O’Leary remains central figure to success at UCF
ORLANDO, Fla. – There was a certain poetry to UCF receiving its first BCS bid on Dec. 8, when it was invited to the Fiesta Bowl to play Baylor. For exactly 10 years earlier, to the day, the then-Golden Knights made the controversial decision that may have made it all possible.
When UCF hired George O’Leary on Dec. 8, 2003, it was taking a chance on a talented coach whose reputation had been tarnished by a resume-fudging scandal uncovered at Notre Dame two years earlier.
During his introductory press conference, O’Leary described UCF as a "sleeping giant," and the decade since — though dotted with the occasional controversy, including the death of Ereck Plancher in 2008 and an NCAA investigation in 2011 — has seen a program transform from an irrelevant mid-major to a burgeoning program on the cusp of becoming a national power.
There’s certainly more to UCF’s turnaround than the red-faced O’Leary’s presence on the sideline, alone. A growing recruiting base in talent-rich Florida — helped along by two conference changes and a new on-campus stadium — has played a huge role, as has the relative decline of some of the state’s other football powers.
But at the head of all of UCF’s measured level of success is O’Leary, who has all at once managed to redefine his own legacy while putting a once-invisible university on the map.
"Pretty much each year, we have got better in a lot of different areas — support areas, coaching areas, player areas," O’Leary said from his office in Orlando recently. "And that foundation, where it was an empty shell when we started, started looking like a nice building, a solid building, and one that was going to withstand a lot of turmoil. And you grow from there."
There was no questioning O’Leary’s coaching chops. He led Georgia Tech to an ACC championship and won a national coach of the year award, earning him the Notre Dame job, which he held for five days before resigning. After that, he joined Mike Tice in the NFL and had a successful tenure as the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator.
The issue was whether he had the character to be a leader of men in the college ranks again — a question that was easy for former UCF athletic director Steve Orsini to answer, but wasn’t such a slam dunk for the leadership at the blossoming one-time commuter school outside of downtown Orlando.
"I had George at the top of my list, but I wouldn’t say it was a given (that he’d be hired), because there was a lot of selling and convincing of George O’Leary as a candidate for our job, given where he was in his career," said Orsini, whose time as a senior associate director of athletics at Georgia Tech overlapped with O’Leary’s tenure in Atlanta.
"Universities are averse to risk. I think that’s a common trend throughout America, and surely the leadership at the University of Central Florida followed that trend during our discussions."
Eventually, however, Orsini convinced UCF president John Hitt to explore O’Leary, and a group of representatives — including Orsini, Hitt, mega-booster Jerry Roth and former UCF board of trustees chairman Dick Nunis — took a "spontaneous" private flight to Minneapolis, where they met with O’Leary in a remote airport hangar to discuss the job.
"What I saw in George was really an undervalued stock that we kind of had insider information on," Orsini said. "OK, he misrepresented himself on a resume, and I was shocked when I heard that because he never misrepresented himself in the three years I knew him.
“But in my mind, was he the right guy for this very, very difficult, challenging job? Absolutely, because he represented everything that school needed to grow its football program, in my opinion.”
Little did UCF know, O’Leary was initially as skeptical of the job as the university was of him.
"I made it very clear, because I didn’t have to leave Minnesota, that I really wanted to get back to a program that wasn’t just talking — that whatever they spoke about, whatever I talked about, they were listening and they were going to act on it," O’Leary said.
"I had other opportunities to go elsewhere, and I chose to come here because 1. I knew Steve, and 2. I trusted that he was going to do what he said he was going to do."
Eventually the school unanimously voted to hire O’Leary and the embattled coach and the floundering mid-major struck a deal. "In my mind, everyone was compared to George," Orsini said of the coaching search. "George was my standard … and obviously the other candidates, which were good, didn’t meet it."
O’Leary wasn’t kidding when he said he wanted to coach at a program that trusted him, however, and that faith in his vision was immediately put to the test when O’Leary embarked on his first initiative — to blow the whole operation up and start over from square one.
The finesse offense that the program had grown comfortable with under former coach Mike Kruczek was gone, replaced by a tough line-of-scrimmage strategy that pounded opponents into submission. Talented, low-character players and stars with overblown egos were benched in favor of athletes who better represented the culture O’Leary was trying to foster within the locker room.
"Football is the ultimate ‘we’ game," O’Leary said. "It’s not a game that’s a ‘me’ game. There are 11 guys on the field and they’ve pretty much all got to do their job on each and every play to have consistency and to win. So that’s been the culture that we’ve been selling since we’ve been here."
The early returns, of course, were predictable, and UCF went 0-11 in O’Leary’s first season as head coach.
"I remember, I said, ‘George, if you’re going to try to find that rock bottom, where we can start building a foundation that we can sustain a winning program with, go find it fast,’" Orsini said. "It wasn’t about wins in the first year, it was about finding that rock, if there were any rocks, to build that program on. And history proves that the rocks were there."
The first glimpse of what UCF might become came on Sept. 24, 2005, when the Knights beat Marshall, 23-13, at the Citrus Bowl to end what had become a 17-game losing streak, 13 of them under O’Leary. Fans rushed the field and tore down the goal posts — an odd sight to behold at a Week 3 win over a team like the Thundering Herd — but it was symbolic for a program that just wanted to see its efforts bear fruit.
"When we beat Marshall that day, it was more of a relief as far as a coach was concerned," O’Leary said. "Sometimes you need something to say, ‘Hey, we’re on the right path, we’re doing the right things, now let’s move from there.’"
Said Orsini: "That win was the external sign that we were possibly heading in the right direction. Believe me, nobody was drawing any conclusions based on one victory after 17 straight losses, but it truly was a sign of growth, and obviously history has shown that it was the beginning of something special."
UCF went on to go 8-5 that season, the biggest turnaround in college football, reached the Conference USA championship and played in the program’s first bowl game. 2006 marked a bit of a setback for a program still lacking stability, but in 2007, behind a near-record 2,567 rushing yards from Kevin Smith, the Knights won their first conference championship and had the program’s first 10-win season.
"When we started winning double-digit games, I think that’s when you start to say, ‘If we can just get consistent, maintain and increase the level of recruiting, you’ve got a chance to be pretty successful,’ because everything is in place," O’Leary said. "So probably 2007 was when I first said, ‘If we can just continue to grow in this area, we have a chance (to do something special).’"
The see-saw continued in 2008, with UCF dropping to 4-8, but the Knights rebounded with another bowl trip in 2009 and won their first bowl game, over Georgia, after winning Conference USA again in 2010.
The good luck that defined UCF’s season this year was nowhere to be found in 2011, with six of the Knights’ seven losses coming by a touchdown or less, but the dream has been fully realized over the last two seasons, and at 12-1, the little team that tore down the goal posts after a win over Marshall is No. 15 and playing in the BCS — a reality that is a little surprising, even for the team’s coach.
"I thought we had potential to challenge, but I wasn’t sure," O’Leary said. "I thought when they preseason ranked us, probably for what they knew — I think they put us at No. 4 in the conference — they were probably accurate. I thought if things fell right, if the good players played great and the average players played good, then we had a chance to be pretty decent, and things just fell right."
There is still growth to be done, of course, before UCF can truly join the ranks of the national elite, regardless of what happens against Baylor in Glendale.
The bleachers at UCF’s on-campus stadium, opened in 2007, are still only packed according to the quality of the team’s opponent, and with an average alumni age of 40, the 50-year-old university doesn’t have the stable of established, big-spending donors found at other top schools. The program had to return 10,000 of its 17,500 allotment of Fiesta Bowl tickets.
With the BCS being replaced by a new system that leaves the American Athletic Conference without an automatic bid, it will probably be hard for a school like UCF to make a splash like the one the Knights did this year, but to hear O’Leary talk, his program may not be long for the AAC, anyway, if it can keep on winning.
"Eventually, I think this school here is going to be one that will have an opportunity to change geography," O’Leary said. "When? I don’t know. But I think it’s growing at too fast a rate for people to not look at it."
In the meantime?
"We’ve got to sustain where we’re at and continue to strive to get to those (BCS) games," O’Leary said. "It’s not a one-time occurrence, as far as I’m concerned. I think it’s something that once you get there, you get spoiled and you want to get back, and I think sustaining the program and improving the program each and every year is what we need to be doing."
So what does UCF’s decade-long rise to prominence mean for O’Leary’s legacy? Does it mean anything at all?
O’Leary says that the opportunity to clear his name and restore his reputation meant little to him when he took over the UCF program, but it’s hard to deny that the program’s success under his watch has done just that.
"It’s hard to tell how people will formulate their opinions of George O’Leary, but I sure hope if they’re fair in their assessment of that human being, I would think they would say he has redeemed himself," said Orsini, who spent six years as the AD at SMU after leaving UCF in 2006. "And that’s kind of what I was selling to the leadership of the university at the time we were hiring him.
"In our interview, I’ll never forget this, he goes: ‘You realize, I didn’t hurt anyone else? I hurt myself, I misrepresented myself on my resume. It was my dream job,’" Orsini said. "That was his dream job — George O’Leary, Irishman, great football coach going to Notre Dame — and he held himself back from getting that. So I’d like to think our society is a very forgiving society and now they’re evaluating him on his work that he’s done since then."
Time will probably tell soon enough exactly how O’Leary will be remembered. The New York City native will be 68 when UCF kicks off next season against Penn State in Dublin. He will be 71 when his contract, extended again this past April, expires. And though O’Leary says he has no plans to hang up the whistle, eventually, as it does with all coaches, the time will come.
"I’m getting at that age, but I enjoy the competition," O’Leary said. "I always said I’d retire when I don’t think I’m efficient anymore, and I think the game has bypassed me. But I know no better life than coaching. I haven’t done anything else my whole life."
Fortunately for UCF, O’Leary chose to continue to pursue his passion and didn’t allow the Notre Dame fiasco to be his undoing. If nothing else, he will someday retire a beloved man in Orlando, and when he decides to retreat to his Eatonton, Ga., home, along Lake Oconee, for good — whether in two weeks or two years or another decade — he’ll leave as unassumingly as he came, with a program far better for it.
"There won’t be a big announcement, a big party,” he said. “I’ll just come in one day and say, ‘I’ve had enough and let’s move on,’ and that’s it. I’m doing this now because it’s something I enjoy doing, and if it comes to a day where I don’t enjoy it to the point that I should, I’ll move on. I have no problem with that.
"I’ve always said when I go to work two days in a row and I wonder what the hell I’m doing here, it’s time to leave. I’ve had a lot of one days, but never two."