been through hell with their brothers, eager to see the fruits of their labor on the other side. The sweet is not as sweet without the sour. While Scott Frost provided the pop and fresh eyes, the work ethic, sound fundamentals and mental grit of those who stayed were forged in the fire of O’Leary and Key’s reign.
No marriage is perfect. Like all of those weddings I attended in my late twenties, some of them have since dissolved, others have bloomed into beautiful families, some friends I’ve lost touch with and others I still cherish. The paces of life and the winding road of who you meet are unexpected, but for that moment in time, it was where your feet were, and exactly what you wanted at the time. We’ve realized our success since then and he has too. After Key’s stint at Alabama, he headed back home to his alma mater. There he served under Geoff Collins as an assistant head coach/offensive line coach/ run game coordinator. An everything “glue guy” like he was here. He took over last season after Collins’s firing and earned his role as the head honcho in the 404. Now he’s currently in rebuild mode with a .500 all-time head coaching record and eager to build HIS program as he had envisioned doing here.
We meet the Brent Key-led Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in Tampa this Friday in our Gasparilla Bowl matchup. Let’s put a bow on this first year in the Big 12 and hope it propels us even further as a seemingly disappointing season did 8 years ago. This time on elevated shoulders from the work of those before us and a new perspective for what’s at stake with the ever-changing landscape of college football. Brent can try to downplay this matchup all he wants, but it is a culmination of his entire career and a full circle moment that he’d love to head back with some hardware to the Peach State.
Especially against UCF. Believe that.
So, thank you Brent Key.
You were the trusted consigliere to the Godfather of UCF football and set us up for an incredible chapter and rise for our young program.
Both our journeys are just beginning, and I’m glad things worked out exactly the way they did.
Here’s to kicking your ass this Friday; respectfully.