Football head coach George O’Leary, who was named UCF's interim athletics director in June, has expressed a strong desire to assume the position full time and step down as football coach at the end of this season, according to two people who have communicated directly with school officials about the situation.
The people spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because the matter was supposed to be private.
The school was prepared to go through a standard national search for its next athletics director after Todd Stansbury departed for Oregon State earlier this year. Plans changed, however, once O’Leary approached President John C. Hitt and other power brokers at UCF with the transition idea. Now the process is on hold as school officials consider the possibility.
Hitt is fiercely loyal to O’Leary, who has built UCF into one of the better football programs outside of a Power 5 conference and led the Knights to a 12-1 season in 2013 including a victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
“No one (on ground level) tracking with the president on this,” one person said.However, there is significant concern among others at UCF about whether the 69-year-old O’Leary, who has no prior experience in athletics administration and has been coaching in either college or the NFL since 1980, is up to the job, particularly with Stansbury and a handful of other senior-level staff members departing in recent weeks, leaving the department short-handed and somewhat in disarray.
This would potentially be a bad time for UCF to have its athletics department in chaos, particularly if the Big 12 decides to expand. Because of its location and large alumni base, UCF is part of a group of teams that constantly comes up in conference realignment speculation.
O’Leary’s tenure has not been without controversy. The UCF Athletic Association was found negligent by a jury in the death of football player Ereck Plancher, who collapsed and died following a conditioning drill supervised by coaches in 2008. The original damages of $10 million were reduced to $200,000 by a Florida Supreme Court earlier this year.
If O’Leary were to become the athletics director, both people with knowledge of the situation said his plan would be to promote offensive coordinator Brent Key to head football coach. Key played under O’Leary at Georgia Tech and has been at UCF as an assistant since 2005.
The Knights open their season Thursday against FIU. O’Leary was not made immediately available for comment by a UCF spokesperson.