Earlier this year, Mike Aresco went to a restaurant in Connecticut to eat dinner with his family. When they arrived, the dining room was full, so they opted to sit at the bar.
It was there his oldest son overheard a most surprising conversation.
The bartender was in a deep discussion about whether UCF was really the national champion. Then, the bartender turned to Aresco and asked, "What do you think?"
"And I said, 'Oh, well, that's obvious,'" Aresco said with a chuckle during a recent phone conversation.
Aresco never revealed himself to the bartender as the commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, which counts UCF as a proud member. But in that moment, Aresco realized UCF athletic director Danny White and his decision to call the Knights national champs had captured the nation.
The words "national champion" resonated in ways White could have never imagined. Over the past eight months, UCF has driven the conversation as college football provocateur, thanks to an unapologetic athletic director with the boldness to challenge a system he believes failed his team.
"You could argue it's been a brilliant move by Danny bringing the attention to UCF," Aresco said. "People are talking about them and you could argue that's all for the good because the conference has been trying to make that national impact."
Between 1998-2016, nine teams finished undefeated but did not win a national championship. Each time a Utah or a Boise State or a TCU finished unbeaten, voices would scream about an unjust system that failed to provide championship opportunities for all FBS teams.
But nobody self-proclaimed a national championship.
Then White came along.
After UCF beat Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to finish the 2017 season undefeated, the school's social media team found White on the field. He looked into the camera and blurted out, "National champs!"
Two camps formed: those galled at his nerve to put UCF on equal footing with College Football Playoff champ Alabama (but their schedules!), and those who loved the way he pushed back against the power brokers. Each time UCF threw a parade or sold national championship merchandise, hung a championship banner or gave out championship rings, the debates renewed and raged all over again.
Herein lies the genius in what White did when he spontaneously made the "national champs" declaration: UCF improved its visibility, marketability and national brand, all while pushing the playoff conversation forward. But this was no simple gimmick to get the school extra pub.
White firmly believes his players earned the right to be called "national champions." It did not hurt, of course, that the final Colley Matrix rankings, once used in the old BCS formula, had UCF ranked No. 1 in front of Alabama. Aresco believes if UCF had finished undefeated 30 or 40 years ago, the Knights would have won a national championship, and points to BYU in 1984, the last team outside the power structure to win a national title.
"I've loved every minute of it," White said of his decision to proclaim UCF the champion. "We're an upstart in college athletics and we're going to continue to do a lot of new and aggressive things around here, and that's how we're going to realize the potential of this place. I didn't think it was going to get as much attention as it did. I don't know how I could have thought the conversation would get that loud nationally, but it was great that it did. It was good for the brand of our university, and hopefully it was really good in terms of promoting change to the system and expanding the playoff."
Just 10 years ago, when undefeated Utah finished second to national champion Florida, a playoff was anathema to most in the college football power structure. But a few fervent supporters started lobbying coach Kyle Whittingham to self-proclaim a national championship as a way to remedy a system they felt was wholly unfair.
Whittingham never considered it.
"That's just not my style," Whittingham said in a recent phone conversation. "I'm never going to be a self-promoter and a politicker or anything like that. We play the games and let that speak for itself."
But that 2008 Utah team spurred congressional hearings about the fairness in the BCS system. Then Boise State went undefeated in 2009, its second perfect season over a four-year span. Then TCU went undefeated in 2010 and finished No. 2 to national champion Auburn, marking three consecutive seasons a team outside the power structure had zero losses but zero spots in the BCS championship game.
"We're an upstart in college athletics and we're going to continue to do a lot of new and aggressive things around here, and that's how we're going to realize the potential of this place." UCF athletic director Danny White
Rather than self-proclaim championships, those schools tried to fight for a playoff. Former Boise State athletic director Gene Bleymaier said, "To go and declare ourselves national champions, I didn't see that as anything that was really going to advance our situation.
"I have never been happy with the structure," Bleymaier continued. "I went and testified to Congress about that whole issue and explained our record over consecutive years, and why it didn't feel right that we were not given an opportunity. I understand totally what Danny did and I think that was great. It gets people talking, and gets people thinking about it, and hopefully they'll continue to tweak it. But the Power 5, in my opinion, continues to try to pull away from the Group of 5, and I don't think that's good for college football."
Thanks in part to the success Boise State had in the BCS system, the College Football Playoff arrived in 2014. Part of the issue White had with the rankings last season was the major disparity between the way the selection committee ranked UCF and the way the BCS system ranked undefeated Boise State, Utah and TCU.
In nearly every instance, UCF was ranked much lower. Let's use 2006 as a comparison, because that was the first time Boise State finished the regular season undefeated. The Broncos were ranked No. 8 in the final BCS standings. After beating Oklahoma, Boise State finished No. 5 in the final AP poll. Fast-forward to 2017: UCF was ranked No. 12 in the final CFP rankings, and finished No. 6 in the final AP poll.
"I don't think there's a Machiavellian approach to how this was set up," White said. "I think you have good people trying to do something good for college football, and in a lot of ways it is good for college football, but one of the unintended consequences has been schools like us are way further away than we were in the BCS era."
That is why some coaches, such as Whittingham, favor expanding the playoff to eight teams, with the top Group of 5 team getting an automatic slot. But his approach is informed by having lived through a system that, on paper, is set up to be much fairer to Utah in the Pac-12 than Utah in the Mountain West.
"We've made progress," Whittingham said. "A four-team playoff is a step in the right direction, but it's only a step. This is just one person talking; it needs to be expanded, and I think 16 is probably the best number ultimately. But at least get it to eight. If that was in place, I don't think there's any question Central Florida would have been involved, and if the same system was in place in '08, I'm sure we would have been invited. I just think that is a prime example of why the playoffs should be expanded."
ACC commissioner John Swofford, one of the early proponents of a playoff system, tamped down any expectation for a playoff expansion coming in the near future despite the cage-rattling coming from Orlando.
"The national champion is the national champion that wins it through the system that's been established, and that was Alabama," Swofford said. "I don't think there's any real argument there. I don't think we're on the verge of the playoff expanding. It's working well in every respect. I think there will probably annually be those that will like to see it expanded to eight, and maybe at some point in time that day comes, but I don't think we're anywhere close to that at this point in time."
White has no problem playing the long game in that regard. According to a study UCF commissioned, its undefeated season was worth $200 million to the university in equivalent advertising exposure. UCF has sold more than 8,000 new season tickets this year, more than double the new-sales total from a year ago. In addition, the school added seven more field cabanas in the north end zone at Spectrum Stadium. All 15 loge cabanas have sold out.
White said people come up to him all the time when he has his UCF polo on, screaming, "National champs! Love what you guys did!" That also goes for every coach in every sport who has the UCF logo on, both in Orlando and beyond.
"As the AD at UCF, I can talk about expanding the playoff until I'm blue in the face, but I don't think anybody will listen to me," White said. "If I start talking about us winning the national championship, I think we've shown we've gotten a much bigger spotlight on the issue."