Don’t fret, Knight Nation.
McKenzie Milton will be back at UCF someday, but it won’t be as an assistant coach.
It’ll be as the head coach.
There was a bit of consternation among some Knight fans a few days ago when it was announced Milton — the beloved former player adoringly known as “KZ” by his friends and fans — would begin his coaching career as an offensive analyst on former UCF coach Josh Heupel’s staff at Tennessee rather than on current UCF coach Gus Malzahn’s staff right here in Orlando.
There are those who believe Malzahn should have hired Milton on the spot if, in fact, Milton was ready to start the grind of climbing the coaching ladder. I am not among those because, after talking with Milton, I believe he would have taken the Tennessee job even if he did have a standing offer from UCF.
The fact is after Milton decided last year to stop playing football, Malzahn and Milton talked about a possible low-level position on Malzahn’s staff, but Milton wasn’t quite ready to jump on the coaching treadmill. Recently married with a new baby, Milton had some more business possibilities he wanted to examine such as being at the forefront of the new Name, Image and Likeness movement and helping start UCF’s first NIL collective.
“Honestly, if I hadn’t been newly married with a newborn baby, I probably would have already gotten into coaching,” admits Milton, who is now expecting a second child with wife Jany. “Me getting into coaching has truly been a family decision and I wanted to make sure my wife was on board. I always knew I wanted to coach eventually and Coach Heup has given me a great opportunity.
“I definitely wouldn’t have taken a job with just any coach,” Milton added. “Because of the familiarity, there are really only two guys who I wanted to begin my career working for and that’s my former coaches at UCF – Coach Heup and Coach [Scott] Frost. Coach Frost, of course, isn’t coaching right now, but Coach Heup has consistently told me from the time I stopped playing football, ‘Whenever you’re ready to get into it, give me a call and we’ll make it happen.’ There’s just a trust factor for me working for Coach Heup and [former UCF athletic director] Danny White.”
Tennessee has certainly turned into a Great Smoky Mountains version of UCF with White running the show, Heupel rapidly rejuvenating the once-downtrodden football program and now Milton jumping on board as well. In fact, I believe it’s time that UT come up with a new mantra to reflect its UCF pipeline — “Charge On, Rocky Top!”
As much as Milton loves the Knights and living in Orlando, there’s no doubt it’s best for him to get out from underneath the safety of the UCF umbrella as he begins his coaching career. Comfort, as I like to say, is the cancer of ambition and Milton needed to go to a place where he’s just another assistant coach; not a 25-year-old living legend.
Heupel himself has said that getting fired as the co-offensive coordinator at his own alma mater (Oklahoma) was the best thing that ever happened to his coaching career.
“Thank God it happened,” Heupel told me when he was coaching at UCF. “It’s worked out great for me. I had been under one umbrella [at Oklahoma] my entire coaching career. The opportunities I have had to go to other places after Oklahoma either confirmed things or opened my eyes to things I would want to do in my own program. I’m a better coach today because I left Oklahoma.”
Likewise, the great Steve Spurrier has often said that leaving his alma mater at the beginning of his coaching career turned him into the offensive wizard he would later become. When Spurrier, the University of Florida’s first Heisman Trophy winner, finished playing in the NFL, he got a job as an assistant on former UF coach Doug Dickey’s staff in 1978. However, when Dickey was fired a year later and Charley Pell was hired, Pell didn’t retain Spurrier.
As a result, Spurrier was hired as the quarterbacks coach by late Georgia Tech coach Pepper Rodgers, quickly distinguished himself as an innovative offensive tactician and the rest is history. A decade after Pell fired him at UF, Spurrier returned as head coach of the Gators in 1990.
Sometimes, the best part about leaving home is you get to come back again.
If Milton progresses through the coaching ranks like I believe he will, he, too, will triumphantly return to his alma mater someday. After all, he has the tremendous opportunity of beginning his coaching career working in the best conference in college football for the best offensive coach in college football (sorry, Lincoln Riley.)
“I am blessed to be able to learn under Coach Heup and his staff,” Milton says. “I am going to be sponge and soak up as much knowledge as I possibly can.”
In reality, Milton has already served as a de facto assistant to Heupel after he suffered that horrific knee injury at the end of the 2018 season. As he spent two years recovering and rehabbing, Milton tutored then-UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel about the ins and outs of Heupel’s hyperspeed offense.
In three seasons at UCF, Heupel’s offenses were ranked fifth, second and second in the country. Heupel then took over an awful program at Tennessee that the previous year only won three games and had the 102nd-ranked offense. Heupel instantly turned the Vols, who led the nation in total offense and scoring last season, into one of the most explosive teams in college football.
“McKenzie represents everything that is great about college football,” Heupel said after hiring Milton. “His perseverance, determination and leadership are attributes that made him successful as a player and will no doubt translate to him being an outstanding future coach. He’s always been a student of the game and understands the why behind what we do.”
This is why I say Knight Nation should not fret about Milton beginning his coaching career elsewhere.
Mark my words, he will be back someday as the head coach of UCF.
In the meantime, UCF fans have not one but two college football programs they can cheer for now.
In fact, I believe we need to write another verse of Tennessee’s famous fight song — Rocky Top — to include the program’s UCF roots.
“Here we are up on ol’ Rocky Top, Where the Vols are reaching new heights. Danny, Heup and KZ are putting the fizz in our soda pop,Just like they did with the Knights.”