ST. PETERSBURG — They did this for 20 young men. Twenty special players, in coach George O'Leary's eyes, who deserved better than to sit home alone during the dizzying smorgasbord of holiday bowls.
Rob Calabrese, Quincy McDuffie, Troy Davis, Latavius Murray, Kemal Ishmael and the others.
Together, they helped orchestrate a historic bowl-game beatdown on Ball State Friday night at Tropicana Field. Does 38-17 over the Cardinals in the Beef` `O' Brady's Bowl sound convincing enough?
Take a bow, men. They set an all-time record for most victories by a senior class, with 34, leapfrogging the 2010 class.
"The guys knew we were playing for the seniors," Ishmael said. "We all had the same goal coming in. we knew what we wanted."
A 10-win season. Book it. Savor it. Relish it forever.
This is why O'Leary pushed UCF officials decided to appeal NCAA sanctions, delaying the process and any possible repercussions until next season.
"You'll hear a lot about those guys," O'Leary said after the game. "They're going to be successful whether it's football or life."
They upheld their coach's convictions by throttling a team that didn't offer much resistance on either side of the ball.
Playing Ball State before 21,759 fans in a domed stadium configured for baseball is most certainly not the top of the mountaintop in college football, but it's the proverbial reward for those 20 young men who busted their tails for four years and gave blood, sweat and tears to the program.
Did UCF make the right call in rewarding its seniors, or should it have taken the hit the season and enter the Big East — disheveled as it is — without any excess baggage?
The answer seems to be the latter for fans of the home team. It's fair to say that the UCF fan base didn't exactly add to Friday's rush hour congestion along the I-4 corridor. The school sold a little more than 5,000 tickets out of an allotment of 8,000, although a number of UCF fans bought tickets through a secondary market for a lesser price.
"I've always said this, it's not important who you're playing it's that you're playing," O'Leary said earlier this week. "And I think when the fan base understands that one concept I think we'll be fine."
Among the true believers Friday were four men who huddled around everyone's favorite tailgating accessories — pizza and beer — to reflect on the past, present and future of the football program.
They offered the usual mixed bag of emotions of UCF fans: Happy to see the team win nine games and advance to a bowl game. Disappointed it couldn't have been a higher-profile opponent than Ball State. Happy for the seniors who didn't lose a bowl opportunity when UCF appealed NCAA sanctions. Feeling bad for the upcoming senior class.
And the persistent, nagging question: What's up with the Big East, and should the Knights remain committed to moving there next season?
"It's Conference USA all over again," said Keith Vetter, who made the short trip from Orlando.
This is UCF's plight: A school that has outgrown its "happy to be here" expectations. The Knights covet college football's big stage. But these are treacherous, baby steps in the new landscape, bound by a cut-throat survival of the fittest.
They will leave Conference-USA — their home since 2005 — in hopes of upgrading their national profile in the Big East, which is beset by schools that are bolting and uncertainty about the actual configuration in 2013.
"The sleeping giant is still sleeping," said Rob Vetter, Keith's son. "We need to think about the next level."
These will be discussions and conversations for another day. Friday night was all about 20 seniors wearing black and gold one final time and showing their true colors.
The night belonged to them, and rightfully so.