The tale was being told in his eyes as they drooped lower than usual and seemed to wander around the room quietly during the last few weeks. His voice began to lightly crack as his words slowly lost uniform. The “we” he once spoke so highly of gradually turned into “you” and “they” from time to time.
The eight losses were beginning to take a toll on the 69-year-old George O’Leary. He was slowly being defeated by a tumultuous season and, even though he said he didn’t pay attention to outside chatter, the noise became louder than ever.
During the final moments on his weekly TV show Sunday, he stared aimlessly and hopelessly into the distance. Just hours later, the man who put the UCF football program on the map and made an impact on so many players, coaches and fans had retired after 47 years of coaching.
O’Leary’s legacy at UCF had already been cemented; his accomplishments set in stone in the form of a Fiesta Bowl trophy, four conference championships and seven bowl appearances during his 12-year tenure.
The O’Leary era at UCF had come to an end.
“I didn’t think it was actually happening,” redshirt senior H-back Joseph Puopolo said. “When he came in and told us, we were all just still kind of in shock, and we were just really quiet. We didn’t really know how to react.”
The team had a meeting scheduled Sunday at 5:30 p.m., when O’Leary would officially and formally announce his retirement to his team. But social media and text alerts from the ESPN app beat him to the punch, and his team already knew what was happening.
Tears fell and emotions lingered during the announcement. But the final thing O’Leary said to his players was that they needed to get their degrees.
“When you think about it, it lets you know in the back of his head, in the midst of the storm, in the midst of everything that’s going on, he still is focused on our education, and that’s just that important to him,” redshirt senior H-back Cedric Thompson said. “That’s all he harps on is get our degree, get our degree, get our degree. And even in his last moments, he’s still saying the same thing, so it just lets you know how important that is to him and how important we are to him.”
The Central Islip, New York, native had always emphasized academics to his players because he knew the chance was small to make it into the NFL, although he sent numerous players there, including 16 who were drafted. Even if players did make the jump, their playing time would someday end, and a degree was a safe bet to fall back on.
“I’m a firm believer in academics, that they do that, they do well,” O’Leary told the Future in July. “I think the growth of the school is major important as far as I’m concerned. Not just locally, but nationally as far as keeping us competitive academically [and] athletically.”
In the classroom, his team had the highest graduation success rate among all public NCAA Division I FBS schools last year with a 95 percent graduate rate. It was fifth among all FBS schools in the nation, falling short to private institutions Northwestern, Duke, Stanford and Notre Dame.
“At the end of the day, the goal is to get our degree and to graduate. So he definitely cares about our future rather than just our four years here,” redshirt senior left guard Tarik Cook said. “He cares about our life and what we’ve got going ahead of us in the future.”
On the field, O’Leary led UCF to two Conference USA championships (2007 and 2010), two American Athletic Conference championships (2013 and 2014) and seven bowl games.
“I have nothing but respect and admiration for him,” UConn head football coach and creator of the ‘Civil Conflict’ rivalry Bob Diaco said in the AAC’s weekly coaches’ teleconference on Monday. “… His teams are never in trouble. His players are good people; they graduate, they’re upstanding citizens. … He flat out built the program from nothing into a champion and into a household name.”
O’Leary is the second-most winningest coach in UCF history behind Gene McDowell with an 81-68 record. He led the team to multiple Associated Press Top 25 Poll rankings, including a No. 10 spot after the team’s 2014 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor — the highest in school history.
“He’s done a tremendous job of putting this university on the map,” interim head football coach Danny Barrett said.
The first BCS-bowl win in program history saw the No. 15 Knights upset No. 6 Baylor, 52-42, in the highest-scoring Fiesta Bowl in history. It went down as the biggest upset in BCS Bowl history.
It was also a moment that the mostly stern O’Leary let his guard down — making it a lot of players’ favorite memory of him.
“I can remember like yesterday in the locker room getting presented the trophy and the excitement on his face and the expressions that he showed,” Thompson said. “It was really refreshing seeing the excitement on his face after all of our bowl wins and conference championship wins, because you don’t really see that very often.”
Former UCF guard Justin McCray, who has played eight NFL preseason games, said O’Leary would let his guard down some Friday mornings when he beat his team onto the practice field to play catch with the equipment staff.
“I always thought that was cool, and that was funny to me,” McCray said. “I can’t say enough good about coach O’Leary. … He’s just a great coach, great guy, great person. I wish nothing but the best for him.”
College football took note of O’Leary’s accomplishments.
“The American Athletic Conference will always owe a debt of gratitude to George O’Leary, who helped our conference gain immediate credibility with UCF’s Fiesta Bowl championship in our first year,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said in a statement. “George has enjoyed a wonderful career and established himself as one of the best coaches in college football — one who created unprecedented success on and off the field at UCF. His commitment to academic excellence was every bit as impressive as his numerous conference and bowl championships. We all wish him success in his retirement.”
Navy head football coach Ken Niumatalolo said in the teleconference: “He’s a man with a wealth of knowledge. He’s done a lot for college football. He’s experienced tremendous success everywhere he’s been. He’s inspired a lot of young coaches, mentored a lot of players. It’s sad just from a standpoint of a great legendary coach like that moving on.”
Said Houston head football coach Tom Herman in the teleconference, “The career that he had is kind of what speaks for itself and what he was able to do there for his 12 years at Central Florida is certainly going to be a tough act to follow.”
Inside the program, O’Leary was known for giving hardworking players a chance to compete on the college gridiron. After receiving no looks from any college, middle linebacker Domenic Spencer was given that opportunity. For that, he’s forever grateful.
“I was ready to just get a job and just go to community college. I was giving football up,” Spencer said. “Without him, none of that would have happened.
“We just have to finish these last four games and win in his honor because we know he’s going to be watching.”
The foundation of the UCF football program — something O’Leary laid down during his 149 games as the head coach — will not change, players said. And his legacy will live on in player’s hearts for the rest of their lives.
“The thing I’ll remember about him most is he taught me how to be a man,” redshirt junior defensive end Luke Adams said. “He taught me how to grow up. … I’d say I was a boy when I came in, but now I’m a man.”
“He taught me how to face adversity when times get tough, and that’s something I’ll be able to take the rest of my life.”
When O’Leary began his UCF career in 2004, he was already a highly touted coach. Separated by a two-year stint with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers, he had spent 12 years at Georgia Tech, including the final seven as the head coach.
He won an NCAA Division I-A National Championship in 1990 with the Yellow Jackets in a 45-21 win over Nebraska in Orlando’s Citrus Bowl. He was twice named the Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year (1998 and 2000). In 2002, he helped the Minnesota Vikings’ defense improve as the team’s defensive line coach.
Diaco said that for his accomplishments, O’Leary deserves a “ticker-tape parade” down University Boulevard.
He began an era in 2004 with the Golden Knights by leading young men to become employable adults, and although he vacated the head coaching position, he will always remain UCF football program’s Knight in shining armor.
Although the Future could not reach O’Leary for comment after his retirement, he said in a statement: “I again want to thank my coaches, players and loyal supporters for their efforts on this journey from the MAC to the AAC. Godspeed and go Knights.”
Jarrod Heil is the Sports Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow him on Twitter at @JarrodHeil or email him at JarrodH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.