Longtime basketball coach intent on his vision
Published: Sunday, June 28, 2009
Updated: Sunday, June 28, 2009 15:06
This is part five of a series profiling UCF head coaches.
UCF Basketball head coach Kirk Speraw's name may seem out of place among the likes of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, but it's not: He is one of just 15 coaches in Division I Basketball to have coached their respective schools for the past 16 years.
But Speraw's journey started long before stepping on the UCF campus in 1993. In fact, the start was closer to 1978.
He was senior on Lute Olsen's Iowa team that year, and he was named the team's "Most Inspirational Player." The team won 20 games, 13 in conference play, and a Big Ten title.
Speraw came back to Iowa the following season as an assistant, and he said working under Olsen was crucial to his growth as a coach.
"It meant a lot and was very humbling." Speraw said. "I learned a lot under coach Olsen. He's a hall of fame coach and a great man. Between playing for him, then coaching under him at Iowa and Lon Kruger while I was at Florida, I learned a lot of the tricks of the trade."
Speraw's dad was a basketball and baseball coach, and Speraw said growing up in the locker rooms helped pave his future.
"When you grow up in the locker room and spend a lot of time around coaches, you learn to have a passion for it," Speraw said.
Speraw used that passion during his stops prior to UCF. He was an assistant at Iowa, Denver, Florida Southern and the University of Florida.
Between his stops at Florida Southern and Florida, Speraw was a head coach at Pensacola Junior College for three years, piling up an 82-21 record and three consecutive Panhandle Conference titles.
But 1993 was Speraw's big break, when he was hired to replace Joe Dean at UCF.
Speraw led the then-Golden Knights to a 21-9 record — their first 20-win season in 12 years — and a second-place finish in the Atlantic Sun Conference. UCF won the conference tournament and appeared in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since its move to Division I.
"Well, I don't know what exactly we did right," Speraw said. "All I know is we had players who played hard, coaches who coached hard and we peaked at the right time."
UCF joined Conference USA before the 2005 season, a big leap in conference stature. C-USA was the ninth-ranked conference by RPI following the 2004-05 season; the A-Sun was ranked 21st.
"I don't know if we (the coaches) believed it. I don't even know if the players believed it." Speraw said. "The media as well as coaches thought it would be a tough jump from the number 28th- or 29th-ranked conference to say the eighth-best conference in the country."
And although the Knights have not found the success they had in the A-Sun, Speraw has kept them competitive.
"We've been in the upper echelon almost every year," Speraw said. "I mean to finish second in our second year speaks about the mentality of our team."
Speraw was named the conference's coach of the year in that second season, when the Knights went 22-9 and 11-5 in conference play.
"Winning the award was a very humbling experience." Speraw said. "It is a testament of our team and my assistant coaches. They played hard for me, and we had a very successful season."
Those successful seasons have endeared Speraw to the student population at UCF, and he has become a cult hero of sorts.
Members of the student body have formed groups such as "Kirk's Jerks" and the "Rowdy Knights," collections of fans that raucously support Speraw.
Speraw even has his own introduction before games.
After players are announced and the public address announcer introduces Speraw, myriad fans chant "Kirk, Kirk, Kirk."
The chant has become such a staple that it is included in the pre-game fliers under the "Chanting 101" section.
"It's exciting to have a body with the student body. We are all here for the same cause," Speraw said. "We all want to win, and it's great to have a good relationship with the student body."
When the Knights are beating opponents soundly enough, the crowd unleashes a "Good coach, bad coach" chant, wherein they point to Speraw with approval and the opposing coach with disdain.
"I'd say when we have the Knightmare section full, bouncing and going nuts, and the Rowdy Knights are full heckling anyone around them, we have the best fan sections in the conference." Speraw said. "I'd say if it continues on the pace we are going, we could compete for one of the best in the nation."
The Knights pounded NJIT 82-50 in the semifinals of the UCF Holiday Classic in 2007 to give Kirk his 300th career victory as a head coach. Speraw's special night was capped off when his son Drew, a junior guard, had a career night, scoring 7 points off the bench.
Kirk said sharing that moment with his son was special.
"Drew has had a very rare chance to play with his father." Speraw said. "Anytime a father and son can play together, it's special. Drew is a very talented young man, and he has matured and grown a lot with his time here at UCF. It was a fun night for all involved."
And Speraw has had the opportunity for those fun nights because of the faith the administration has in him.
"We are on the same page." Speraw said of how his goals match up with President John Hitt and Director of Athletics Keith Tribble. "They know I am not satisfied until I win a national title, and they wont be until I bring it home. Being on the same page and producing favorable results are usually things that can help you stick around as a coach."