By Paul Tenorio | Orlando Sentinel
7:43 PM EDT, July 27, 2013
EATONTON, Ga.— The winding road leads visitors through a security gate, past a stable and horses grazing in an open field, into a neighborhood carved among the tall trees that line Lake Oconee.
Here, about 90 minutes outside Atlanta, George O'Leary's home has become a rare escape from football.
Amid the cozy rooms and long hallways in the house, at first glance there are few signs of O'Leary's professional life devoted to coaching. The top two floors of the lake house, instead, are filled with tributes to his family.
Upstairs walls are plastered with drawings made by his grandchildren; shelves in the pantry display his wife's collection of tins, jars and salt and pepper shakers; an American flag once draped over his father's casket and now folded in a tight triangle sits atop a fireplace mantel.
Football is relegated to the basement. O'Leary leads the way downstairs and pushes open a door. Knick-knacks and mementos from four decades of coaching lay scattered amid stowed-away furniture and cardboard boxes. A poster memorializing his years at Georgia Tech, a tattered NFL football from a game O'Leary could no longer recall, framed photographs from his first few years at UCF.
He sifts through items on top of a desk, moving aside papers and a baseball cap before turning around with his national coach of the year award. He smiles and shrugs.
"We'll do something with all of this at some point," he says.
For now, the snapshots from his life spent coaching are left in limbo, hidden away in this cluttered room in the basement. The lake house is a more comforting refuge this way. The coach, who will turn 67 on Aug. 17, is not yet ready for reflection.
A few minutes pass, and O'Leary walks back out and shuts the door behind him.
As he moves closer to stepping away from coaching, O'Leary is often judged at UCF more by the message board complaints: his age, the meat-and-potatoes offense he runs, his prickly press conference demeanor, a perceived lack of energy.
O'Leary might prefer it that way, the rest of his story saved for some other day, and to be shared with the right people. And even then, maybe just a glimpse until he can step out and close the door again.
'On the inside, he's mush'
Eatonton is a town small enough that directions are relayed by landmarks: a right at the Crowe Marine store, a left after the bridge.
The Reynolds brothers, Harold and Jamie, opt to grab lunch at a Mexican joint that shares space with a gas station a few miles from the sprawling Reynolds Plantation property that bears their name. The chips and salsa go quickly and merengue music plays over the speakers as the brothers play off each other, chuckling their way through stories about "Coach."
O'Leary calls Harold, a longtime Georgia Tech booster, his best friend. They met during his first stint at the school and the relationship has carried on now through O'Leary's decade at UCF. Harold recalled when he first began to see O'Leary's grumpy public façade melt into a sneaky sense of humor.
Reynolds approached O'Leary concerned that the coach's penchant for demanding the team bus driver leave as much as 20 minutes before scheduled departure times might lead to leaving star quarterback Joe Hamilton behind. "Harold," O'Leary replied, wryly, "I've got a window in my office." Reynolds left with a chuckle and an assurance that even O'Leary wasn't stubborn enough to leave without the Heisman finalist.
The slightest crack of a smile creeps up the right side of O'Leary's face just before a joke, a familiar look to those who know the veteran coach. It usually means a barb is coming, directed toward anyone unlucky enough to be closest to him.
It's a contrast from O'Leary's terse answers and no-nonsense demeanor in press conferences after football games. Even that, friends say, is sometimes just his dry sense of humor.
"He presents a very gruff exterior, but on the inside he's mush," said Peter O'Leary, George's older brother. "He's a real soft, mellow type of guy, believe it or not."
O'Leary certainly would not be typecast as mellow, yet stories come in waves about O'Leary the "softie."
Tales of equipment donated to a former player who needed cleats for an NFL Europe tryout; or of money loaned to friends who couldn't make the mortgage or had a start-up business idea. A long list of coaches, from Penn State's Bill O'Brien to the Buffalo Bills' Doug Marrone, cite O'Leary as a mentor and major influence on their careers.
"He's helped a lot of people in his life, and he's not the type to talk about it either," said Tom O'Leary, George's youngest brother. "In that respect, I think he reminds me a lot of my father."
Ralph Friedgen, the former Maryland coach who worked with O'Leary at Georgia Tech, added, "George has a hard core but a deep heart. People don't understand that about him. He's very, very generous. I think he's very compassionate."
It's a privilege to see this side of O'Leary. He puts up a shield in public, letting no one inside of his circle unless he's absolutely certain they belong. Jamie Reynolds calls it a "sizing up" period, those weeks and months when O'Leary waits to see, "if you'll extend the same loyalty to him that he's getting ready to extend to you."
Players usually don't see the other side until after their college careers are over, when the bellowing coach becomes the doting advocate.
The disparity between the two sides can be exasperating for those closest to him.
"It bothers me because I want everybody to know what he's like," said Sharon O'Leary, the coach's wife who has endured all the slights by his side.
But they understand O'Leary has a purpose behind being "Coach," and so they leave it alone.
"I am who I am," O'Leary said. "I've always been pretty much like that as a coach. Business and what you do for pleasure are two different things. You can't be the same person."
'George never backed down from anyone'
O'Leary formed his tough outer shell in the Jacob Riis projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Days in the city in the 1950s were spent playing whatever sports you could find, mostly stickball and basketball. The O'Leary boys' games were interrupted only for dinner or, on some nights, by calls from their mother to return home and say the family rosary. The older O'Leary boys — George, Peter and Terry — learned to pray quickly.
Peter O'Leary recalled walking home one day and discovering his younger brother in a fight in the streets. He tried to jump in, only for George to push him out.
"You grew up being able to handle the street and being able to handle the people who gave you a hard time," said Peter O'Leary, who became president of the Suffolk County Detectives Association. "George never backed down from anything."
The O'Learys moved to Central Islip on Long Island when George was 11 years old, and there he became known more for his charm and athletic ability than fisticuffs.
O'Leary grew up playing three sports, but he gravitated to football. On the island, there was plenty of space for games and O'Leary would find them wherever he could. He would join boys playing eight-on-eight tackle football on the lawn of a mental hospital near his home or on any other patch of green deemed large enough for a game.
At Central Islip High, O'Leary played quarterback and led the team to an undefeated season his senior year. He was lean and muscular then, "not skinny," he said, and the team was good. It would go on a 39-game unbeaten streak, and gave up just six points his final year. O'Leary made all-league and all-county.
Family was packed into the O'Leary home on Long Island, and there was just one bedroom for the four boys. O'Leary's father, also named George, was rarely home. He worked two or three jobs at a time, including the night shift at an aviation plant and during the day at the post office or sometimes as a janitor at the local schools. O'Leary's mother, Peggy, instilled her Irish Catholic beliefs, taking the kids to church often. Family and religion mattered most in the O'Leary home.
George's father would eventually be appointed postmaster and also served as president of the school board.
"It was eight of us and we all didn't suffer because of the upbringing we had," Peter O'Leary said.
From the long hours he still puts in each day, to his old-school approach to the game, the hard-earned lessons from childhood still ooze out of O'Leary, as thick as his New York accent.
Years later, O'Leary's parents would have the Atlanta-area newspapers mailed to their home, the postman lugging his heavy bags up to the former postmaster's home so they could read about their son's teams at Georgia Tech.
His father passed away in 1995, before George was ever a head coach, but his mother would be a source of strength through the most crucial points of his career until her death in 2004.
'George is always going to tell you the truth'
O'Leary is best known for the snippets fans get to see. The shouting, finger-pointing coach on the sideline or the snarky responses during postgame press conferences.
The brashness has become such a part of "O'Leary, the coach" that it has overtaken all other parts of his public image, perhaps fairly so. Within the white lines on the football field and inside his office, it's a large part of how O'Leary functions.
Friedgen, then at Maryland, and O'Leary, then at Syracuse, first crossed paths as rivals on the recruiting trail. Friedgen recommended O'Leary to his boss, Bobby Ross. Eventually, Friedgen moved with Ross to Georgia Tech to serve as the team's offensive coordinator. O'Leary was hired to run the Yellow Jackets' defense. For five years, Friedgen and O'Leary carpooled to work at Georgia Tech, departing every day at 5:30 a.m. and returning home again well after 11 p.m.
Friedgen said he learned from O'Leary, the way he coached, the way he approached the game, and, of course, the way he argued. O'Leary's temper was the same then as it has always been, borne not of a quest for perfection, but rather out of an expectation that you work hard enough to justify any result. Win or lose, you did all you could to prepare the right way.
"As long as winning is the ultimate goal for everyone, you're going to have arguments," O'Leary said, "I expect that."
Not all coaches function best under O'Leary's management. Friedgen and O'Leary were similar in their approach, "maybe because we're both New Yorkers," Friedgen said. Several coaches, some who have gone on to coach in the NFL and others to college head coaching jobs, said O'Leary's fiery, straight-forward attitude always made for a stronger meeting room and, ultimately, a better program.
"George is always going to tell you the truth," Friedgen said. "That's why we're so good. It's very honest. A lot of times we don't agree. I mean I've called him [a jerk] a million times. I love the [jerk]. That's the difference."
'It was like a funeral'
The basement of the O'Leary lake house served as an escape in December 2001, a place to hide away from everything swirling around outside the doors of his home.
In the days after his resignation from Notre Dame, O'Leary drove to Eatonton. He had to get away.
From Dec. 9 to Dec. 13, 2001, the Irish-Catholic boy from Long Island had held his dream job. But embellishments on his biography — inserted when he was a young coach leaving the high school level for Syracuse in 1980 — finally caught up with him. And when his brothers, Peter and Tom, flew down to Georgia unannounced in the days after the scandal broke, they found him there in the basement.
"Almost in a catatonic state," Peter said.
George O'Leary had not shaved or changed his clothes. He was not eating. The phone rang and rang, but calls went unreturned. Friends filed in to the lakeside home to try to see him.
"It was like a funeral," Sharon O'Leary said.
The tight circle George O'Leary had built around himself rallied to bring him back to life.
His brothers convinced him to return some calls, and Friedgen encouraged O'Leary over the phone that life would soon return to some form of normalcy. O'Leary's agent and good friend, Jack Reale, set up a television interview with ESPN and then, finally, the Reynolds brothers and other close friends pulled O'Leary away to join them on a boat trip down the East Coast.
The boat's final destination was the Orange Bowl, where Friedgen's Maryland team was playing. O'Leary jumped off in Jupiter and flew back to Atlanta, avoiding the reminder of all he had lost and the media crush that could pounce at a bowl game.
The real moment that restored O'Leary would not come until later in the month when Mike Tice called.
O'Leary's former player at Central Islip had a shot at the head coaching job with Minnesota and if he got it, he wanted to bring O'Leary along. Tice hired his old high school coach in January 2002, just one month after the Notre Dame saga.
O'Leary suddenly had football again.
"I don't know what would have happened if I had to sit out," O'Leary told the Sentinel during an interview this summer.
O'Leary rehabilitated by pouring himself into coaching as he always had. Eventually, it led him to a hangar on a cold Friday in Minnesota where a contingent of UCF brass had flown out to see him.
O'Leary found a few hours to wiggle free of his coaching duties in November 2003 to meet them and listen to an offer that might finally be the right one. During the previous two years, O'Leary had found respite in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. He had coached up the defense and helped Tice in any way he was asked.
But it wasn't the same as running a program.
A week later in a hotel in St. Louis, where the Vikings were playing the Rams, O'Leary met again with UCF president John Hitt, athletic director Steve Orsini and David Albertson, president of the UCF Athletics Association.
The UCF faction had a pre-arranged signal to indicate they felt comfortable with the hire. Hitt couldn't recall if it was an ear tug or a tap of the nose, but the not-so-subtle gestures ensued shortly after the meeting began.
"We asked George to excuse himself from his own room," Hitt said with a chuckle. "He knew what was going on and he was kind enough to do that."
When they called him back in, there was an offer. Come coach at UCF, they said.
The group had a vision for their growing school in Orlando, and so did O'Leary.
'He has really put the program on the map'
O'Leary leaned back in his chair on a late April afternoon and pushed his glasses down his nose. His white hair was parted cleanly to the side.
The brown desk in his office on the UCF campus was covered in papers and Manila folders, each stack meticulously organized, most filled with minutiae that will help shape the logistics of a season still months away. He stared at a flat-screen TV across the room above a couch and table set up for visitors. A running back was stuck in pause behind his offensive line.
"Akron," O'Leary said, nodding toward the screen.
O'Leary had scratched notes about UCF's season-opening opponent in blue pen on yellow notebook paper in front of him. It was four months before the opening kickoff, but at a staff meeting in coming weeks, O'Leary would quiz position coaches on what they may have seen on film — if they'd even thought to watch it yet.
This is why O'Leary is still coaching. Because on spring afternoons or summer days or fall nights he'd still prefer to be there, behind his desk, looking for the slightest advantage in a game UCF will likely be favored to win by multiple touchdowns.
"I don't think preparation ever ends," O'Leary said. "I think every day you learn something new about football. If not, you're probably not looking hard enough."
During the past decade, O'Leary has guided UCF from the Mid-American Conference to Conference USA and now to the American Athletic Conference. His start at UCF was tumultuous. He suffered a mild heart attack six days after accepting the job, and missed the first game of his tenure to attend his mother's funeral. UCF would go 0-11 that first year, but O'Leary has since coached the Knights to a 60-44 record, winning eight or more games in five of the last eight seasons.
"He's a very tough guy who believes in soldiering on, and you make the most of it," Reale said.
Despite the program's growth, O'Leary is a coach unappreciated by some vocal fans, who complain about up-and-down seasons and an old-school offense; about the coach's brusque demeanor, his age and a lack of rah-rah energy. And most of all because the coach cares little about any of the criticism.
"I know there's a lot of anti-George sentiment down in the Orlando area with UCF fans," Peter O'Leary said. "I don't understand that."
Some beefs are self-induced.
"I've seen George be his own worst enemy," Hitt said.
Other things will follow him forever.
O'Leary gets the Notre Dame question from a reporter at least once every year, and he always will. But he does not shy away from the queries. O'Leary answers it the same way, taking responsibility for the mistake he made and pointing out that he paid "a dear price."
"I think George would like nothing better than to leave that behind, but it's something that follows him through life," Tom O'Leary said. "It's something people remember him by and that's not fair."
But George O'Leary has not let the Notre Dame incident define him.
He has been steady as he built UCF, rallying funds for an on-campus stadium and dramatically improved facilities. He guided the program to its first bowl game, first conference championship, first bowl win and first national ranking. His teams have traditionally been academically strong.
There have been low points during O'Leary's tenure in Orlando, too. Most notably, he has dealt with the death of a player, Ereck Plancher, after a workout supervised by O'Leary and his staff, and NCAA violations that led to recruiting restrictions and a postseason ban. The ban was eventually overturned.
As head of the program, O'Leary has shouldered the brunt of the blame. And like with the initial Notre Dame whirlwind, friends said it caused him to withdraw some publicly.
"I think people have opinions right away," O'Leary said. "It all depends on how the media handles it. … And so right away, you become very leery of just who you trust and who you don't trust."
Through the past 10 years, though, UCF's administration has remained steadfast in its belief that O'Leary is the right coach for the school. In April, O'Leary signed a two-year contract extension that will run through the 2017 football season.
"He has really put the program on the map," Hitt said. "I think we're positioned where, whatever happens, we've got a path to get to the highest levels of college football. It's going to take a little time — most things do that are worth doing — but George has put us in a position to be viable as a top-quality program in the years ahead."
Where O'Leary once had an idea how to build the UCF football program, he now has a vision for where the school can go next. As the Knights enter a new era in the American Athletic Conference, much of that work falls outside the white lines.
When O'Leary is dissatisfied with a lack of marketing or some other dearth of effort to build the brand, he will summon athletics employees to his office like a quarterback after a poor game. He has a way he likes to run things, but also an understanding of when to break his own rules to better the program — from all-black uniforms and helmets to allowing an underclassman to be the face of the program.
In some ways, it appears O'Leary is not ready to walk away, in part, because he feels UCF isn't ready for him to leave yet, either. And because what comes after that is as uncertain as anything.
'There has to be more to it than this'
In December, O'Leary retreated to Eatonton for an unusual extended Christmas vacation.
UCF played an early bowl game, and so for a few weeks after the win, the coach had nothing to do but relax at the lake house. After a couple of days, he was restless.
"Sharon," he recalled telling his wife. "There has to be more to it than this. There has to be more to retirement than walking the dogs twice a day."
The confrontation with life beyond football still lingered five months later as O'Leary reflected on the moment outside of his beach rental in Ponce Inlet. The home is one of the few places O'Leary can escape the pull of the Xs and Os, the draw to work that has consumed him for so long — and still does.
O'Leary squinted toward the ocean. A steady wind whipped across the back porch, the sun burned hot on his knees, a spy novel sat on his lap. The family Labradors' UCF collars jingled a few feet away.
O'Leary tapped his hand.
"There's only one big event after retirement," he said. "And I'm not ready for that."
He paused. The right side of his mouth turned up ever so slightly.
"So, what do you think of the team this fall?"
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