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(All information as of June 20, 2008)
COACH AND PROGRAM
One day before his reigning Conference USA champions were scheduled to begin spring practice, fifth-year UCF head coach George O'Leary experienced his ultimate nightmare.
Ereck Plancher, a redshirt freshman receiver with no known history of health problems, collapsed after a coach-supervised conditioning drill and never regained consciousness. He was 19.
Sometimes a tragedy like this can bring a team together, forging an unbreakable bond as players push forward, intent on honoring their fallen friend. "There's a lot of ways to honor someone, whether you put a number on a helmet or a number on a jersey, but the best way you can honor Ereck is to act like him," O'Leary said.
Sometimes, however, a tragedy can rip a program apart. Days after Plancher's death, four UCF players told the Orlando Sentinel that the "mat drills" were much more intense than the university originally stated and that O'Leary cursed at a visibly distressed Plancher for a lack of effort. Initial autopsy results were inconclusive.
O'Leary, 61, a two-time C-USA Coach of the Year who has worked very hard to restore a reputation tarnished by his infamous Notre Dame résumé flap, defended his actions in a statement to the Florida Times-Union. "There's been an incredible lack of credibility and accuracy in the statements that have been made," he said. "There's been no real determining factor in what happened to the young man. Anytime there's an unknown, that leads to questions until it's resolved."
The Knights already had enough questions entering 2008. Defending the first conference championship in school history is an enormous challenge after losing record-setting running back Kevin Smith, as well as the starting quarterback and four linemen from an offense that averaged 35.9 points per game and broke school records for points (502) and touchdowns (62) in a season. At home, the Knights averaged 42.3 points per game and won six straight games to close out the season, including a 44-25 victory over Tulsa in the league title game.