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'