George O’Leary has imprint on Geoff Collins' Georgia Tech team

Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary talks with quarterback Joe Hamilton and wide receiver Dez White in the third quarter of the game between Georgia Tech and North Carolina at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, October 9, 1999. (LEVETTE BAGWELL/AJC File)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

George O’Leary doesn’t remember who it was who recommended Geoff Collins to become a graduate assistant at Georgia Tech. It probably would have been 1999, as O’Leary was going into his fifth season at Tech, having just led the Yellow Jackets to a share of the ACC championship.

O’Leary needed a new GA for the coming year, ideally someone from Georgia who would know the Tech landscape. Collins, then the defensive coordinator at Division III Albright College in Pennsylvania, fit the bill. He had grown up a Tech fan in Decatur and then Conyers. Collins met another qualification, too.

“As I told him, ‘You’re smart enough to get into grad school and dumb enough to coach,’” O’Leary told the AJC on Friday. “'You’ve got the right requirements.'”

That was 21 (or so) years ago. O’Leary, 74, is now living the retirement life with his wife, Sharon, splitting time between homes in Palm Coast, Fla., and on Lake Oconee.

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On Friday morning, O’Leary was driving up to Atlanta from Palm Coast, on his way to the Tech-Central Florida game on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, where he’ll be honored for his recent selection to Tech’s sports Hall of Fame. And on the sideline will be his former smart-and-dumb GA, who now occupies the chair once filled with distinction by O’Leary.

“Just tremendously blessed that I’m in this position because of George O’Leary,” Collins said. “He means the world to me, he means the world to my family.”

Saturday’s game is all the more poignant for O’Leary, as he coached 12 years at UCF (2004-15). There, he led a team that had moved up to FBS in 1996 and had never been to a bowl game to four conference championships along with a 12-1 season in 2013 in which the Knights won the Fiesta Bowl and finished No. 10 in the country. He is in the UCF Hall of Fame, too, inducted in April 2019.

“I tell you, gratifying is, I think, probably the word you should use,” O’Leary said of the dual inductions. “I went into both programs and both needed to get a jump start as far as where the programs were. It takes time, but I think you had administrations at both schools that wanted to do things right and wanted to win and did the right things. It wasn’t always pretty at either place, but the end result is we won championships and won bowl games and graduated our athletes, which was very important to me.”

While the public recognition Saturday undoubtedly will be meaningful, O’Leary can find another tribute on the Tech sideline, where he will be able to see no fewer than six men who played and/or coached for him at Tech and/or UCF – Collins, offensive line coach Brent Key, defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker, defensive ends/outside linebacker coach Marco Coleman, safeties coach Nathan Burton and offensive quality-control specialist Will Glover. (Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury also is connected, having been one of O’Leary’s AD’s at UCF.) O’Leary, who in seven seasons with the Jackets finished in the Top 25 five times, won a share of an ACC championship and became only the third coach in school history to beat Georgia three years in a row, holds an influence on Collins and his staff that is unmistakable.

“One of the biggest things (learned from O’Leary) is attention to detail, work ethic, uncovering every stone, making sure that you’re looking at the game from every single point of view, don’t take anything for granted in preparation, making sure your players are doing all the little things the right way,” Collins said.

Collins got an up-close view – two years as a GA at Tech and then another as tight ends coach (1999-2001) and later two years at UCF (2008-09) as linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator.

Collins made a quick impression on O’Leary with traits that won’t surprise anyone who has witnessed him in action since his hire at Tech in December 2018. O’Leary found his GA to be enthusiastic, passionate about football, an effective communicator with players and detail-oriented.

Collins also showed a thirst for knowledge, according to O’Leary, peppering him and other coaches with questions about the rationale behind different decisions they had made.

“You could see he had a future ahead of himself,” O’Leary said. “Very detailed guy, good technician and obviously very enthusiastic with his players.”

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins was an assistant coach at Central Florida from 2008-09, serving as linebackers coach/recruiting coordinator for coach George O'Leary.

Credit: UCF Athletics

Credit: UCF Athletics

Collins, O’Leary said, was a “soldier” who followed orders and was on top of his work.

“It doesn’t surprise me the things he’s doing because he was always a go-getter,” O’Leary said. “He was always looking for the next step to make him better, to make the program better. I thought he did a great job with that.”

Working for O’Leary, putting in long hours was requisite. As Collins joked of his two years at UCF: “and I was coaching for George O’Leary, so that was really more like 14 years.”

Among the duties that O’Leary gave Collins and all GA’s – preparing the “bible,” as O’Leary called it. It was an in-depth summary of the coming opponent – formations, tendencies, plays, defensive coverages, personnel and more. They broke down three games and a fourth after the opponent’s game Saturday. That was in addition to the self-scouting work that O’Leary also demanded.

“It was a good three, four inches thick,” O’Leary said of his bible.

Georgia Tech offensive line coach Brent Key coached at Central Florida from 2005-14 in a variety of roles.

Credit: UCF at

Credit: UCF at

Besides Collins, Key also was a GA for O’Leary (at Tech and later at UCF), and Thacker and Glover were GA’s for him at UCF. While GA’s were assigned to a position coach, O’Leary tried to broaden their knowledge base.

“I wanted to make sure they learned the whole game, not just one little section,” O’Leary said. “That’s why someone like Geoff advanced pretty quickly because he understands offense and defense and special teams, and he’s dealt with all three of those areas.”

It was a demanding workplace.

Said Thacker, who was O’Leary’s GA in 2008-09 fresh out of Furman, “He treats everybody fairly. That may be good or bad at moments, but he treats everybody the same and creates a very tough environment.”

The toughness that defined O’Leary has been carried forward through Collins in a team mantra, “Put the ball down.” O’Leary recognized Collins' use of “#PtBD” (the saying, if not the hashtag) as a mindset that he had tried to impart to his own teams at Tech and UCF early on as he heard grumbles from the offense and defense about the other unit’s shortcomings.

“I said, ‘Look, this is a team,’” O’Leary said. “'I don’t care where the ball is. Just go out and play defense.'”

Collins, Key, Thacker and Glover are but four branches of O’Leary’s prodigious coaching tree. Perhaps the most notable names are Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien and Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone. True to himself, O’Leary said his first requirement in a hire was a willingness to work.

“I would never hire anybody who’s lazy,” he said. “That’s the first thing I tried to do, is get a read on people – what are their work habits, what time do they expect to get to work, do I have to tell them to hang around and get things done?”

So it was that O’Leary, after watching the Jackets rally Saturday from a 10-0 deficit to defeat Florida State 16-13 in an effort long on toughness and effort, was moved to text his congratulations to his former assistant on the win. Years have passed since O’Leary was Collins' boss, but the text message hit home.

For O’Leary to say that he was proud of Collins and respected the way his team plays, “that’s pretty special, it’s pretty cool,” Collins said, visibly moved.

On Saturday, O’Leary might be able to share his respect in person.

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