UCF Grad’s Life With Knightro

Michael Callahan ’05 ‘09MBA ‘17EdD , center, has served as Knightro’s head coach for more than a decade (photo courtesy of Chris Schubert ’92)

By Jenna Marina Lee

ORLANDO, Fla. (Dec. 14, 2017) – When Michael Callahan ’05 ’09MBA ’17EdD graduates this weekend with his third degree from UCF – a doctorate in higher educational leadership – those in the audience at CFE Arena likely won’t notice any difference between him and the others receiving their diplomas.

And that’s exactly what he has been accustomed to in his double life as Knightro’s head coach and a former mascot.

“You walk out of the tunnel on game day, and people are screaming Knightro. I walk into a building and people ignore me. It’s night and day difference,” Callahan said. “When you get that much attention, I have seen through this program that one individual has the ability to make change if they want to.”

Before his senior year of high school, the Massachusetts native was visiting his grandmother in Leesburg, and she encouraged him to visit “this college that’s in the newspaper.” After touring UCF and learning more about its affordability and academic programs, Callahan knew he had found his school.

His decision led to one of the longest relationships of his life: Knightro.

After seeing the beloved mascot perform at some football games, Callahan thought it looked like a fun job and tried out for the team in the spring. He said he made the cut not because he had the best skillset, but because the coach believed in his dedication.

“He saw something in me from a work ethic standpoint that he just couldn’t turn me away,” Callahan said. “That changed my life for the future.”

Michael Callahan as Knightro in his undergraduate days

Now he’s the one in charge of selecting the talent and team that brings Knightro to life.

He has had to juggle his career as the director of information systems with the Burnett Honors College; his personal life as a husband and father of three (including 3-year-old twins!); and years of classes and coursework in his pursuit of master’s and doctoral degrees.

But he’s been showing up every day, without fail, for the last 12 years – ever since UCF’s spirit program head coach Linda Gooch ’85 asked him to come say a few inspirational words to the team and offer some advice. When he showed up to practice, she introduced him to the group as Knightro’s new head coach.

“That’s when it hit me, ‘Huh, I’ve taken on a coaching responsibility,’” he said.

Gooch laughed playfully: “I have my ways.”

In her defense, she knew he was the man for the job. Gooch said one of the most challenging aspects of serving as Knightro’s head coach is finding the right team of student performers.

“The interesting thing about selecting a mascot is if you were in a room with them, you might pick out the guy who is the cut up or who seems really funny. But a lot of these kids are reserved and quiet in person. And then you put that head on them, and they transform. He’s able to see those qualities that we need,” she said. “His true gift is empowering the people who are part of the program to be able to work together as a team. It is truly a labor of love for him, no question about it.”

Their weekly routine consists of two practices a week. They work on skits for game day and practice flag waving, his walk and his signature. They discuss scheduling for the most popular guy on campus. And over the years, they’ve had to implement social media strategies or learn the latest dance crazes.

On game days, in addition to critiquing the student’s performances, Callahan is in charge of maintaining Knightro’s minute-by-minute schedule from tailgate appearances to his on-field antics.

“During tryouts, the first thing I preface to everyone, when you think about it logically with other sports it makes sense: the football team plays for three hours on Saturday, but how much time do they spend in the weight room and practice and video and everything else?” he said. “This is no different than any other sport. You have meetings. You have to do costume repair and practice and planning. You will spend more time outside of costume to get ready for that one-hour event or game day.”

While it is exciting to be part of the game day atmosphere and athletics’ daily life, Callahan said his favorite aspect of the job has always been the community involvement.

Gooch recalled that when he was a student, Callahan made a personal goal to log 100 events in the community in one year in addition to his responsibilities and duties at athletic events.

“When you think about it, you’re basically doing an event every three days,” she said. “He was an awesome guy. So dedicated and really helped us to develop the program as a mascot himself.”

His longstanding history of love and commitment to Knightro has even resulted in a children’s book called “Hello, Knightro!” which was published in 2013. Callahan credits his wife, fellow alumna Lauren, for making the book a reality.

Michael and his wife, Lauren, wrote the children’s book “Hello, Knightro!”

“Everybody who is a UCF fan that sees it thinks it’s the coolest thing out there. It’s a good feeling to know you’re touching people in the community and making a positive change. Hopefully in a few years the children who grew up reading the book will want to come here,” he said.

Perhaps some future Knightros will be among those children. For Callahan, that’s what it all comes back to – the students.

“Working with all the students is a great reward, and I’m only able to do it because of what UCF has done for me,” Callahan said. “It’s my way of saying thank you.”

UCF Students with Disabilities Move into Dorms and Experience College in New Pilot Program

One teacher said Amanda Carbonneau would never graduate high school. Now, she’s a freshman at UCF.

AmandaCarbonneau
Amanda Carbonneau (center) holds the door open for her mother, Janet (left),
and sister, Jordan, as they help move her into her UCF dorm.
(PHOTO: Sarah Espedido, Orlando Sentinel)

By Gabrielle Russon
Education Reporter, Orlando Sentinel

Amanda Carbonneau’s new student ID lanyard hung from her neck, a proud symbol of her freshman status.

Two hours before her first class Monday, she mentioned the hip-hop class at the gym she wants to try. She had already discovered how delicious school food can be and stumbled upon Knightro the UCF mascot, good material for a Facebook post.

This is what life is like moving on campus for Carbonneau, a pioneer at the University of Central Florida. She is one of six students enrolled in a test program aimed at making higher education more accessible for those with intellectual disabilities.

The program is debuting at a time when there has been a greater focus on helping disabled students get the necessary education to find good jobs.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who has a son with Down syndrome, has pushed for the state to devote more resources to the issue. Although Gov. Rick Scott vetoed money for a statewide center for students with disabilities, UCF moved forward with its previously planned small test.

“We need to get the word out. This is an option,” said Debra Hart at the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“Students [with disabilities] can — and do — go to college,” added Hart, who advised UCF with the pilot.

Carbonneau now lives in a dorm room with a view overlooking a lake and the marching-band practice fields. The decorating process went fast: the turquoise comforter in place, her quilt made from old soccer T-shirts up and the heart lights strung up over her bed.

“It feels like home,” said Carbonneau, 21.

Growing up, Carbonneau took therapy to learn how to hold a pencil and improve her speech. She reads on a fourth-grade level.

“Amanda has really struggled with school her whole life,” said her mother, Janet, a UCF alum who met her husband at college in the 1980s. “She is one of the kids who in the public-school system falls through the cracks. She’s not severely handicapped. She’s not autistic. She doesn’t really have a diagnosis. She’s not Down syndrome. … She just has some learning issues.”

At one school, her teacher said Carbonneau would never graduate from high school. Her mother switched schools.

Janet and Guy Carbonneau wanted a normal life for their daughter, who liked roller coasters, played soccer, baby-sat, earned her drivers license and graduated in 2013 from what is now known as Willow Schools.

“Nothing makes her fearful. She just says, ‘I’m going to try,'” said her former Principal Carla Brandt. “You can just tell she wants to go into this world. Once she finds her place, her niche, she will just thrive.”

Her family, which lives 20 minutes away in Winter Springs, moved her in last week, battling a rainstorm. They didn’t want to miss a preseason NFL game, which only increased the urgency to get Carbonneau’s TV working.

“We love Amanda,” wrote her older sister, Jordan, on a white board on move-in day.

This semester, Carbonneau will take two classes, one on college skills and another on childhood education. She will get paired with other UCF students to help her adjust to school and campus social life.

Carbonneau and the other five students are not degree-seeking, so they will not get letter grades for their classes. They didn’t need high test scores or grades to gain admittance either.

The university is still working on the details, such as whether they will receive certificates or a special degree, said Adam Meyer, director of UCF’s Student Accessibility Services.

“We know at the state level we need to have those conversations,” Meyer said.

What makes UCF’s program unique is the buy-in, from top to bottom, Hart said.

For instance, Provost Dale Whittaker has touted the program to UCF leaders, and professors who support Carbonneau in their classes will adjust assignments so they are appropriate for her.

It also stands out because the majority of university programs don’t allow disabled students to live on campus, Hart said, amid concerns the students are exposed to sex and alcohol and other typical college issues.

Hart said she believes the UCF program is “very robust and rich for the students.”

“They want an authentic college experience, meaning it’s the real deal,” she said.

In a cheerful tone, Carbonneau listed off her plans for school: maybe join a club, meet new friends, go to the football games land a job at a university day care because she likes children.

Who knows? Maybe she will meet a nice boyfriend in college.

“I’m excited for that, too,” she said.

This story appeared in an Aug. 24, 2015, edition of the Orlando Sentinel online. It has been slightly edited in accordance with alumni association style guidelines. See original article.

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UCF Today

Equestrian Club at UCF Expands Outside of Stables

UCF's Hunt Seat member Alex Sipos rode to third place in an Intermediate Fences class at a UCF horse show on March 14. (Photo: Courtesy of Cy Cyr/Central Florida Future)
UCF’s Hunt Seat member Alex Sipos rode to third place in an Intermediate Fences class at a
UCF horse show on March 14. (Photo: Courtesy of Cy Cyr/Central Florida Future)

By Noelle Campbell
Digital Producer, Central Florida Future

What’s a Knight without his horse?

The Equestrian Club at UCF knows that statement all too well. It brings together students of all levels, who have a passion for horses, to participate in monthly competitions that span from Savannah, Ga., to Miami, Fla.

In the National Reigning Horse Association Collegiate Riding Championships on June 27, Hunt Seat rider Morgan Sykes proved to be good on his horse. He finished second in the nation, just a half point behind the national champion.

The title is a big leap from the club’s inaugural year when it boasted only four members.

Today, there are more than 50 members participating in one non-competitive and two competitive teams within the club. The competitive side of the club is divided into two parts: Hunt Seat and Western.

Hunt Seat competes in four divisions: walking, trotting, cantering and over fences, where riders must complete a course in the correct order and positioning.

“You’re judged in Hunt Seat on the way you perform with the horse — on how you ride as a rider, how correct you are and how effective you are in your positions as a rider,” explains Josie Graham, club treasurer and Hunt Seat captain.

For fairness’ sake, the names of competing horses are drawn from a hat and assigned to a rider, who only has about five minutes with the horse before competing.

“You have this horse and you have to adapt yourself to this horse, and it really makes you into an effective rider,” Graham says.

Western team members compete in Western pleasure horsemanship and reining. Like Hunt Seat, competitors rely on a random draw for their horses.

The horses could be donated to the show for the day by volunteers or belong to the schools the at which the team competes.

The Western team is available to anyone from beginners to the open class, who are allowed to show in the reining class. Reining incorporates Western-styled patterns, spins and sliding stops into its horsemanship.

But competing isn’t the only thing on riders’ minds. Since its founding, the club has taken care of Knightro’s partner in crime, Pegasus, who circles the field at every home football game.

The non-competitive team works with the Pegasus Mascot Program, which was created in 2001 by the UCF Alma Mater Society.

The well-being of Pegasus is in the hands of squires, who spend four to five hours volunteering and watching over Pegasus during football games. They also get the mascots ready for appearances and do crowd control, says Jennifer Steele, club president and Pegasus Mascot coordinator. During the 2014-15 football season, there were 10 squires.

All members of the club also volunteer twice per semester with the club’s philanthropies.

One such organization is Heavenly Hooves, a therapeutic riding center in Kissimmee, Fla., for people with disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder. The volunteers assist in many areas of the organization, including helping with lessons, fundraising and cleaning stalls. Amy Lesch, manager of the volunteer services, says the club’s presence at Heavenly Hooves is beneficial because of their passion and experience with horses.

But, whether they’re riding their way to victory or volunteering their time, club members are all about the teamwork.

“At the end of the show, it doesn’t matter how each one of us did because we’re all a team,” says Cara Spirazza, club vice president and captain of the Western team. “I think the teamwork and the team effort of it is the most rewarding part, because we’re all there for each other. We’re all riding together and putting in all the hard work together.”

Learn More

This story was published in a July 27, 2015, edition of the Central Florida Future online. It has been slightly edited in accordance with AP and alumni association style guidelines. See original article. 

Alumni Association Hosts Senior Send-Off for New Graduates

SeniorSend-Off2015

On Wednesday, May 6, the UCF Alumni Association hosted a Senior Send-Off for spring 2015 graduates. The alumni-to-be participated in a champagne toast, decorated graduation caps, pinned their next destination on the alumni map, and wrote inspiring letters to incoming freshmen. One lucky grad even won a complimentary brick on the Knights Terrace. Knightro also made an appearance and posed for pictures with graduates in life-size Instagram frames! SEE PHOTOS

Congratulations, Class of 2015! Go Knights! Charge On!

Local Company Supports UCF’s Athletes with Annual Breakfast Fundraiser

Pat Clark (left), WESH 2 sports anchor, and Belvin Perry, personal-injury attorney and former chief judge in Florida's Ninth Judicial Circuit, joined Knightro and two of UCF's cheerleaders for the annual MPC UCF Touchdown Breakfast on April 29.
Pat Clarke (left), WESH 2 sports anchor, and Belvin Perry, personal-injury attorney and former chief judge in Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit, joined Knightro and UCF Cheerleaders for the annual MPC UCF Touchdown Breakfast on April 29. (Photo: RF Photography)

By Angie Lewis, ’03

Wealth management firm Moreno, Peelen, Pinto & Clark hosted its second MPC UCF Touchdown Breakfast on Wednesday, April 29, to help raise money toward an academic support center for UCF athletes.

Four of the five partners in the firm are UCF alumni, including Christina Pinto, ’86; Lisa-Moreno Haramboure, ’89; Tony Moreno Jr., ’91, who also serves on the UCF Foundation Board of Directors; and Rob Clark, ’94. The firm’s other partner, Scott Peelen, graduated from Michigan State, but he was easily adopted as a member of their UCF family, especially since his daughter, Sarah, is a current UCF student, and he attends all of the football games.

The breakfast took place at the Alfond Inn in Winter Park, with many prominent community figures in attendance — including members of the UCF Board of Trustees, UCF Foundation Board of Directors and UCF Alumni Association Board of Directors, as well as Orange County commissioners, current and former mayors, and one of the forefathers of UCF, Charlie Gray.

Knightro and some of the UCF Cheerleaders kicked off the morning with a cheer, followed by opening remarks from Peelen. WESH 2 Sports Anchor Pat Clarke hosted the remainder of the event, reminiscing about when UCF’s football program first started, and how he used to be able to park his Mustang under the Citrus Bowl stands. He commended then-Coach Gene McDowell on taking the program from Division II to Division I-AA, as well as current Head Coach George O’Leary on his “culture of winning” and “culture of learning.” He concluded with a video showcasing this season’s UCF Football’s key players before introducing Todd Stansbury, UCF’s athletic director, who stepped in to speak for O’Leary, who had to cancel his appearance due to a minor medical issue.

“When George meets with recruits,” Stansbury said, “he only guarantees them one thing — that they’ll graduate. He demands excellence, and that’s what he gets.”

In fact, UCF is No. 3 in the nation for graduating 90 percent of its football players, and is No. 1 in the nation for graduating 95 percent of all its student-athletes combined.

“A lot of people think we’re in the entertainment business,” Stansbury continued. “We’re really in the education business. Our mission is to provide opportunity to young people and develop future leaders. Our job is to use sport to prepare them to compete.”

While there were plenty of laughs, including an anecdote from Clarke about Peelen’s former reporting skills, the morning was really about supporting UCF’s athletes and their academic endeavors. Moreno, Peelen, Pinto & Clark pledged to match gifts up to the first $10,000 raised.

“One of the things we’ve noticed is the quality of the students graduating from UCF,” Moreno Jr. says. “In fact, we just hired another UCF alumnus through the internship program. We’re very proud of the high ranking UCF maintains for graduating athletes.”

Want to help make the academic support center a reality? Contact Chris Huff, associate athletics director of development and executive director of the Golden Knights Club, at [email protected] or 407.823.2205.

See highlights from the MPC UCF Touchdown Breakfast:

Mascot Marathon

Knightro and the Space Coast UCF Alumni Chapter join forces for a run in the sun

Although Knightro was light on his feet, he just wasn't as fast as Florida Tech's Pete the Panther,  who took first place in the Melbourne Music Marathon Weekend's Mascot Marathon.
Although Knightro was light on his feet, he just wasn’t as fast as Florida Tech’s Pete the Panther,
who took first place in the Melbourne Music Marathon Weekend’s Mascot Marathon.

On Saturday, Jan. 31, Knightro joined other mascots, including Eastern Florida State College’s Titan, the Brevard County Manatees’ Manny the Manatee, Astronaut High School’s War Eagle, and Dunkin’ Donuts’ Cuppy and Sprinkles, in a 262-foot run that took place before the start of the Florida Today 5K.

Although Florida Tech’s Pete the Panther took first place in the mascot race, all of the characters, including Knightro, and the UCF Cheerleaders, stayed to cheer on the 5K runners.

In addition, the Space Coast UCF Alumni Chapter hosted a tent for the day’s festivities, providing water and participant support to racers.

More Info

Read the Florida Today story, which includes more photos and videos from the race.

MascotMarathon
PHOTO: Melbourne Music Marathon Weekend