UCF head coach O’Leary retires midseason with Knights at 0-8
ORLANDO, Fla. — Following one of the worst starts in program history, George O’Leary is retiring as UCF’s football coach, effective immediately, the school announced Sunday.
It comes a day after the Knights dropped to 0-8 with a 59-10 loss to Houston, the worst home defeat in school history. Quarterbacks coach Danny Barrett has been named interim coach.
The decision ends a tumultuous season marked by a rash of injuries and dismal on-field play that was punctuated by UCF being ranked last in Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense.
"In recent weeks there has been much speculation about the head coaching position at UCF and my future plans. Hopefully this statement clarifies the facts," O’Leary said in a statement. "After the 2013 championship season and Fiesta Bowl win I expressed my intention to retire at that time. After significant discussion with the UCF administration, I reconsidered and agreed to coach two additional seasons, 2014 and 2015. The administration has always been aware of my plan to retire after this season."
O’Leary agreed to a contract extension in 2014 on the heels of a program-best 12-win season and Fiesta Bowl victory.
"In an effort to allow UCF to accelerate its search for my successor and clarify the facts regarding my future plans, I am retiring effective immediately," O’Leary said.
The 69-year-old coach leaves UCF with an 81-68 record. He went 0-11 in his first season at UCF in 2004, but took the Knights to their first-ever bowl appearance in 2005. It was the first of seven bowl berths the under O’Leary.
O’Leary previously stepped down as interim athletic director on Oct. 12.
UCF President John Hitt said in a statement that he expects the new head coach will come from outside of the UCF program.
"This season has been difficult, and I support George’s decision to retire now so our program can begin planning for the future," Hitt said.
Calls for O’Leary to resign as coach ramped up last week after he told an Orlando radio station he would not authorize the school to release a current version of his coaching contract.
That came after the Associated Press and other media outlets requested its release as rumors swirled that there might be a coach-in-waiting clause to name longtime assistant Brent Key as O’Leary’s successor.
Though O’Leary was an employee of UCF’s private athletic department, the school had previously released his and other coach’s contracts. The school officials said last week that because of a legal ruling, it would need authorization from its coaches before releasing current versions. That request was supposed to take place following Saturday’s game.
Coming off back-to-back American Athletic Conference titles, the Knights started the season with a narrow loss to Florida International. Things got worse the following week when starting quarterback Justin Holman left the game early with a broken finger during a lopsided loss at Stanford.
More injuries mounted, then following a one-point loss to FCS-member Furman in Week 3, O’Leary announced the dismissal of all-conference running back Will Stanback for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
It forced the Knights to play more young players, and the margins of defeat began to grow in subsequent losses to South Carolina (31-14), Tulane (45-31), Connecticut (40-13) and Temple (30-14).
Despite this year’s struggles, O’Leary did take the Knights program to new heights during his tenure.
Calling UCF "a sleeping giant" when he was hired in 2004, he succeeded in helping the school achieve national recognition both on and off the field.
Aside from the bowl appearances, he was the driving force in helping UCF secure private funding to build an on-campus stadium that opened in 2007. The football team has also been cited for its academic success and perennially high graduation rate.
But for all his on-field success, O’Leary also endured his share of high-profile controversies during his UCF tenure.
In 2012 UCF was fined, placed on five years’ probation, and given recruiting limitations stemming from a 2011 NCAA investigation that found the football and basketball programs were involved with runners for sports agents and making cash payments to recruits.
O’Leary wasn’t one of several coaches individually reprimanded for the incident, though it did lead to the resignations of then-athletic director Keith Tribble and assistant football coach David Kelly.
That incident came after freshman football player Ereck Plancher collapsed and died after a preseason conditioning drill in 2008.
Several players testified on behalf of Plancher’s parents during a wrongful death lawsuit against UCF Athletic Association in 2011. The players said in the civil trial that the team was doing intense mat drills, and that the coaching staff berated Plancher minutes before he died.
A jury later awarded Plancher’s family a $10 million judgment after finding UCFAA was negligent and failed to do everything possible to save his life.
O’Leary’s actions are also at the heart of a lawsuit UCFAA is currently facing that was brought by former UCF football assistant coach Paul Ferraro. He is suing UCF’s athletic department for breach of contract, alleging that O’Leary engaged in continuous criticism of his work and created a work environment that included bullying, threatening behavior and repeated discriminatory epithets.
O’Leary has denied any wrongdoing.