Atlanta’s bizarre sports moments: George O’Leary’s Notre Dame fiasco

Mac McWhorter’s phone rang in the middle of the night. In December 2001, McWhorter was Georgia Tech’s offensive-line coach and, with coach George O’Leary having been hired at Notre Dame, he also was the Yellow Jackets’ interim head coach. On top of that, O’Leary had offered him a spot on his new staff at Notre Dame.

On the line was Tech offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who also was making the transition to Notre Dame.

“And he said, ‘Coach, hang on. You’re not going to believe this,’ ” McWhorter said this week. “And he told me what happened. And I actually thought at first he was just pulling a prank. I said, ‘Bill, it’s 3:30 in the morning, son. Give me a break here.’ ”

McWhorter’s disbelief could be understood. O’Brien — now the coach of the Houston Texans — had called to tell McWhorter that O’Leary had resigned from Notre Dame that night, just five days after accepting the job of his dreams. Nineteen years later, it remains one of the strangest chapters in Atlanta sports history.

“It was definitely different,” said Wes Durham, then the voice of Tech and now the co-host of the ACC Network’s “Packer and Durham” show. “It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen.”

For O’Leary, who was 52-33 in seven-plus seasons at Tech and resuscitated a splintered roster into a unit that shared the ACC championship in his fourth season, it was a humbling moment in a career rife with success. In following years, though, O’Leary recovered to build another winner in the final quarter of his 48-year career, at Central Florida.

Said O’Leary’s attorney, Jack Reale, “It’s pretty hard to say it didn’t work out extremely well for him.”

Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary talks with players during a game in 1999. (LEVETTE BAGWELL/AJC STAFF)


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The backdrop

In December 2001, Tech had finished a disappointing regular season at 7-5. At the same time, Notre Dame was looking for a new coach after firing Bob Davie at the end of his fifth season. O’Leary was a candidate early on, and the connection was obvious. O’Leary had established a winner at a school with a challenging academic environment.

Further, O’Leary is Irish Catholic and had grown up on Long Island in New York enamored with Notre Dame. He was hired two days after first meeting with then-athletic director Kevin White.

Given O’Leary’s tough, no-nonsense style, many in the athletic department “thought that whole situation had great potential, that George could well have been the perfect guy for Notre Dame at that time,” said John Heisler, then Notre Dame’s longtime sports information director.

At his introductory news conference Dec. 9, O’Leary said that he believed that there were two great coaching jobs in all of sports — manager of the New York Yankees and head coach at Notre Dame.

“This school embodies excellence in every way,” O’Leary said at a news conference. “My only wish is that my father could be here to see this day come true.”

‘A very unfortunate situation’

But, within days, the dream unraveled in unfathomable fashion. O’Leary’s official Notre Dame bio, taken straight from the one he used at Tech, indicated that he had lettered in football at New Hampshire. The detail prompted a sports writer at the Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., to reach out to former team members to ask their recollections of O’Leary. When none could recall him, it led to a report that O’Leary had provided inaccurate biographical information at Syracuse for the media guide after he was hired as an assistant coach before the 1980 season.

The story broke on Dec. 13, and, when a Notre Dame official inquired further, O’Leary acknowledged that the Tech bio that Notre Dame had incorporated and disseminated included another falsehood, that he had earned a master’s degree. O’Leary had earned credits to a master’s but never completed it. The athletic overstatement could be stomached, but not the claim of a master’s degree.

O’Leary resigned late that night, prompting the middle-of-the-night phone call to McWhorter.

“It was a very unfortunate situation for George,” McWhorter said.

Given the highly unusual sequence of events and Notre Dame’s iconic status, the story became huge news, making front pages nationwide and becoming fodder for late-night talk-show host Jay Leno.

“Just the whole way it came about was probably surprising to tons of people that followed athletics or college athletics in particular because you just didn’t see that happen,” Heisler said.

(As a side note, in no small part because of O’Leary, college athletic departments began to take a far more rigorous approach to vetting bios of hires. When he hears that a hire is pending a background check, Durham said, “I’m thinking, Well, I know where that started.”)

A week later, in an interview with ESPN’s Mike Tirico, O’Leary took responsibility for his actions and subsequent failure to correct them.

“I didn’t do it, and I’m paying a dear price for it,” he said.

Almost 20 years later, it still confounds, especially given that O’Leary’s fabrications never helped him earn a job.

“They hired him because of what kind of coach he was, and they missed a good one,” McWhorter said. “And I would have loved to have seen what George could have done.”

Tech coach George O'Leary argues with the referee after a unsportsmanlike call on a Jackets player.

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The recovery

Following Notre Dame, the final act of O’Leary’s career stands as a testament to his coaching acumen – McWhorter called him “one of the best football coaches, just pure football coaches, I’ve ever been around” — and perhaps fulfillment of a comment that he made to Tirico, that “I think God has a reason for everything and there’s a reason that he did that.”

A month after the Notre Dame dream died, new Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Tice, who had played for O’Leary in high school in New York, hired O’Leary to coach his defensive line and then promoted him to defensive coordinator for the 2003 season.

Near the end of the 2003 season, O’Leary returned to college football to coach Central Florida, hired by then-athletic director Steve Orsini, who had been at Tech during O’Leary’s tenure there. O’Leary took command of a team that had moved up to FBS in 1996 and had never played in a bowl game.

Following an 0-11 season in 2004, UCF improved to 8-5 the next season despite playing only four home games. The Knights became only the sixth team to make a bowl game after going winless the previous season.

Including that season, the Knights went to seven bowl games over 10 seasons. They won four conference championships (in Conference USA and the American Athletic Conference) and O’Leary was named league coach of the year as many times. Most memorably, in 2013, UCF finished the season 12-1 by beating No. 6 Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl as a 17-point underdog, earning the Knights the No. 10 ranking in the final AP poll.

Among those on his staff were Tech coach Geoff Collins (linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator in 2008-09) and offensive line coach Brent Key (in a variety of jobs from graduate assistant to offensive coordinator in 2005-2014). Tech AD Todd Stansbury served in the same capacity at UCF 2012-15.

Heisler, who is now at UCF, credited O’Leary with “doing things that just hadn’t happened at UCF, putting them in the headlines for accomplishing things that just hadn’t happened before.”

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Over O’Leary’s tenure (2004-15), UCF built an indoor practice facility and an on-campus football stadium. In 2017, when the Knights finished 13-0 under coach Scott Frost and claimed themselves national champions, nine of the team’s all-conference players were O’Leary recruits.

O’Leary’s teams also were named their league’s top academic team four years in a row. In 2014, its Graduation Success Rate (90%) was 10th highest in FBS.

Former Georgia Tech head coach George O'Leary in 2006.  (KImberly Smith/AJC staff)

Credit: Kimberly Smith

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Credit: Kimberly Smith

“I’m very proud of our graduation rate,” O’Leary said in April 2019 when he was inducted into the UCF athletics Hall of Fame. “I’m very proud of the players that I see everywhere now that are husbands and fathers and raising their families.”

It was not a bump-free ride into the sunset. In 2008, UCF team member Ereck Plancher collapsed and died following an offseason workout, and a jury later found the UCF Athletics Association negligent. The athletic association reportedly contended that Plancher died from an undiagnosed heart condition and denied culpability.

The school holds him in honor. Besides his induction last year, private donors honored O’Leary in 2016 with a statue that stands outside of the UCF stadium.

With his wife, Sharon, O’Leary lives in Florida but still spends time at the family’s home in Reynolds Plantation.

It’s unknowable what would have happened at Notre Dame, but it’s unlikely he could have distinguished himself there the way he did at UCF. As then-school president John Hitt said in a statement at the time of the statue unveiling, O’Leary “put UCF football on the map.”

It was a career outcome that no one could have predicted in December 2001, when his career collapsed by his own hands. But it’s one that, with time and perspective, O’Leary likely will stand behind.

In an 2010 interview with the AJC, O’Leary said that “you always second guess” the failure to correct the mistakes on his bio. “But,” he said, “this turned out to be the best place for me, no question about it.”