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."