Building the ‘right way’ remains O’Leary’s goal
Published: Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, July 22, 2009 15:07
Hanging on the wall immediately outside of head football coach George O'Leary's office is a large, rectangular photo of every member of the 2005 UCF football team, the first squad in school history to go to a national bowl game.
Around O'Leary's office, which is decorated in black and gold, are photos and trophies from the 2007 team, arguably the most successful team in school history, the one that clinched the school's first Conference USA Championship.
Those two seasons were the most successful campaigns for the 62-year-old head coach, who is entering his sixth year at the helm of the program. However, those years tell just part of the story of O'Leary's reign at UCF.
It's been five years filled not only with program firsts, but also controversy.
One of the main challenges during O'Leary's time at UCF has been building a consistent, winning football team.
After his first season, in which his 2004 Knights went winless at 0-11, the team has alternated winning and losing seasons, ending with a dismal 4-8 record last season.
"I think consistently, we have to win every year," said O'Leary, who has a career 26-36 record with UCF. "I mean, that's what I expect as a head coach, that's what our assistants expect, and I know our players expect to win the conference Championship every year.
"That's our goal," O'Leary said. "That's the only goal we have — to win the conference championship — because that dictates pretty much what happens with everything else . From what bowl [game] you go to, what happens with your team, and what individual honors that players get."
O'Leary has also had to deal with a whole change of mentality in Orlando. It started with his team moving to Conference USA in 2004.
Then came one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history, when O'Leary led the then winless Knights to their first bowl game appearance, the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl in 2005, becoming the sixth team in NCAA history to go to a bowl game following a winless season.
The final touch was the new on-campus stadium, which opened in 2007, the same year the Knights went 10-4, and captured their first C-USA Championship.
That new mentality molded UCF into a more recognizable program.
"I think we had to change the whole mindset, from facilities to just pretty much every department, as far as to run a Division I football program," O'Leary said. "Each year, I think we have gotten better, and better people [have come] in recruit wise, and I think there is no question the last piece of the puzzle, [being the stadium] has opened up a lot of eyes to the people that are visiting this campus."
It's those new facilities, and Bright House Networks Stadium, that O'Leary says gives UCF an edge over any other program in the state.
"We are at the point now in this program where I don't think we have to take a second seat to anyone, as far as facilities are concerned," he said. "Some have maybe larger stadiums, but when you look at an area as far as efficiency, and player efficiency, I think it's outstanding."
O'Leary was a surprise hire for UCF in 2004. He accepted the job at UCF after spending two seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. He experienced his most career success as the head coach of Georgia Tech, where he served from 1994-2000, and took a program that was 1-7, when he inherited it, to four bowl games from 1997-2000.
O'Leary has been known as a person that can turn around a program, but he has also had controversy plague him throughout his career.
During an NCAA investigation, it was found that Georgia Tech used ineligible players during O'Leary's time at the school, but the blame was placed on the athletic department and not O'Leary.
Then came his infamous resume scandal at Notre Dame, when he resigned only a week after he was announced head coach of the Fighting Irish in 2001, when it was found he lied about his degree and football background.
Finally, his most recent issue dealt with the death of freshman wide receiver Ereck Plancher, who died on March 18, 2008, in a set of conditioning drills.
Despite a third-party investigation by the university, and an array of negativity surrounding O'Leary's methods, the head coach pronounced his innocence in a letter that was published in the Orlando Sentinel.
"Obviously, I wrote the letter that was printed by the Orlando Sentinel, and that's pretty much how I feel about the whole thing," O'Leary said. "There was an agenda set, and some people never come off that agenda, even though the truth was told. Some people just didn't listen."
Looking past the Plancher story, O'Leary's time at UCF has been highlighted with program firsts, and lifting a school that was stuck in the center of the state, putting them on the radar in the national scene. Even on the road, people have been telling him that they are now aware of where UCF is.
"I think there is no question that notoriety throughout the whole country has picked up as far as people knowing where UCF is" O'Leary said. "And they know basically what is going on all over the country. I travel a bunch and I used to be asked, ‘UCF, where you at?' And now they know where UCF is."
The one thing O'Leary continues to try to build at UCF is a sense of tradition. It doesn't have to be a Seminole chop, or tailgating at the swamp, just something unique and simple, like the song "Zombie Nation."
"I'm talking about just the spontaneous, like when you take that song where everybody starts jumping," O'Leary said. "That's something that just happened, and I'm on the school about why we didn't play it as long as we should have been playing it [last season]."
O'Leary is currently in his second-longest tenure as a head coach during his career. Talk has surfaced of the head coach being on the hot seat, and in risk of losing his job, but