UCF's commitment opens fund-raising floodgates

Emerging from the shadows of such established football programs as Florida, Florida State and Miami is one of the nation's fastest growing teams. Thanks to top-notch coaching and innovative fund-raising, Central Florida has quickly become a player on the national stage.

Next September, Central Florida will open two new athletics venues in the same month -- a 45-000 capacity football stadium and a state-of-the-art basketball arena. In August of 2003, the school opened a 44,000-square foot football training facility, complete with a strength and conditioning center, a sports medicine center and an auditorium with stadium seating. The school has also recently opened new indoor practice facilities, a baseball complex and a softball stadium.

"It's crazy how fast these things have happened," said Tim Leonard, the assistant vice president for athletic development and annual giving. "It doesn't seem that long ago that the school decided to commit to building the football stadium."

The response from the public to the school's decision was overwhelming. The premium seating campaign -- which Leonard estimated might take up to a year -- was completed in two months.

"The new venue basically sold itself. The team's success had a lot to do with it," said Leonard, who has served in a similar capacity at Illinois State and Boise State. "When the team was 0-and-forever, it looked like it would be more of a challenge. But Coach [George] O'Leary made it happen."

Central Florida relied heavily on its athletics fund-raising arm, the Golden Knights Club, for assistance in financing these ventures. Since 2000, fund-raising has increased by 300 percent, including a 47 percent increase in the past year.

"To go from no premium seating to premium seating at two different venues is a unique challenge," said Leonard. "Football sold out exceptionally quickly, and our plan is to get the basketball arena sold out as well. In addition, we'll be expanding our staff next year when the buildings open up, so we'll be able to keep those people happy."

In a football-frenzied state like Florida, it came as no surprise that the market to support yet another collegiate program was in place. Because the university is relatively young (it was founded in 1963), the Golden Knights do not have an older (and wealthier) donor base from which to draw contributions. An "old" alumnus of the university would be just now turning 50.

Fund-raising officials at UCF have instead turned to the transient community of Orlando, where most of the population hails from someplace else. UCF has become the adopted team of many transplants who miss cheering for a local team and see the program's potential.

The donor and fan base is evenly split between alumni and local residents, according to Leonard.

"Most of the people who have moved here are from up north and love college football. In fact, all of our biggest non-donors are alums -- a trend I hope will change as the university gets older," said Leonard. "We're seeing more and more major gifts come from alums, and that's clearly our future base."

Although fund-raising in a transient community with a limited alumni base posed challenges, Leonard said one of the biggest issues his staff has faced is keeping up with the demands. It's a good problem for a university to have.

"We have a rapidly growing staff, but we still can't keep up with everything we want to do," said Leonard, a 15-year veteran of athletics development.

In the past, the athletic department deferred to the alumni office in many fund-raising areas, something that is changing as the department continues to grow and set new goals. For example, the annual coaches' tour of alumni around the country will now be overseen by the athletic department.

"We still work closely with the alumni office, but as we've grown, we've wanted to control our own destiny," Leonard explained.

The new basketball arena is part of a public-private initiative, which means that UCF isn't on the hook for raising money to support the entirety of the cost. Although the athletics office is not concentrating on getting capital gifts -- the project contains retail, housing and parking facilities that will generate revenue to deflect some of the cost -- the Golden Knights Club has been called upon to sell premium seating for the school's basketball games.

"Football is king in Florida. It's something people are passionate about and will absolutely buy into. Basketball doesn't have that same passion here, but we're trying hard to get to that point," said Leonard, who has been working at UCF since 1999.

Selling those tickets hasn't come as easily as it did in the football stadium, but UCF has taken a creative approach to the task. The school recently signed a deal with a naming partner for the football stadium -- UCF will team up with Bright House, a cable provider -- and is now looking to find a similar partner for the arena.

Initially, the school wasn't planning to seek out a naming partner for the stadium, but after talking with a number of interested corporations, it seemed like a logical step. Although there were a few logistical issues to hammer out during a year and a half of negotiations, both sides were drawn to the concept.

"Michigan has the Big House, and UCF will have the Bright House," said Leonard. "It's great for them to get their name out in the community, and it's great for us to have so much momentum building for UCF."

In his six years at Central Florida, Leonard has excelled at getting people to believe in potential. When the football team was struggling, it was tough to convince donors to invest in a program that didn't appear to have the school's full commitment. That mentality has been completely transformed, largely because of persistence.

"We're selling dreams," explained Leonard. "We have not had the luxury of an active, large alumni or fan base. When we started, giving was relatively modest -- it's beyond that now."

"We don't accept where we're at. Are we a big-time program? In some ways, we kind of are. But there's still a huge difference between us and an SEC school. Every day, we're closing the gap. We're going to get there. We have the right coaches, athletic department and president in place."

Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor at ESPN.com. She can be reached at Lauren.K.Reynolds@espn3.com.