So just like that, the reign of King George is over. In a remarkably quick fall, the George O’Leary Era at UCF is a thing of the past.
I was a senior at UCF in 2004-2005, so I was there for O’Leary’s hiring, and then 0-11. It was rough, but I still harbored the optimism that later came to fruition some nine years later.
If you had told me in December of 2004 that UCF would win four conference championships in two leagues and three bowl games – including a Fiesta Bowl – I would have taken it a hundred times out of a hundred. For that, George deserves a ton of credit and gratitude.
I will say, however, that personally, that gratitude and credit is grudging. My limited exposure to Coach O’Leary was a microcosm of how he ran the program. He was the last 20th Century coach, and remained that until his sudden retirement this week. I hope to provide a few examples of what I mean by that in this article.
“All kings are foes of all the men they rule.”
– Hortense Flexner
Stay Off My Lawn
When I came back to UCF to work on “UCF SportsKnight,” I wanted football to have a prominent role in the content, in addition to all the other sports. So I ran it by my boss.
“No,” I was told. The Old Man, as we called him, didn’t want his football program to be on an equal footing with the “other stuff.” I was limited to 30 seconds of football highlights in a 22-minute show.
This was a symptom of O’Leary’s wish to have football be its own walled garden. He almost never attended any sporting event outside of football (I did see him at one or two baseball games, but that was it). Don’t think for a moment that other coaches – many of whom had been places where the football coach was more of a salesman for the program in general and not just their piece of it – did not notice this.
Coach O’Leary didn’t bother with the show until National Signing Day, when he agreed to do one interview segment, and it would be shot on the set for his show – not the set for SportsKnight. Here it is:
The next year, he didn’t appear on the National Signing Day show. I spotlighted the recruits and the assistant coaches instead.
But because UCF was so starved of success and viewed O’Leary as the meal ticket (and paid him commensurate to that role), that was accepted as part of the deal. The rest of the sports were on their own. Football may be king everywhere, but at UCF, it was the tyrant.
The Old Way
Some of us in the video department wanted to do something to spruce up the football coaches’ show, “UCF Sports Today with George O’Leary.” As you can see from this 2010 clip, it’s a pretty dry show:
22 minutes of O’Leary at a desk with Pat Clarke talking football, with one video feature and about two minutes of highlights from the game while Coach and Pat talked over them live, and not always in sync. I felt really bad for Pat, who’s a genuinely nice dude and a true pro. I felt like maybe he felt he was dying up there sometimes.
We wanted to change that to a show that was more like “The Don Shula Show,” which I watched growing up in South Florida – A little looser, with more highlights (including the radio calls rather than live ad-libbing over the video), some more short features like a Player of the Week (which could be sponsored), and making it a bit more fan-friendly and exciting to watch. Hey, maybe recruits would watch, too. Plus, it would be less time that coach needed to spend on set.
“No.” The Old Man wanted himself on camera as much as possible. No fluffy stuff. And as few highlights as possible. In fact, if we didn’t have any highlights, that would be fine by him.
(Side note: We shot this show early Sunday mornings, around 7 or 8 a.m. Everyone was grumpy. But we treated him like he was a zoo animal. We were afraid to even look at him.)
The Football Coach’s Show is the TV flagship of the program. Some programs do it poorly. But these days, most do it well. But none of the good ones do it this way, and we wasted the creative talent we had in the department at the time because Coach wanted his talking mug on TV as much as possible, and to hell with selling the program. I couldn’t even blame my own bosses – They were following orders.
Never mind O’Leary’s icy relationship with the Orlando media (which is hardly New York in terms of aggressiveness, by the way). He hated the media that worked under the same roof he worked under – the very people charged with making him and his program look good.
The Square Peg
Alright, no more personal insight – Now it’s time for some football analysis.
The biggest knock on George O’Leary has been his stubborn reliance on 20th Century football strategy – That is, run the ball, run the ball more, use play action occasionally, don’t take risks, don’t make mistakes, and control the line of scrimmage.
This worked in the ’90s with his rise to prominence at Georgia Tech. And it worked for a time in Conference USA. But in the 21st Century, the game passed him by.
Go look at UCF’s best seasons under Coach O’Leary and you’ll find a remarkable pattern of conditions:
- Heavy reliance on the run, despite actual success running
- Competent but unimaginative quarterback play
- Occasional threats for the big play (but often not realized)
- Strong defensive and offensive line play
- Mistake-free special teams play
This is the formula for winning in the 1980s.
The difference is that in 2015, you need to be able to win by not meeting all of those conditions. That means opening up the offense and using spread or spread-option schemes. While, yes, it helps to be strong up front, the truth is that the recruiting landscape in 2015 does not permit a school like UCF to get the bodies it needs up front to sustain the run.
We saw this last year, when UCF finished 103rd in FBS in rushing despite having more rushing attempts (526) than any other team in the bottom 37 in that category. That tells you, “Screw it, we’re running, and we don’t care if you stop us, because we’re going to do it until the cows come home.”
That stubborn lack of innovation has a very real negative effect on your recruiting – which brings me to my next point.
George O’Leary hated recruiting.
O’Leary often publicly advocated for an early signing period for football in the fall (as do most coaches, by the way), because, as he put it, he didn’t want to “babysit” recruits through the fall and into February. Now, I don’t know who does, but let’s be honest: George didn’t want to play the game that you have to play now with Millennial athletes. They want to be recruited and told that they are liked very often by powerful people in football, and whether or not you think that’s right, that’s the way it is.
I heard one high school coach say that this is George’s biggest weakness: He’s out of touch. he is not interested in things 18-year-olds like, such as new uniforms (Remember the black helmets for Black Friday?) or fan-and-recruit-friendly up-tempo offenses. So team speed suffers, recruiting goes with it, and so does the brand.
O’Leary’s philosophy was to fit his players to his system, when in 2015, it needs to be the other way around.
UCF’s best recruiting classes were the product of some excellent legwork by great recruiters: David Kelly, Geoff Collins, and Tyson Summers, to name a few. These guys ate, slept, and breathed recruiting. Maybe it’s no wonder none of them are at UCF anymore.
O’Leary’s last game was the cherry on top to all of this, as the Knights got beat by a Tom Hermann-coached Houston team that wasn’t bigger or more physical, but was faster and prepared with a scheme that ran and threw around and past UCF’s depleted side – not over and through it. The result was the worst home loss in UCF history on Homecoming.
The King is Retired, Long Live the King
A couple of years from now, we’re going to welcome George O’Leary back for George O’Leary Day, and unveil a banner in Bright House Networks Stadium in his honor, maybe a statue, and maybe name the field after him or something (George O’Leary Field at Bright House Networks Stadium?). And that’s fine. He deserves it, and I’ll fight anyone who says he doesn’t.
But my hope is that the team that takes the field on that day is coached by a young, offensive-minded football scientist who recruits like a wild animal, and is all too willing to shake fans’ hands, kiss their babies, and take their pictures. I want the next guy to let the creative people at UCF market the program while he assembles a product commensurate with that creativity. I want him to show up to women’s soccer games just to show everyone that, hey, they need fan support, too, and dammit if I’m here, you should be as well. I want him be as enthusiastic a salesman of UCF on the coaches’ speaking circuit as he is in the living room of every football recruit in the state of Florida.
And maybe that guy will be here only three or four years before he takes the next job, but UCF fans are going to have to be fine with that, and then let the new Athletic Director go get the next guy who fits the same exact profile. Rinse, repeat, win.
I’ve spoken to several fans this week, both connected and not, about how they felt about how this all went down, and they all expressed the same thing I felt: Relief. Glad it’s over. Now let’s move forward. That tells you all you need to know.
There’s no doubt that George O’Leary left UCF Football in a much better place than he found it. I just hope the next guy will finally move the program into the 21st Century.