What Lies Beneath
George O’Leary seems to be the classic curmudgeon. But that’s just one side of UCF’s football coach. We found another.
George O’Leary at Bright House Networks Stadium.
Photo by Roberto Gonzalez
George O’Leary circles from behind his desk, extends his bandaged right hand and offers a firm handshake. He is in pain, but he won’t show it. Later, he pulls the bandage back to reveal what is beneath: a ghastly gash, courtesy of a spring football sideline mishap.
Stripping away a bandage and showing the wound is one thing. But peeling back the layer that covers his prickly persona and allowing people to see what’s beneath is quite another. O’Leary has no interest in doing the latter; he simply doesn’t care if folks—University of Central Florida football fans included—see the real him.
It is why, as he enters his 11th season as the Knights’ head coach, few fans have any idea what the university’s most visible face is really like. What they mostly go by are O’Leary’s crotchety news conferences, often saturated with sarcasm—sometimes even directed at UCF fans. They see the brusque, no-nonsense approach, the lumbering gait of a man who turns 68 on August 17 and the stubborn adherence to his old-school mindset.
Naturally, they think that is him.
It is, but it isn’t.What it is, O’Leary says—not in his own defense, but rather in explanation—“is business. When it comes to football, it’s business.”
And just like any business, there are satisfied customers, and there are not.
O’Leary studies the kicking game during UCF’s spring practice.
It didn’t help the customer base when O’Leary’s first season at UCF, back when his reputation had the fresh stain of an embarrassing résumé scandal, resulted in what he wryly refers to now as “the perfect season”—a perfect 0-11 record. What followed was a rollercoaster ride of winning seasons and losing seasons … until 2013, when the Knights finished 12-1 with a first-ever BCS bowl bid. They defeated Big 12 Champion Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and a few months later, UCF’s Blake Bortles became the first quarterback taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, and the third player taken overall.
These days, the line of George O’Leary critics is a lot shorter. In the minds of many, he has finally arrived. And he’s not leaving. UCF just extended O’Leary’s contract four more years, at $2 million-plus annually, which will keep him on the sidelines into his 70s.
Maybe by then, UCF fans will have gotten to know him better.
Then again, maybe not.
* * *
Those close to O’Leary are passionately loyal, insisting that beneath the crustiness is a man of compassion and caring who is fiercely committed to his players beyond Xs and Os. They tell of a man who will fly roundtrip out-of-state in one day just to help a church; who buys expensive foursomes to charity golf events even though he knows he can’t attend; who buys season tickets for other UCF sports and then, when he shows up and finds someone sitting in his seats, will quietly go find another place to watch; who entertains a parade of players in his office and listens to their myriad family problems, offering fatherly counsel and support; who refuses to delegate his players’ academics to anyone else, because he knows that’s where the real success of what he does lies.
“He does so much good, he’s so kind, that it drives me crazy he won’t let people see that part of him,” says Manny Messeguer, special assistant to O’Leary. He has been with O’Leary since the latter set foot on UCF’s campus in 2004 and has worked with the football team for 32 years, going back to when the campus had six buildings and dirt roads. He has seen it all, worked with them all.
“Coach O’Leary is the best,” Messeguer says. “Look, I’m 72. I don’t have to work. I’m not doing this for the money. I do it because I love the guy. He is the only reason why I keep doing this. The day he walks out the door, I’ll be right behind him. If you don’t know Coach O’Leary, you wouldn’t understand. He is the most gentle, compassionate guy I’ve ever met ... away from the football field.”
And that’s the point.
What we see—what O’Leary allows us to see—is all football and thus all business. And even then he doesn’t reveal much. It’s a reason why, during those up and down years, fan message boards were filled with frustration and vitriol.
O’Leary hoists the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl trophy after UCF’s stunning 52-42 victory over No. 6 Baylor last January.
O’Leary leans back in his office chair and folds his hands behind his head.
“Faceless Internet weasels,” he says. “That’s what I call them. They’re all brave behind a fictitious name. They talk a big game, but they don’t back it up. I can always pick out who those people are, because when you meet them they don’t look you in the eye. They look down. What is it they call people like that? Haters.”
He shrugs, then slips into his deadpan humor.
“Sometimes, I’ll see my wife after a game and she’ll ask me, ‘Did you change your name? Because you were called a lot of different things in the elevator on the way down.’ But my wife and children understand that it doesn’t bother Dad. When they know that, it doesn’t bother them either.
“I know who I am, and I’m comfortable with that.”
But who is he?
* * *
O’Leary first met his wife at the University of New Hampshire, where both were physical education majors.
“He was a typical college guy,” Sharon O’Leary says. “Was he wild and crazy? No. He had ambition and he knew what he wanted to do, which was what my dad liked about him.”
Almost a half-century later, she doesn’t remember how he proposed; just that it seemed early on that they were similar and destined to marry—despite her being from New England and a Boston Red Sox and Bruins fan, and him being from Long Island and a New York Yankees and Rangers fan. It’s that New York in him, unmistakable when he talks, that she sometimes cringes at—the sarcasm, the deadpan wit, the bluntness.
Even after all these years, Sharon still finds herself telling him, “George, you shouldn’t say that. People don’t know how to take you.”
She is a woman with an easy laugh, but on this topic she sighs.
“He really is a funny guy. George can get goofy. But I find that people are afraid around him.”
O'Leary with three of his grandchildren before the big game.
COURTESY OF O’LEARY FAMILY
She talks of the father who would take his young family to the beach, playing bocce ball with the children. When they got older, he’d take them to the video store, where, Sharon says, “He’d find the one video nobody was renting and want to rent that one.
And when the kids were at that age where they were embarrassed to be with their parents, George would do funny things, weird things. He’d sing songs in the store. If they were embarrassed before, they’d be real embarrassed now.”
Usually, though, the humor is bone dry. “That’s New York humor,” the coach says. “You really have to be from up there to understand that sarcasm. And you have to have a lot thicker skin.”
Those who know the O’Leary family say the humor comes from his late father—also named George. Once, when one of O’Leary’s sisters in their large Irish Catholic family (eight siblings) was imploring their father to put on a shirt because her boyfriend was coming over, the elder O’Leary finally consented, getting off the couch to go put a shirt on, only to return without his trousers.
But then there was another side of the elder O’Leary that’s also in his son. Says Sharon, “When his dad died, people were coming up to George and his mom, telling them all these stories about what his dad had done for them, stories they’d never heard before. That’s George, too. I’m sure I don’t know the half of what he’s done for people.”
One of his brothers, Tom O’Leary, recalls George as a young high school football coach on central Long Island, working tirelessly to build a football program, graduate his players, and then working the phones to get them scholarships.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’d go by his house on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and there would be George in the basement watching football film on one of those old projectors. I don’t think I’ve known anybody who works harder. It was never about money with him. He even started a lacrosse program in high school and helped a lot of those kids get scholarships.”
Eventually O’Leary got noticed, landing at Syracuse, where he coached the defensive line—and continued to help his players after their college careers were over. “When I was an IT consultant, he was always calling me about his players, even years after they’d graduated, trying to get them jobs,” says Tom O’Leary. “He comes across as a real hard ass, and he is. But there’s a really generous side to him that most people never see.”
* * *
What they see instead is a guy who delivers opinions as if they’re maxims, veritable and verified—vetted by his own take on life and football. In George O’Leary’s world, there is no room for BS, for obfuscation, for phoniness. You’re not going to waste his time, and he won’t waste yours. His line from point A to B is direct and decisive, and he’ll take it even if it means trampling on feelings.
Says Bruce Miller, a former UCF player: “I don’t know if there is a soft side, but he does care.”
Miller, now a fullback with the San Francisco 49ers, says playing for O’Leary was “definitely tough. He runs a demanding program. I tried my best to stay out of his office.”
Miller failed at that only once, during his redshirt freshman season. O’Leary demands that players be present for meetings 15 minutes before they’re scheduled to begin. One morning, Miller awoke late for a 7:30 special teams meeting.
“I was sprinting to get there in time,” Miller says. “I walked in at 7:20, terrified that he was already there.”
“You’re out for the first half,” was all the coach said to Miller, and the player knew exactly what that meant. He was suspended for the first half of UCF’s next game.
“He was tough, no-nonsense,” Miller says. “But later, he called me into his office to talk to me about it, and why he was suspending me. And then he smiled and that was the end of it. When I left, he told me to keep working hard.”
Miller, who graduated in 2011, experienced those up-and-down seasons but says he and his teammates never wavered in their belief in O’Leary’s system. “We lost a lot of tough games, but we were making strides,” he says, noting that the Knights had been elevated to a Division 1-A program only eight years before O’Leary arrived.
Another former player, Jordan McCray, experienced the fruition that was the 12-1 season. “One reason we believed in Coach O’Leary is because of how hard he works,” says McCray, now a Green Bay Packers rookie offensive lineman. “Our dorms were across the street from his office. When we’d come back after home games, maybe one or two in the morning, we’d see his car still there. We’d be like, ‘Damn, he’s still working.’ Sunday, we’d have our team meeting, and he’d have everything broken down, telling us what we did wrong.”
And O’Leary would do so in his blunt, sarcastic style, sparing no one.
“He doesn’t just get on players, he gets on the coaches, too,” McCray says. “He says that if you mess up more than once, it was either coached or it was allowed. So he puts equal pressure on the coaches. He’s hard-nosed. But he’s hard because life is hard.”
To prepare his players for that hard life, McCray says O’Leary obsessively stays on top of their academics.
“His saying is, ‘If you’re screwing up in class, you’re probably going to screw up on the field. If I can’t trust you to go to class, then I can’t trust you on the field.’ Practices were already so hard. But at the end of practice, he’d have a list of people who had missed a class. If you were on that list, you had to run gassers [strenuous sprints]. That was the worst feeling, knowing that at the end of practice your name was going to be on that list. Yeah, it was hard, but you come out better for it.”
That’s the way Tim Green feels. Green first played for O’Leary in high school and then at Syracuse. Today, after an eight-year career with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, he is an attorney and best-selling author.
“For me, one of the luckiest things that ever happened as a 15-year-old kid was playing for George O’Leary,” Green says. “I don’t think I would have ever known the level of dedication and intensity that it really takes to achieve your dreams if not for him. He was relentless in how he’d push his players and himself.”
Green was talented enough to make the Liverpool (N.Y.) High School varsity team as an eighth-grader. The first time the team lost, he sat on the bench and cried.
“I was sobbing, and when I looked up there was Coach O’Leary looking down at me,” he says. “I was horrified. He had that mean George O’Leary look on his face. Then he nodded and said, ‘You know what? That’s good. It’s good that you care that much about winning that it hurts that much.’ Then he walked away. He never said anything else, but it was acceptance, validation of who I was.”
Green says he once played with tendinitis in his foot so swollen and painful that he had to loosen his laces and run on the side of his foot. Why? “Because,” he says, “if you played for George O’Leary, you don’t quit.”
That mindset stayed with him. Green wrote his first book by devoting time to it every night, year after year, often past midnight while going to law school and training for the NFL.
“It was rejected by every publisher,” he says. “My agent finally called and said, ‘Sorry, it’s over.’ Five years of work came to nothing.”
At that point, Green’s wife asked him, “What are you going to do?”
“Start over,” he replied.
And he did.
Today, Green is at 29 best-selling novels, and counting.
“That wasn’t me,” he says. “That was George O’Leary. That’s how I learned how you make things happen. You don’t quit. You don’t stop. If it doesn’t work, you start over.”
O’Leary’s own drive didn’t come without sacrifices. When his daughter Trish was in kindergarten, she and other classmates were asked to draw a picture of their house and family. The little girl drew a detailed picture of their home and the people who lived there—Mom, siblings, cat and Dalmatian dog. But Dad was missing. Alarmed, the teacher called Sharon O’Leary to ask if she might know why.
Sharon laughs at the memory.
“She didn’t draw her father because she probably doesn’t know what he looks like,” she told the teacher. “He’s gone in the morning before she wakes up and comes home after she’s in bed. If she did draw him, she’d probably have to draw the back of his head, because that’s what she sees at football games.”
* * *
And then there was what will always be attached to O’Leary’s name—the résumé scandal. After a successful stint as Georgia Tech’s head coach, O’Leary got his dream job in 2001 when he was hired to coach Notre Dame, his Irish Catholic family brimming with pride. But his tenure lasted only five days after it was discovered he had lied on his résumé. The Fighting Irish parted ways with O’Leary, with the coach never draping a whistle around his neck. Devastated, he went into seclusion in the basement of the family’s Georgia vacation home. Brothers Peter and Tom flew down to talk to him. Later, Peter told the Orlando Sentinel that they found George “almost in a catatonic state.”
When those words are repeated to O’Leary, he winces.
“Catatonic?” he says. “I think Peter learned a new word and wanted to use it.”
Not so, says Sharon.
“He was almost catatonic, definitely,” she says. “I was really, really worried. He was not changing clothes, not showering, not shaving. I was really worried he would just give up. I couldn’t talk to him without crying. It was brutal.”
To get O’Leary to emerge, two close friends used the excuse that they needed his help moving a boat down the East Coast. Not only did O’Leary help move the boat, he simply got moving again. Several weeks later, one of his former high school players, Mike Tice, got the Minnesota Vikings head coaching job and hired O’Leary as his assistant head coach and defensive line coach.
“Once he started coaching football again, it was like he was on autopilot,” Sharon says. “Everything else got pushed aside.”
O’Leary has never dodged the subject of his résumé padding, although he doesn’t go in-depth about it either. He understands it will always be brought up, but he doesn’t always agree with why. He mentions a news story from earlier this year, when Manhattan College basketball coach Steve Masiello took a similar job with the University of South Florida, only to lose it when it was revealed he lied on his résumé.
“When the New York Daily News wrote a story [on Masiello], they ran my picture with it,” O’Leary says, annoyed. “It’s something I’m stuck with. What I did was just stupidity on my part. But not one of those things on my résumé ever got me a job. And when I went to the pros they couldn’t care less about any of that stuff.”
His first year with Minnesota, the Vikings went from 30th in NFL defense to 10th. After his second year, UCF called. When he took the job, it was perceived as a stopover as he rehabilitated his image. But O’Leary had other ideas. Says his wife: “He kept telling me, ‘Sharon, it’s a diamond in the rough there.’ ”
The coach and his players savor UCF’s 10-6 victory over Georgia in the 2010 Liberty Bowl.
O’Leary saw an opportunity to build a program, and a legacy. Going on 11 years later, he’s still building. Of all the state’s Division I programs, only Florida State with its perfect record and BCS National Championship had a better 2013 season. And none have enjoyed UCF’s stability. During O’Leary’s UCF tenure, Florida has had four coaches, Florida State two, Miami four and University of South Florida three.
Then there’s Notre Dame, which is on its fourth coach—still trying to awaken the echoes.
“I get a lot of letters from people,” he says. “Not all the time, but often enough. They tell me, ‘Notre Dame is paying for the mistake they made.’ Or, ‘Notre Dame only wishes they had you now.’ ”
He knows now, too, that not getting the Notre Dame job wasn’t the lowest point in his coaching career. That came in 2008, when one of his UCF players, Ereck Plancher, collapsed and died during conditioning drills, resulting in a wrongful death lawsuit. O’Leary was exonerated. But still, when people saw the typical George O’Leary all-business countenance in news conferences, the criticism of him was scathing.
What they didn’t see is him regularly kneeling at a church pew, praying for Plancher. They didn’t see him pause and pray before home games, just before his team emerged from the tunnel onto the field, where UCF had a circle with the initials EP in it. At home, and in his office, he often sat for long periods, staring out the window, alone in his thoughts.
“It was terrible,” Sharon says. “He took it hard. It was like a death in the family.”
But George O’Leary didn’t let people see any of that. It’s just not him.