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O'Leary, Knights focused on building UCF program

Nearly four years have slipped past since George O'Leary last won a game as a college head coach.

Yet in conversation, nothing sounds different. He talks about the need for better blocking and tackling, and predicts that with hard work there's a chance for success this season.

That it is the University of Central Florida he's talking about, and not Notre Dame, doesn't seem to have altered his fundamental approach.

Nobody lost more than O'Leary three years ago, when he had to forfeit his dream job with the Fighting Irish over discrepancies on his résumé. And nobody lost more than the 0-11 Golden Knights last season, when UCF clutched tightly to O'Leary's reputation as a builder of programs -- one that has rung true at every stop so far.

No one will ever know if he might have succeeded in meeting expectations in South Bend. At least, given his Irish Catholic background, he might have been given more time to get the job done than Tyrone Willingham received.

At UCF, time isn't an issue. But as for timing, O'Leary's arrival appeared to come at the perfect hour in Orlando.

The program, which begins its 10th year of Division I competition this season, was on its knees when he arrived. UCF went 3-8 in '03 and fired coach Mike Kruczek amid a slew of behavioral and academic problems.

Consistently embarrassing headlines were a weekly occurrence at a time when UCF was investing millions in an indoor practice facility that Florida's big three have reason to envy. The school also was trying to generate momentum for an on-campus stadium.

O'Leary left his job as Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator, and after calling UCF a "sleeping giant'' at his introductory press conference, began the rebuilding job like a man trying to stop a car wreck in progress.

There were some close calls last season: An overtime loss to Ohio, a four-point loss to Ball State, and a disheartening defeat against Northern Illinois after UCF had rallied with 21 fourth-quarter points to take the lead with 45 seconds to play.

But mostly, there was a lot of weeding and planning for the future.

"It was a tough year from the standpoint of transition and, to be honest with you, we just had to find some players,'' said O'Leary, who was forced, by way of dismissal or injury, to use 29 first-year players.

Over the course of the season, 43 different starters were in the lineup, and five freshmen played starting roles between the offensive and defensive lines.

"We took our lumps because of it, but I thought the kids did the two things I asked them to do, which is play hard and finish,'' O'Leary said.

O'Leary could have held out for another chance at a major program after the sting of the Notre Dame episode subsided. A winless season in his first year back in college since 2001 at Georgia Tech raises the question: Did O'Leary know what he was getting himself into?

"I don't want to speak for him, but until you've actually gone through it, you don't know what you're in for. I know this past year for me there were things that happened that made me raise my eyebrows,'' said second-year Duke coach Ted Roof, one of three former assistants to O'Leary now leading D-I schools.

"But I'll tell you this: I don't have any doubt he's gonna build a winner, because he is a winner.''

If O'Leary felt rushed back to college in search of redemption, he didn't opt for any shortcuts in achieving it. Nor did he go blindly into the task at hand simply for the sake of having his own team again.

"I saw it coming the spring before,'' O'Leary said, wincing as he spoke. "I said, 'Whoo.' There was only eight linemen left in the whole program -- offense and defense.''

He scoffs at comparisons to Georgia Tech, which had records of 5-6, 5-6 and 1-7 before he got the interim head coaching job in November of 1994. Tech went 6-5 in his first season, but went 10-2 with a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference title in his fourth year.

"People don't understand. When a guy is fired and a coach comes in, there's usually problems,'' O'Leary said. "We had a lot of problems with discipline and with attitude, and basically, we had to deal with it.

"We were making sure kids go to class and do the right thing -- a lot of stuff that we did was all new to them, to be honest with you. We just basically stuck our ground and took our lumps, but we're much better off because of it this year.''

This year, UCF begins play in Conference USA with 17 returning starters. The Golden Knights take a 15-game losing streak into their Sept. 1 season opener against South Carolina feeling much better than a team in their shoes probably has a right to.

Junior quarterback Steven Moffett completed 64 percent of his passes last season over 10 starts, but had more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine). O'Leary leaves little doubt that his play will determine how far UCF goes this season, but the coach is confident in where UCF is headed.

O'Leary believes most of the hard lumps are in the past. And he's not speaking of himself, but for a team that he still believes has the potential he had anticipated.

"With a campus stadium coming in 2007, there's no question I think it's going to be a great situation for us because everything else is in place,'' O'Leary said. "We're getting the right athletes in that can help us win, and I think if we can get through this season where the only goal they have is to get to a bowl game … if we do things right, I think we have a chance.

"I've seen nothing since I got here to make me believe anything different."

Doug Carlson covers college football for the Tampa Tribune.