|Friday, August 30
Getting back in the game
By Kevin Seifert
Special to ESPN.com
The horn blew, and at once players and coaches were sprinting to all corners of the Minnesota Vikings' practice fields. The morning air was still tinged with Nordic winter, even as the calendar showed April and the bustle signaled the start of NFL mini-camp.
A crusty, white-haired coach stood in the middle of it all, for a moment lost in time. As George O'Leary remained planted, instinctively assuming the head coach's supervisory position, Mike Tice looked over with a huge grin.
The head coach for eight years at Georgia Tech and five days at Notre Dame, O'Leary quickly snapped out of it and jogged over to a goalpost, where the Vikings' defensive linemen had gathered and were awaiting his instruction.
"You know what?" O'Leary said, chuckling later at the memory. "I forgot I had a position to coach. I'm just going, 'OK, let's get going,' like I'm the head coach."
Such moments have arisen regularly for O'Leary in the eight months since he joined Tice's staff as the Vikings' assistant head coach and overseer of the team's defensive line. They are regular reminders of "the situation that occurred," O'Leary's description of his December admission of inaccuracies in his resume and subsequent resignation.
The fallout sent him hurtling all the way to the land of 10,000 Lakes and second chances, accepting the only job offer he considered during those dark winter days. O'Leary coached Tice at Central Islip (N.Y.) High School in the 1970's, and he was the first potential assistant the new Vikings' coach contacted after being hired in January.
O'Leary has reintroduced himself to reality since then -- going grocery shopping for the first time in 35 years, speaking often and openly about his fall from grace and biding his time until his phone rings again. In the meantime, he has busied himself with rebuilding a defensive line that was one of the NFL's worst in 2001 and providing counsel for Tice, a first-time head coach.
"I prefer to make decisions rather than suggestions," O'Leary said recently. He is aware that his admissions heightened sensitivity to resume integrity around the country, but said he does not believe it will hamper his return to the college head-coaching ranks.
"If you do a good job where you are, people will find you," he said. "I think people look at you for what you've accomplished on the field in the profession, more so than what people write about. The proof is always in the pudding. It's what you've accomplished more than anything else."
Given the scrutiny a college athletics director will face should one consider O'Leary for a head coaching job, some believe his best opportunity could come in the NFL after paying a penance. The Detroit Lions, for example, hired Gary Moeller as their head coach in 2000, six years after he stepped down from Michigan amid scandal.
Tice, however, said he believes O'Leary will be back at the helm of a major college program by 2003. He points to the way his mentor has put aside his pride and earned praise from fellow Vikings coaches and players for returning to the trenches.
"At this time next year, he won't be working in this office," Tice said. "There's no way."
The Tice that binds
O'Leary had spoken to almost no one as he sat in the basement of his Georgia lake home, sulking and wondering what he would do next after admitting he had earned neither a letter at the University of New Hampshire nor received a master's degree from New York University. He had claimed both on an information form he filled out as an assistant at Syracuse in 1980 -- "to puff my bio," he admitted later -- and the information had remained in his press guide biography at Georgia Tech.
When O'Leary took the call, however, Tice knew there was hope. He asked O'Leary if he wanted to return to coaching, and told him there would be an opening on his Vikings staff if McCombs hired him.
"So when Mr. McCombs named me the head coach," Tice said, "I called George and asked him if he was in. He said, 'I'm in.'''
O'Leary flew to the Twin Cities the next day and signed a contract. He spoke informally with McCombs and team president Gary Woods but was never asked to provide background or otherwise explain the inaccuracies that cost him his job at Notre Dame.
"That was not an issue for us," Woods said. "All of that discussion about his background in the previous situation (was not) an issue for us."
Said Mike Kelly, the Vikings' executive vice president: "Everyone deserves a second chance."
O'Leary had been a successful defensive line coach for the San Diego Chargers from 1992-93, but Tice gave him the opportunity to choose between the line and linebackers with the Vikings. He chose the defensive line, agreed to a salary of about $300,000 -- less than a third of what he would have made at Notre Dame -- and made only one request.
"He never asked me how much he would get paid," Tice said. "He never asked me anything like that. The only thing he asked me is if I had thought about hiring an assistant head coach. I said, 'No, but would you like to be assistant head coach? He said, 'Yeah.' So I said, 'You're the assistant head coach.'"
Ironically, the extra title would serve as a resume booster should the Vikings' defense improve notably this season. The assistant head coach title is ceremonial on many NFL teams, but in Minnesota, Tice has leaned on O'Leary literally every day. Having never been a head coach before at any level, Tice has agonized over such routine issues as practice schedules and workout plans before seeking counsel from O'Leary.
On one notable occasion, O'Leary drew a diagram of the Vikings' two practice fields. He divided them into quadrants and numbered them, showing Tice a method for distributing the wear-and-tear on the grass evenly.
"I think you've got two ears and one mouth for a reason," O'Leary said. "You listen twice as much as you talk. I think the big thing is Mike knows if he has a question, he can come ask me. But I don't like to come out and try to take over. He has a job to do and he's doing it very well. I think the big thing for me this year, because of the situation that occurred, is that I'm with people I know and respect. I understand what they need to get done."
Tice was not the only familiar face awaiting O'Leary in Minnesota. Tice's younger brother, John, is the Vikings' tight end coach. Like Mike Tice, John played high school football for O'Leary and remains fiercely loyal. Linebackers coach Brian Baker, who coached with O'Leary at Georgia Tech from 1987-91, vacated his previous role as the defensive line coach to accommodate O'Leary's arrival.
"George knows I love him," Baker said. "There's certain guys you never have to worry about patting you on the back while they're looking for a soft spot, and vice versa. George knows that he doesn't ever have to worry about me. Ever. If anything, I'm going to cover his back before anybody. He certainly knows he can count on me."
Vikings defensive linemen took to him from the first mini-camp, and in the results-driven world of the NFL, none appear to have taken the "situation that occurred" into serious consideration.
Tackle Chris Hovan called O'Leary's arrival "Notre Dame's loss," and end Lorenzo Bromell said the resume topic "doesn't even interest me."
"The only thing that interests me," Bromell said, "is him coaching me and trying to make me a better player so I can help this team -- and help myself become a better player. That's the only thing that interests me. That whole thing, that was just baloney. That's none of my business, anyway."
Rewriting a wrong
O'Leary stood patiently through the waves of national media members who visited the Vikings' training camp this summer, telling all of them that he remains disappointed but not bitter that he could not keep what he calls his "dream job." He says he does not think he ever got a job because someone thought he had played college football or earned a master's degree.
Most of all, he reminded them he plans to return to head coaching -- with the added advantage of having served among the rank and file.
"I'm energized because I've been a head coach, and head coaches coach coaches," he said. "I'm excited because I'm back to coaching a position. I think it's good, after you've been a head coach for a while, to go back and get back into position coaching. I enjoy coaching, and at times as a head coach you get very frustrated, because you're not dealing with specific stuff on the field all the time.
"Really," he adds, "I'm enjoying this. I really am."
Kevin Seifert is a staff writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune