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O'Leary's long road back

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. - The late-afternoon sun was setting behind the football practice field at the University of Central Florida one afternoon last week, a slight breeze cooling off the players and their coach, George O'Leary.

If you're going to endure an 0-8 start that has stretched the team's losing streak to 12 games, this is not a bad place to be.

In O'Leary's case, there weren't many other options.

Had he not been caught in a decades-old lie about his playing background and educational credentials dating back to his undergraduate days at the University of New Hampshire, O'Leary would be in his third season at Notre Dame.

Instead, the former national Coach of the Year and two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year at Georgia Tech is in Orlando, trying to resurrect his own tattered career and the Golden Knights as well.

"I keep telling myself to be patient," O'Leary, 58, said. "My assistants laugh because I'm not known for having much patience."

Yet it is a character trait he desperately needs to find these days.

When the Knights host Ohio for homecoming today, they will do it as the only Division I-A team in the country without a win this season. When Army ended the nation's longest losing streak at 19 games last month, Central Florida took its place.

Not that O'Leary has mentioned either dubious achievement to his players.

"If you keep bringing it up, then that's going to put undue pressure on them," O'Leary said.

O'Leary is familiar with being reminded of something he'd rather forget: Ever since he left South Bend within days of accepting his dream job of coaching the Fighting Irish, O'Leary has been trying to bury the Notre Dame debacle.

After coaching for two years with the Minnesota Vikings under Mike Tice, who brought his ex-high school coach there and made him his defensive coordinator last season, O'Leary was approached by Central Florida president John Hitt at the urging of athletic director Steve Orsini.

"When I met George, he didn't dance around. He acknowledged that he made a couple of mistakes," Hitt said. "If someone can own up to a mistake, and in talking to them you see that they really do understand what they did, and that's not who they are, you tend to give them another chance."

Dawn Trouard, an English professor who is president of the school's faculty union, said at the time of O'Leary's hiring that the university was being hypocritical in the ethics standard used for coaches and teachers.

Her feelings haven't changed.

"I think it was hypocritical, the fact that the man might be a super nice man and super well-intentioned, it's not a judgment on him as it is on the leadership of our campus," Trouard said.

Dr. Richard Lapchick, who has long been a critic of big-time college athletics and once used O'Leary as an answer to a test in a sports ethics class he teaches, supported Hitt's decision. Lapchick, the director of the UCF-based Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, hasn't been disappointed.

"In the short time he has been at UCF, he has done an exceptional job," Lapchick wrote in an e-mail yesterday. "He took over a team that was undisciplined and had a terrible attitude toward academics. [The players] know they won't be on the field unless they are square in the classroom."

O'Leary addressed the situation with his resume at an introductory news conference last January, saying, "I can't do anything about setbacks except move on. My past is my past. I won't field any questions about it. It's well-documented. But read the good part, too. I think that's why I'm here."

Sophomore linebacker Chris Welsh understood why O'Leary had been hired to revive a program that gained national recognition when Daunte Culpepper played quarterback for the Knights from 1995 to 1998 and later when the Knights beat Alabama during the 2000 season.

O'Leary was a disciplinarian, something former coach Mike Kruczek was not.

Playing with a lineup that includes 11 true freshmen and six others in their first season of college football, patching together a defense that has included six different safeties, the Knights have lost their eight games (three to nationally ranked teams) by an average of three touchdowns.

"When we stop making good effort, that's when I'll have a problem," O'Leary said. "We've had a rash of injuries, and we're so young. We have a bunch of good players, but right now we're not ready."

O'Leary admittedly didn't realize how little talent was left in the program when he accepted a five-year deal (worth an estimated $700,000 a year, which also rankled some on the academic side), but he isn't second-guessing himself for coming.

Even the hurricanes that have ravaged this state in September haven't deterred him.

"I wanted to get back in an area where I like the weather, in the South, and I thought this was a great opportunity - and I still think that it is," O'Leary said. "I wanted one more shot at getting a program turned around. I think it's a sleeping giant."

Since O'Leary arrived on this sprawling campus of 42,000 students - the school has doubled in size in Hitt's 13 years as president - the practice fields have been improved and a new $6 million indoor facility is expected to be finished by January.

Now if he can only get some players.

"I know that we're not going to get the kids who are going to Miami and Florida and Florida State, but the kids that are leaving the state [for other Division I-A programs], that's the ones we're targeting," O'Leary said. "Right now the opportunity to play is here."

O'Leary is hoping to use his past success in a city known for making dreams come true as a means to build his own magic kingdom. It was at the Citrus Bowl, Central Florida's home field, where O'Leary helped coach Georgia Tech to a share of the 1990 national championship.

"We were in the same locker room that Georgia Tech used during the Citrus Bowl [victory over Nebraska], and I told the kids we were recruiting that when I walked back in after that game, we were national champions," said O'Leary, who was defensive coordinator for Bobby Ross on a staff that also included Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen as offensive coordinator.

Given what O'Leary has gone through since taking the job, losing seems almost palatable.

Shortly after accepting the position last December while still coaching with the Vikings, O'Leary suffered a heart attack and later underwent a successful angioplasty procedure. O'Leary missed the season opener at Wisconsin because of the death of his mother.

"It's been a tough year," O'Leary said. "But I was raised one of eight children where every meal was an adventure. I've learned that it's not just the setbacks, it's the way you handle the setbacks that makes you the person you are."

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