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In honor of UCF's birthday today, here's a look back on the past 53 years.

From a vacant piece of natural land to a vast and expanding university, UCF has had quite the journey.

Although we all enjoy the many perks that have landed UCF on "most desirable" lists across the nation, our start was quite modest. And just as most things go, to understand the past is to truly appreciate the present.

So let's take a look back at the many struggles, triumphs, traditions and developments that have made UCF the growing force it is today. Now the second-largest university in the nation with 63,000 students and 253,000 alumni, UCF has made a splash over the past 50 years, but with roots deep in the area, that didn't happen by accident.

The 1960s

Before the crazy headlines or the 417 or even Disney, Central Florida had an identity. It was the center of space travel, and oh what an exciting time it was. Project Mercury was underway NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Alan Shepherd had just became the first U.S. citizen in space and just years later Neil Armstrong would make that "one small step for man" on the moon.

The space industry was booming and the area was growing at a rapid pace. UCF didn't exist yet, but it was only a matter of time.

As the space industry continued to grow, the need for educated workers and training facilities became paramount and the idea of a "space university" was thrown on to the table for debate. According to UCF records, a man named William Dial, who was a banker and lawyer, began to lobby in Tallahassee for a public university to aid the ever-growing space industry. Lobbying Bill No. 125, Dial's connections and support in Tallahassee helped get the bill passed, which marks the very beginning of the university we all know and love today.

In the beginning of 1964, land was earmarked for the soon-to-be university on Alafaya Trail in Orlando. The 1,227-acre piece of land was donated in part and sold in part. Five hundred of those acres were purchased for a total cost of $500,000.

"Eighty-nine Orange County residents pledged a total of $1 million in cash and securities to secure the purchase of the site. Millions more would be needed to begin construction. Martin Anderson called Gov. Haydon Burns and Dial flew to Tallahassee to argue for immediate funding. The governor agreed and ordered the project to be moved to No. 1 on the higher-education funding priority list," UCF's history website states.

Fast forward to March 1967, and a groundbreaking for the Florida Technical University was well underway. However, it wouldn't be until Oct. 7, 1968 that students would roam halls and occupy classrooms.

As FTU opened up its doors, a university seal, the Pegasus, was selected along with a motto, "Reach for the Stars," and colors, black and gold.

"The motto was a challenge and admonition to students to always aim high, try harder and go beyond what they believed possible. Pegasus contrasted and connected the old and new, the humanities with science and technology," the UCF website states.

In 1969, unofficial mascots popped up out of the woodwork, including a fellow who has recently come out of retirement – the Citronaut. Poised with a laser gun, space helmet and the body of an orange, the Citronaut was never an official mascot, but has become a legend of sorts since its debut on the student handbook. Students weren't too keen on the mascot, and the student newspaper showed its disapproval with other suggestions from the student body. The student newspaper, then known as the FuTUre, is still around to this day, but operates under the name Central Florida Future – which you are reading right now. Pretty cool, huh?

The first class of students was comprised of 1,948 students who had 55 degree programs offered five colleges to choose from. Those colleges included Business Administration, Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Engineering and Technology.

Charles Millican was the first university president of FTU, and his name still echoes throughout campus as students and staff reference on the campus' most prominent buildings – Millican Hall.

The 1970s

In the 1970s, Trevor Colbourn had taken over as the university's president and growth continued year over year. But the 1970s were just a decade of growth for the university, it was a decade of change.

In 1978, officials gave their stamp of approval for a big change – a name change. Instead of being Florida Technical University, the ever-expanding campus would become the University of Central Florida.

"The new president realized that the community population had changed and diversified, and so had the university. Many students were now enrolled in widely varied academic programs, reflecting a shift in demand for strictly technological and scientific education as the local economy diversified, the UCF website states.

Also notable in the 1970s, the university's mascot made a change. FTU had garnered the nickname "knights" and the students were all about it. It was also in the 70s that the Knight mascot really came into play as the basketball squad reached varsity level and became a NCAA Division II team. The team went 17-9 that first season.

By 1979, a football team was the talk of campus and Athletics Director Jack O'Leary approved a decision to form a NCAA Division III football team. The team was led by head coach Don Jonas and the season opener was September 22, 1979 against St. Leo. The Knights won 21-0 and finished the season with a 6-2 record.

The 1980s

Mascots continued to be a hot topic on campus and with an emerging football team, a new face had also appeared: Sir Wins-A-Lot. By the end of the 90s, however, Sir Wins-A-Lot became more of an authentic Knight on a horse, which we still see kick off games today.

By 1989, the enrollment at UCF had increased to 18,000 students and facilities like the university's Research Park, the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers and the Institute for Simulation and Training were well established.

With the football team in place, budding research facilities and a rapidly growing student population, the 80s would be a true decade of expansion for the university. And also notably, a new kind of UCF spirit was born in 1980 – the Marching Knights.

The 1990s

Perhaps it was the 1990s that led to many of our most cherished traditions here at UCF. UCF pillars such as Spirit Splash and Knightro all came to be around 1995. Spirit Splash began when then-SGA president Miguel Torregrossa was pushed into the Reflection Pond by one of his cabinet members, kicking off a pep rally of sorts.

A "blue print" for UCF's future was also laid out in 1991, citing a master plan for massive growth and expansion to meet the demands of the student body, which was expected to double in the next decade.

Over the next 20 years, building continued to sprout up on and around campus, and the feeling of growth and expansion is still present today.

In the 1990s, UCF president Steven Altman turned over the reins to our current university present, John C. Hitt. Hitt became the fourth president of the university and has been the leader during the school's most notable growth spurt. Since the 1990s, the campus size has, in fact, more than doubled and is now playing host to whopping 56,000 and counting student body.

The 2000s

From the Citrus Bowl to an on-campus stadium to a new arena and dorms galore, the 2000s were a huge turning point for UCF. In the last decade, the university population has increased by 40 percent, according to the UCF website, and with it, the physical size of the campus seems to be growing as well.

It was the 2000s where we saw the addition of hundreds of dorm rooms and a small city we all call "Knights Plaza." The Towers made quite an impact on the availability of student housing, but the demand continues to grow. Off-campus housing has blossomed near UCF and the addition of restaurants, apartments, shopping and transportation mirrors a similar growth as the university.

In the 2000s, the football team played at the Citrus Bowl near Downtown Orlando where many different traditions took place compared to what we do today. A cannon was once fired after every touchdown and students were flung in the air according to the number of points on the board. OK, perhaps the students flying in the stands remains a tradition these days, but it's frowned upon.

It was also in the 2000s that our football team hit a sort of rock bottom. In 2004, coach George O'Leary's first year as the head coach, the Knights went 0-11 in the Mid American Conference. It was a complete skunk.

However, the tides changed as times went by and in 2014, the Knights became American Athletic Conference champions and winners of the BCS Tostitos Bowl in Phoenix, Arizona.

In 2014, the football team also made waves as Quarterback Blake Bortles became the highest pick in the draft the region has ever produced. Bortles was picked third overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

UCF won its second-consecutive conference championship title this past season, winning the ticket to the Bitcoin Bowl in St. Petersburg. Although the Knights fell to NC State, they didn't fail to send a first-round pick to the 2015 NFL Draft. Wide receiver Breshad Perriman went to the Baltimore Ravens as the 26th pick. Safety Clayton Geathers was snapped up by the Indianapolis Colts during the fourth round as the 109th pick.

Unfortunately, this past season was another winless one that saw the retirement of head coach George O'Leary and hiring of new coach, Scott Frost.

Today, the university almost is like its own city with its own government, its own center of town and its own culture. But even more expansion is on the horizon, as UCF's downtown campus was approved this year and is expected to be completed by fall 2018. The $60 million expansion will bring 5,000 students to the downtown areas, along with programs in health care, communications, social work, digital media, health services, administration and legal studies.

President Hitt called the project "one of the most important milestones in UCF's history."

And as the university plunges into the future, perhaps its motto "reach for the stars" will be the limit to the history that is made in the years to come.

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Jessica J. Saggio is the Education Watchdog Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter at @jessicajsaggio or email her at JSaggio@FloridaToday.com

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