By George, O'Leary Suits UCF Well

June 6, 2006

By Adam Caparell

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At age 59, George O'Leary admits he doesn't know if he can see himself coaching another decade.


"A 10-year commitment is a lot of years," the UCF coach said.


But after signing a new 10-year contract extension with Central Florida two weeks ago, the message being sent is loud and clear: O'Leary will be at the school until 2015, much to the delight of both parties.


"With the number of years they allowed in that contract, they have great faith that we're doing the right things," he said.


UCF has not only equated that faith in years, but also in dollars. O'Leary will earn a base salary of $1 million starting this year and could earn up to $1.5 million based on incentives. That puts him among the higher paid coaches in the country, and certainly in Conference USA.


O'Leary lead UCF to an 8-5 record last year, a berth in the Conference USA championship game and the school's first ever bowl game. All of this came after a 0-11 inaugural season in 2004, meaning O'Leary helped lead UCF to the fourth best turnaround in NCAA history.


The success, in big part, prompted UCF officials to approach O'Leary - C-USA's 2005 Coach of the Year - about an extension last November. It's a big commitment for a school whose football stature is still growing, but one they were willing and able to make.


"It was just a feeling that he was the guy we wanted and George had said on a number of occasions that he hoped to finish his coaching career at UCF," UCF President John Hitt said. "It seemed like a good idea that if it was everyone's desire that George be able to coach through the end of his career with us that we find some contractual way to express that intention."


The departure of then-athletic director Steve Orsini to SMU delayed the initial process, causing some to speculate problems had arisen during negotiations. But in due time, the deal was finalized.


"I think it shows a commitment both from the school and myself to the football program here," O'Leary said. "I think it's a win-win situation as far as stability and consistency in the program."


Consistency and stability are two things Central Florida had been lacking before O'Leary.


Off of a 3-9 season in 2003 that saw a coaching change after 10 games, one of the first things O'Leary noticed was a lack of player trust in the coaching staff. They had worked hard under the previous regime, but hadn't seen the results they had hoped for. O'Leary knew some things would have to change before he signed. There were specific requirements he asked be met.


"They've done everything I've asked them to do," O'Leary said. "It's a place that has great potential and great opportunities. It's just a matter of getting all the right pieces in place."


UCF has been a pretty good match for O'Leary, who came to Orlando from Minnesota where he was the Vikings' defensive coordinator. Originally signing a five-year contract, he's transformed the program, raising the school's profile and now significantly raising expectation levels in just two short years.


"I'd rather have it that way than any other way," O'Leary said. "I think we're getting closer and closer to being very competitive with everyone we'll face."


It's not only expectations O'Leary has raised. UCF's academic profile has improved considerably since he arrived on campus, inheriting a team with a GPA of 2.01. UCF finished with 2.81 GPA at the end of 2005.


"We put a lot of emphasis on doing things right," O'Leary said, "not just on the field but off the field."


Its O'Leary's "rights" at Central Florida that are helping make one of the biggest wrongs on his career seem like a distant memory.


In December 2001, O'Leary left Georgia Tech to accept Notre Dame's head coaching position. Five days later he announced his resignation after several inaccuracies were found in his resume.


"No one brings it up anymore," O'Leary said. "It's something that I've done everything I can do with the mass media, the local radio media, the paper."


While the episode will always follow O'Leary, five years later, it's a dead issue to him.


"There's nothing else I can do," O'Leary said. "I think you move on. It's very rarely brought up anymore."


O'Leary's new contract has also helped UCF's recruiting efforts. Just last weekend, UCF brought in a number of high school juniors and their parents for a campus visit. The one thing the parents kept talking about was the new contract, O'Leary said. Knowing the coach would be there for the duration of their son's college career was reassuring to many parents.


But can O'Leary really fulfill the contract? 


"I don't know," O'Leary said. "I tell my wife we go year to year. You can never say never. But I know I won't be taking another college job, pro job. I'm very happy here. If my health stays the way I hope it will, hopefully I can fulfill the commitment."


There's a $5 million buyout option for both parties should O'Leary decide to leave for another job or be terminated.


"He doesn't have to coach for 10 years if he doesn't want to," Hitt said. "He's guaranteed the right to and we're guaranteed that he won't go somewhere else in all likelihood in that period of time either."


But O'Leary really feels as if UCF will be his last job.


"I would say with a 10-year contract it is," O'Leary said. "I want to see this program get to where it has the ability to get to."


It's getting there. UCF has a new 45,000-seat stadium set to open for the start of the 2007 season with Texas as the first scheduled opponent.


That's on top of all the ingredients O'Leary feels UCF has to be a real player in college football. It's thanks to all the extra practices, national exposure and success his team experienced from last year's bowl run. Hitt said the school is "thoroughly satisfied" with O'Leary and excited about the direction the program is heading.


Now it's all about finding a medium.


"The key to me is once you start to win, it's to be consistent," O'Leary said. "Not be up and down."


In his quest to accomplish that goal, time - 10 years worth - seems to be on O'Leary's side.



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