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Catching Up With … Former Georgia Tech Football Coach George O'leary

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Alan Schmadtke
Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel

June 28, 2004 ORLANDO — In another time and place, George O'Leary and Dave Braine carved out their master plan. The Atlantic Coast Conference should grow to 12, Georgia Tech's football coach and athletic director reasoned, and the three additions were fairly clear. Miami, Boston College and Syracuse were the top trio.

"We were already in Virginia," O'Leary said, explaining the absence of Virginia Tech.

Of course, some master plans get to pick their own architects. By the time the ACC expanded last summer, O'Leary was out of the picture and Virginia Tech was in.

When O'Leary gets to his offseason home north of Atlanta next summer, he can give summer neighbors Ralph Friedgen and Frank Beamer a quick crash course in two-division coaching. He also can enlighten them on the rigors of rebuilding from almost nothing.

O'Leary, the man who fell from grace — OK, from Notre Dame — in the backlash of a resume flap, is back in college football at a place where potential and promise are ever-present traits. The University of Central Florida long has been called "a gold mine," at least in gridiron coaching circles.

Now the architect of Georgia Tech's 1990 national championship defense and Tech's late-1990s resurgence is in charge of the mine. And of UCF's gold.

"George is very clear about his goals: He wants a top-10 program," UCF athletic director Steve Orsini said. "He knows what it takes to have a top-10 program, and we have every confidence he's going to get us there."

This is at a school that is 46-44 in nine seasons of Division I-A competition. This is at a school that has never won a conference championship and, indeed, has never gone to a bowl game. UCF is 8-8 in its two seasons in the Mid-American Conference, where it competes as a satellite southern entry against 11 schools from in and around the Midwest: Akron, Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Marshall, Miami-Ohio, Northern Illinois, Ohio, Toledo and Western Michigan.

There are, of course, intangibles that are best quantified when success finally takes hold. Orlando sits in the middle of one of America's most fertile recruiting territories. The Sunshine State produces about 250 Division I-A football signees per year, a number exceeded by only California and Texas nationally, and there were almost 1,000 Floridians on I-A rosters last season. The fact that Florida also is one of the country's most populous states makes the dynamic even more promising.

"Everybody in America comes down here to recruit," O'Leary said, "and that's been happening for a long time. We recruited down here when I was at Tech. We didn't live down here, but we had some success There are enough players in Florida that we can compete against the teams we need to compete against."

Until then, the goal is for the Golden Knights to survive their new coach, survive their new strength coaches and survive the new sets of responsibilities heaped on them. They can't miss meetings, can't skip classes, can't miss workouts — "voluntary" or not.

When the team had its first offseason workout under O'Leary in January, two walk-ons were several minutes late. O'Leary guarded the door. The walk-ons never made it
inside.

"Don't come back," he told them. Then two scholarship players showed up. "Don't be late again," O'Leary said, "or you won't have a scholarship. Spread the word."

Consider it spread. In less than six months, O'Leary is the King of UCF's hill. No one worries about his brief, ignominious history with Notre Dame. UCF staffers are too busy trying to keep up with the white-haired coach, who has lost weight since having a mild heart attack on New Year's Eve and appears to have more energy than some of his players.

"Coach doesn't sleep much," defensive coordinator Lance Thompson said. "He's got too much to do. He's the same now as he always was."

That's exactly what Orsini is counting on. He grew tired of seeing something else in two previous football seasons in Orlando.

It was Orsini who decided in early November that Mike Kruczek, the man who groomed well-known former Knights quarterback Daunte Culpepper in college, was not the coach to carrry UCF through its final season in the MAC and into Conference USA in 2005.

Kruczek's sixth season as a head coach — and his 18th year at UCF — began to unravel when Orsini saw no hope in a group of backup quarterbacks playing for a quarterback guru. It came completely undone when the 2003 season went downhill fast, and when a 3-9 campaign was marred by infighting and eight player suspensions. Kruczek, who had signed a five-year, $1.2 million contract the day before the 2003 season began, was fired with two games left. Orsini eventually agreed to a buyout that topped $500,000.

While negotiating the details of Kruczek's departure, Orsini went hunting for a more seasoned — and more expensive — leader. O'Leary sat at the top of Orsini's wish list from the moment the AD needed a coach. Orsini talked to several other candidates, including Auburn defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, a former UCF assistant under Kruczek, but he never talked contract terms with anyone other than O'Leary.

Orsini got to know O'Leary when they both worked for Braine at Georgia Tech. After taking over as interim head coach for Bill Lewis for the last three games of 1994, O'Leary earned the full-time job and ultimately led the Yellow Jackets to a 52-33 record over seven-plus seasons. Tech participated in five straight bowl games during O'Leary's tenure, which peaked in 1998 (Joe Hamilton, 10-2, co-ACC title, No. 9 ranking) and ended with five consecutive top-25 finishes.

O'Leary left Atlanta in December 2001 for Notre Dame, a five-day dream job that ended after misinformation on his resume was discovered. Six months later, Orsini was hired at UCF to replace as athletic director the popular Steve Sloan.

O'Leary, who later admitted to moments of depression in the aftermath of the high-profile Notre Dame debacle, hooked up in January 2002 with the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. He was hired as an assistant head coach and to tutor the defensive line for head coach Mike Tice, whom he had coached at a New York high school many years ago. O'Leary earned a promotion to defensive coordinator before the 2003 season, and the Vikings improved their scoring defense from 27.6 to 22.1 points per game.

When Orsini first called O'Leary in Minnesota, the coach was curious.

"I didn't think they could afford me," O'Leary said.

Who knew? The highest-paid coach in UCF history was Kruczek, at $240,000 a year. The deal O'Leary struck with Orsini is costing the mid-level I-A school $700,000 — before incentives. The scope of the coach's contract, for an amount that actually is significantly less than what some NFL coordinators are paid, stunned the school community and Orlando.

Undaunted, Orsini was — and is — convinced he got a bargain.

"I don't know what Notre Dame agreed to pay George," Orsini said, "but I think I know. We got the same coach for a lot less than what they were paying."

Controversy, of course, ensued. Some faculty members balked at their school being the next college to give O'Leary a chance to be a head coach. O'Leary lying on his rÈsumÈ, professors said, devalued their university. UCF president John Hitt ignored them. His view: O'Leary serves as an example of how to rise above mistakes and do good work.

The hiring of O'Leary also marked the start of a stunning pirouette for a school not used to spending money. His demands have propelled UCF out of its spendthrift ways and into the spend-free ways of most big-time I-A football schools. Checks are getting written with numbers larger than ever before.

O'Leary's nine assistants will earn more than $1 million this season. Factor in the two new strength coaches, who agreed to leave Georgia Tech for UCF, and the cost for O'Leary and his support staff is more than $2 million per year. That number definitely wouldn't finish last in the much higher-profile and revenue-rich ACC.

Before agreeing to come to Orlando, the coach also cut other important deals with Hitt and Orsini. UCF, which thought it had bitten off a big chunk when it agreed to buy out of the MAC and into Conference USA starting in 2005-06, was just getting started. In came a new football video system. Cost: $700,000. Up went a new video tower between practice fields. Up went a new fence to privatize the practice fields.

Most recently, UCF put a down payment on a $4.5 million, multi-sport indoor practice facility. It should be completed by mid-October. When it is, it will be the only facility of its kind in Florida. Repeat: UCF will have something useful that you couldn't find at Florida, Florida State or Miami.

"We've made the commitment," Orsini said. "George is serious about what he wants to do here, and we're serious about helping him in his commitment with our own commitments."

Meanwhile, during his two years away from the college game, O'Leary kept an eye on its changes. Some he likes, some he doesn't. For instance:

  • The NCAA's recent incentive/disincentive academic initiatives don't sit well with him, particularly when they're paired with entrance standards that make it easier for poor students to get into school. "Why don't you punish the people who are doing the wrong things and recruiting poor students to begin with?" O'Leary asked. "Now we've turned around and made it harder to keep kids in college after making it easier for them to get into school. I mean, I know why they did it: They don't want to be involved in lawsuits. But don't make it easy at the start and turn around and say you want to punish people that don't graduate kids."

  • The BCS's recent decision to push on with its so-called "double-hosting" format was another irritant. "I don't think that's the purpose of what they were trying to get done," O'Leary said, acknowledging that Orlando had a dog on the hunt in the form of the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl. "They didn't want to have to worry about a lot of new things. I think this was one time the NCAA needed to step in and take care of things. But that didn't happen."
  • The botched attempt to get Syracuse into the ACC with Miami and Boston College struck a personal chord with O'Leary, a native of Long Island, N.Y., and a former Syracuse assistant. "Seems to me the object was to get the schools that make the best conference all-around," he said. "I think everybody agreed up front that Syracuse was one of those."
Regardless, O'Leary said, the additions of Virginia Tech and Miami could vault the ACC beyond the SEC and Big 12 as the country's top football conference.

"The ACC was already getting better at the top and getting better at the bottom," O'Leary said. "Now they add two more teams at the top or near the top in Miami and Virginia Tech. The addition of those will make everybody better."

Then there's the issue of Friedgen, O'Leary's former offensive coordinator at Tech and long-time buddy. O'Leary would love to rebuild UCF as quickly as Friedgen rebuilt Maryland, but he's not counting on it. However, he is intrigued by the notion that his pal is asking for patience among the Terrapins.

"Ralph's always been a crier," O'Leary said. "But he's got a great staff, and he's in a situation now where he's replacing, not rebuilding. Hey, he's got it going."

O'Leary needs more than one or two recruiting classes to get it going in Orlando. The Knights need offensive linemen. They need defensive linemen. They need linebackers bigger than 5-11. They need defensive backs with speed.

Right now, they have too few of all of the above. UCF, long a pass-happy team with an occasionally good defense, will run the ball under O'Leary. In 2004, the Knights' ability to stop any team appears suspect.

"To win, we're going to have to be great technicians, because we're undersized in some areas," O'Leary said, in the wake of an intense month of spring practice. "And we're going to have to be in position and have the ability to make plays on both sides of the ball.

"I think we improved (in the spring). We're a better football team now than we were March 19 when we started, but we're not anywhere close to where we need to be, not to compete against the teams we have to compete against."

Those teams include a heavy slate of non-conference opponents. The O'Leary Era at UCF begins Sept. 4 at Wisconsin, continues a week later with his home debut against a West Virginia team that should be ranked in the top 15, and has a non-conference conclusion a week later at Penn State.

"After that," O'Leary cracked, "if I still have a job, we'll start our conference."

Bank on it: O'Leary will have a job. He has some big boosters in his corner, and Hitt has become a vocal O'Leary fan in a very short time.

So, too, has Dick Nunis, chairman of UCF's Board of Trustees. Nunis is a former big-league executive at Walt Disney World and a former football player at Southern California. He was one of the people who sold O'Leary on UCF's commitment to reach the big-time in football. In turn, O'Leary sold Nunis on an Irishman bent on rebuilding his career.

"You've met George," Nunis said. "I think with him in charge of our program, the sky's the limit."

Optimism, always a primary fuel for athletics at UCF, has run amok. At a recent meeting of the athletic department's board of directors, Hitt endorsed a deal struck by a coalition of presidents representing non-BCS schools seeking better access to the BCS.

"All we have to do," Hitt said, "is win our conference and finish in the top 12, and we're guaranteed to go to a BCS game on New Year's Day. Or finish in the top 16 and be ranked ahead of one of the BCS conference champions. If we go where George thinks we can go, those goals are attainable."

Clearly, the Kool-Aid in Orlando is strong. Not surprisingly, the coach is trying to stir in a bit more caution. O'Leary asks for five years to rebuild a program that was limping along after shooting itself in the foot with an absurd number of discipline problems and unexplainably inferior recruiting.

Why five years?

"That's how long my contract is," he said.

   

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