Division I-AA Football Comes to Orlando

Part 5 of 8: Saturday Knights Live...The History of UCF Football

July 18, 2007

Orlando, Fla. (www.UCFAthletics.com) - UCF made its long-awaited move to NCAA Division I-AA in 1990 and proved up to the task, going a program-best 10-4 and becoming the first school in history to qualify for the I-AA playoffs in its first season of eligibility, even hosting a second-round contest.

The team impressively marched all the way to the I-AA playoff semifinals, defeating Youngstown State in Ohio and William & Mary in the Citrus Bowl along the way, where it eventually fell to rival and eventual national champion Georgia Southern in Statesboro. Gene McDowell was named the Eddie Robinson I-AA Coach of the Year, the first such honor for the UCF football program. The playoff run was one thing; the excitement leading up to the 1990 national championship was another. It was a time of mass celebration on the UCF campus.

To close-out the regular season, UCF thrashed Texas Southern, 63-6, at home behind receiver Sean Beckton and arguably the greatest single-game performance by a player in school history. In the game, Beckton, a senior who would later join the UCF coaching ranks, threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to receiver Shawn Jefferson, ran 11 yards on a reverse for a touchdown, caught a 17-yard touchdown pass and returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown.

To open the playoffs, UCF drew previously undefeated and top-seeded Youngstown State in the first round and had to travel to frigid Youngstown, Ohio over Thanksgiving. The Knights became giant slayers on that frigid day on the icy artificial turf of Stambaugh Stadium and Franco Grilla, the Knights' star kicker, would write his name in UCF athletics history. As time expired, Grilla, set up by the running of Willie English, nailed a 34-yard field goal that gave UCF its first win, albeit improbable, 20-17, over the Associated Press' top-ranked team.


UCF then returned home to dominate William & Mary, 52-38, in a shootout in front of 20,067 to earn a spot in the semifinals. Beckton caught two touchdown passes and threw another in the victory against The Tribe. UCF got into the semifinal behind its potent running game. Mark Giacone, the team's top rusher, and fullback Perry Balasis had a routine where they would max bench press weights before the game in the locker room, come out and just smash the ball down an opponent's throat. Their style of play more or less resembled a roller derby and adding the triple threat of Beckton, with his ability to run, catch or throw, the UCF offense seemed to score at will.

Unfortunately, the team's hopes for a national championship were derailed at the dreaded Eagle Creek Field in Statesboro when Georgia Southern, the eventual national champion, scored 35 unanswered points in the second half to take a 44-7 victory.

Despite its sixth-straight winning season in 1991, finishing 6-5, UCF played one of its toughest all-time schedules that year. The Knights hosted its first Division I-A opponent, East Carolina, in addition to road games at powerful programs James Madison, Valdosta State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and Liberty.

The 1991 season opened with UCF scoring 21 unanswered second-half points en route to defeating visiting Troy State, 21-10. In the game, returner Mike Dickinson gave UCF its first lead on a school-record 86-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter. Three weeks later, ECU rolled into town and beat UCF, 47-25, but not before the Knights offense racked up a respectable 497 total yards.

UCF would then win two straight to move to 4-2 on the year, beating Bethune-Cookman, 32-6, and, 31-20, on the road at Arkansas State. In the ASU game, English rushed for 242 yards in the victory to establish a new school-record. The Knights followed by dropping three straight to Samford, 13-6, at Georgia Southern, 20-6, and their first homecoming loss since 1986, 33-31, to Savannah State. UCF closed out the year winning two straight, at Liberty, 31-26, and a 52-6 drubbing of Millersville at home.

The offense was led by English, who became the first in school history to top the 1,000-yard plateau in a season. He finished the year with 1,338 yards and 13 touchdowns on 236 carries, rushing for more than 100 yards in nine of the 11 games.

In 1992, UCF posted another winning season going 7-4, but the lowlight came when English, a pre-season All-American, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening quarter of the first game. Despite the loss, UCF set a school-record with 461 yards rushing in the game, including 189 yards from Richard Blake and 151 yards from Gerod Davis en route to a 71-21 pounding of Gardner-Webb.

Another victory followed against Bethune-Cookman, 28-3, before Troy State handed UCF its first loss of the year, 20-16, in week three. Rick Hamilton, the team's defensive leader, helped get the Knights back on track in a week four, 35-22, victory at Western Illinois when he set a school record with a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown.

After an offseason schedule cancellation, UCF made up for the lost home game when it made history as the first college program to play a Russian football team on American soil as it defeated the Moscow Bears of the Russian League of American Football, 42-6, October 3. UCF caught its visitors off guard with a reverse on the kickoff which Robert Alexander ran back 80 yards for a touchdown.

Hamilton led the team for the third-straight year with 149 tackles and left school as the all-time leader in that category with 443 total stops.

Another highlight of the year was the announcement by Dr. John Hitt, UCF's fourth President, that the school would move up to Division I-A by the 1996 season. The move allowed McDowell to cede the role of athletics director and focus solely on the success of the football program.

Hitt went out and tapped North Texas athletics director Steve Sloan to lead the next era of UCF athletics. Sloan had a diverse background in collegiate athletics as a standout quarterback for Bear Bryant at Alabama and as a head football coach at Duke, Ole Miss, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt.

Sloan's newly-anointed Golden Knights started the 1993 season winning six of their first seven games, only losing to East Carolina. They would go 9-2 and qualify for another spot in the Division I-AA playoffs, only to fall, 56-30, at Youngstown State despite Rhodes' 220-yard, three-touchdown performance on 12 receptions.

The season started with quarterback Darin Hinshaw shattering the school-record in a 35-30 win over Valdosta State, when he completed 25-of-35 passes for a school-best 437 yards.

After the loss to ECU, the Knights recorded five-straight wins. The streak was highlighted by UCF's come-from-behind 42-28 victory over Yale in week four, where it came back from a 28-21 fourth quarter deficit in front of 23,489 fans. The victory came courtesy of the defense who kept the Lions out of the endzone with a late-game goal-line stance and then defensive back Richard Blake sealed the win with a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown with two seconds remaining on the next series.

The 1993 season marked the return of English to the line-up, and he would later show signs of a complete recovery when he rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown in UCF's first win over a Division I-A team, a 38-16 triumph at Louisiana Tech in the regular-season finale.

The backfield was loaded in 1993, including English, who led the team with 848 yards and left school as the all-time leading rusher with 3,131 yards and 38 touchdowns. The roster also featured Gerod Davis and former Gatorade High School Player of the Year Marquette Smith. Smith had originally signed with Florida State out of Winter Park Lake Howell, but opted to transfer back home.

David Rhodes again led the team in receiving with 1,159 yards on a school-record 78 receptions with 12 touchdowns. The feat earned him Associated Press First-Team All-America honors in addition to several second-team selections.

The 1994 preseason was about hype and may have featured UCF's most talented team. Nine players off that roster would go on to sign professional contracts. Sports Illustrated picked UCF to win the Division I-AA championship and most polls slotted the team at No. 1 to start the year. However, a rash of injuries on defense and one-point losses to Samford and Troy State on homecoming as well as a three-point loss to I-A East Carolina led to a 7-4 finish and a No. 20 final ranking.

In a win that put UCF at 4-1 on the season, kicker Charlie Pierce nailed two fourth-quarter field goals to give the Knights a 27-26 victory at Illinois State. Pierce would finish 14-of-16 on the year in field goal attempts and connected on all 47 PAT's, well enough for first-team Sports Network All-America honors.

The season wasn't totally void of highlights as Hinshaw rushed for two touchdowns and passed for a third and Smith gained 150 yards on the ground in UCF's second win against a Division I-A team, a 33-16 triumph at Louisiana-Monroe on October 15.

Hinshaw finished his senior season throwing for 2,801 yards and 26 touchdowns and became the schools, as well as Florida's all-time leading passer with 9,000 yards and 82 touchdowns. Rhodes, an honorable mention All-American, led the team for the third-straight season, catching 62 passes for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns. He became the school and state all-time leading receiver with 3,618 yards and 29 touchdowns.

That year, a record eight players signed pro contracts: Greg Jefferson was drafted in the third round by the Philadelphia Eagles, while Hinshaw (Cleveland Browns), Rhodes (Cincinnati Bengals), Mike Gruttadauria (Dallas Cowboys), Ray Forsythe (Cincinnati), Bret Cooper (Miami Dolphins), Mark Whittemore (Miami) and Alexander (Memphis Mad Dogs, CFL) all signed as free agents.

Franco Grilla attempts one his 71 field goals as a UCF Knight between 1989-92.