You can keep the Heisman.
You can keep the Doak Walker, too.
And you can keep every other national award, accolade, trophy and trinket.
"We've got something better," UCF's record-breaking running back Kevin Smith said after running for 284 yards and four touchdowns in Saturday's historic, euphoric 44-25 victory over Tulsa. "We've got a conference championship. I'll take that over a Heisman any day. The conference championship trophy doesn't have anybody's individual name on it -- it only has the name of your team."
And the name of that team for the first time in history is UCF -- the University of Championship Football.
Can you believe it? Can you conceive it?
At long last -- after 29 years, countless tears and endless jeers -- UCF is a champion. What a long, strange trip it's been. From 0-11 to football heaven.
And if you don't believe it, you should have seen the delirious look on quarterback Kyle Israel's face as he hoisted the Conference USA championship trophy and ran around the stadium with it Saturday as Queen's We Are the Champions blared over the public-address system.
Never, it seems, has that overplayed, old, stadium anthem had more meaning. Almost as if Freddie Mercury was a UCF football player when he wrote it.
"And bad mistakes, I've made a few, I've had my share of sand kicked in my face,
But I've come through, We are the champions -- my friends, And we'll keep on fighting -- till the end."
Has any champion had more sand kicked in its face than these guys? I should know because I did much of the kicking.
Seven weeks ago after that horrendous 64-12 loss to South Florida, I wrote, "After such an embarrassing loss in such an important game, you have to start questioning the direction of the UCF program under Coach George O'Leary. Here we are in Year 4 of the O'Leary era and -- at least right now -- his team looks no better than it did in Year 1. And, yes, the Knights were 0-11 in Year 1."
What a tremendous turnaround. What a resounding resurrection. UCF hasn't lost since that abysmal afternoon in Tampa and has reeled off a school-record seven straight victories. O'Leary is the league's Coach of the Year and Smith has become one of the greatest running backs in the annals of college football. If he rushes for just 181 yards -- seven below his per-game average -- in the Liberty Bowl, he will surpass Barry Sanders as the most productive single-season rusher in the history of Division I-A football.
But right now, none of that matters. Because you don't have to be Kevin Smith or Kyle Israel or Joe Burnett or any of the other stars of the team to savor a conference title. It's like Magic Johnson once said, "Everyone on a championship team doesn't get publicity, but everyone can say he's a champion."
Those UCF offensive linemen who steamrolled Tulsa and opened up the holes for Smith to run through Saturday -- they're all champions. Those defensive linemen who hounded and harassed Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith to the tune of six sacks and three interceptions -- they're all champions. Those 44,128 fans who screamed and stomped and turned Bright House Stadium into a gigantic quaking, shaking bounce house -- they're all champions, too.
After the game, under the bleachers, many of those fans crowded around Kevin Smith for an hour-long impromptu autograph session. At one point, Smith pulled off his cleat and presented it to 13-year-old David Kahn.
"Can you believe it? I got Kevin Smith's shoe! I got Kevin Smith's shoe!" Kahn screeched as he sprinted through the crowd.
Why the big deal about a sweaty ol' shoe?
"Do you realize," Kahn said incredulously, holding up his podiatric prize, "that this shoe has now run for more than 2,400 yards?"
Even better than that, kid.
It's run for a conference title.
"I'll be able to take this with me forever," Smith says in his stocking feet. "This is why you play sports, so you can someday win a championship."
That someday is today.
With or without shoes, Kevin Smith runs with legends and UCF walks like a champion.
Mike Bianchi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun