O'Leary gives UCF instant credibility

The question was sincere, if not just a tad ignorant.

George O'Leary looked at his questioner during the recent Mid-American Conference preseason football media gathering, as if to make sure he heard it right, then graciously answered anyway.

The question had to do with how O'Leary had been occupying himself the past few years. As if his hiring, then un-hiring, at Notre Dame had left him banished to a netherland of former coaches, where the days are spent pulling weeds and the nights are filled with Gunsmoke reruns.

For sure, life changed after the Fighting Irish revoked O'Leary's dream job following the discovery of discrepancies in his reacute;sumeacute;, but he didn't exactly exist in a vacuum after that major disappointment in his life.

Soon enough, O'Leary hopes, the "whatever-happened-to George" questions will become even sillier.

After two years in relative obscurity as defensive line coach, then defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings, O'Leary is back in college football and back to being a head coach. While not exactly Notre Dame, the University of Central Florida (UCF, as the school wants to be known) might be an ideal place for his rebirth.

The Knights, who toil in the shadow of Florida's Big Three universities, are seeking a rebirth of their own, pouring money into the program at a rate that would make Walt Disney proud.

Last year, UCF opened its $7 million football headquarters, which include a 10,000-square foot strength and conditioning center. Next year, its first as a member of the Conference USA, UCF will become the only school in Florida with an indoor practice facility, something that's sure to raise an eyebrow in Gainesville, Tallahassee and Miami.

One of the missing pieces was a coach with the name recognition and track record of getting results against major college competition. O'Leary offered that and another important attribute: availability.

While aspiring to great heights, UCF wasn't in position to lure a name coach from a more established program, heavy purse, or not.

""I think that was a good steal when they got him down there," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose team often struggled against Georgia Tech during O'Leary's seven seasons in Atlanta.

"I think as time goes by, you're going to see Central Florida pick it up. I think George O'Leary can do nothing but help the situation, because he's a veteran, he's been in professional football, he's been in college football, he's been a head coach, he's been a coordinator and he's been down in the South long enough to learn where it's at in recruiting."

O'Leary overcame the inherent recruiting disadvantages at Georgia Tech ("Son, how does freshman calculus grab you?") to guide the Yellow Jackets to five consecutive bowl games. He never beat FSU, but Tech did score three consecutive victories over rival Georgia, which more than sufficed around Atlanta.

Tech shared the Atlantic Coast Conference title with FSU in 1998 and O'Leary was named Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year in 2000.

He acknowledges some similar recruiting obstacles UCF will have to manage well before the Knights can distinguish themselves.

"We're at a process of getting players in here that we need to get in that can get after the teams we need to get after if we want any recognition nationally, which is why we're here," O'Leary said.

UCF (enrollment: 44,000) became a Division-I school in '96, lately experiencing growing pains through various off-field scandals that left some boosters to wonder, "What price football prominence?"

O'Leary, who turns 58 on Tuesday, brings the promise of prominence without compromise. He flavors his tough-minded approach with enough dry wit to make his players laugh, just when they might be ready for a good cry.

"He made it clear: this is my system, this is the way we're going to do it and you're in or you're out," UCF senior tailback Alex Haynes said of O'Leary's impact since arriving in January.

""He came in, laid the rules out and said, 'This is how I do it. I've been winning this way and either you're with me or you're out.'"

"Check our grades, check how we played in spring, check the attendance at summer workouts. I would say he's had a positive impact already," added senior safety Atari Bigby. "We're more like a family and that's going to be good for us."

The indoctrination won't be easy. UCF, after finishing 3-9 a year ago, opens at Wisconsin, West Virginia and at Penn State this season.

Not exactly the kind of welcome wagon O'Leary might have preferred. Then again, every challenge has its lessons. Few know better than O'Leary.

"I hope our fans have high expectations. That's what Division I fans are supposed to be like," he said. "I hope they understand we're in a process where coaching takes over when the talent is equal.

"I'm hoping we get a lot of fans go to Wisconsin and Penn State and see what it's like there. That's where we want to be in three years."

By then, maybe, everybody will know what O'Leary has been up to.

For the time being, there is something to savor in contrast to the dark moments following his South Bend disappointment: George O'Leary is a college football coach once more and Irish eyes -- his, at least -- are smiling again.

Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.