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O'Leary resume touts new entry: turnaround season

UCF AD plans to reward the coach he thinks can help program flourish

AP Sports Writer

ORLANDO, FL — Less than three months ago, Central Florida was mired in the nation's longest losing streak and expected to finish at the bottom of Conference USA.

Now, UCF is bowl bound for the first time. And George O'Leary's infamous resume is better than ever.

There's a reason Notre Dame hired him four years ago — O'Leary knows how to coach. He's proved that again at UCF, which he's transformed over the last few weeks from a punch line to a postseason team — one that will host the Conference USA championship game on Saturday against Tulsa.

For the Golden Knights, it's been a breakthrough.

For O'Leary, it's been a rejuvenation.

"There's nothing I can do about what happened at Notre Dame," O'Leary said. "A mistake was made. I paid a dear price for it. But, as my mom used to always say, 'God doesn't close one door, he opens another.' I think this was a door that opened and I'm making the most of it."

UCF is 8-3 and 7-1 in league play. The school is in the midst of the second-biggest one-season turnaround in NCAA football history. Only Hawaii's 1999 team, which improved 8 1/2 games over its 1998 record, has exceeded what the Golden Knights have done this year under O'Leary — a national coach of the year candidate.

He got his dream job at Notre Dame in 2001, only to resign a week later after admitting to falsifying his academic and athletic credentials on his resume for decades. His claims of having a master's degree in education and being a three-year college player at New Hampshire were ultimately proved untrue.

But UCF had no reservations about giving O'Leary a five-year contract in 2003. Now, school officials feel like geniuses for putting their program in his hands.

"We didn't hire him because of how many letters he had at New Hampshire as a football player or whether he had a master's degree or not," said UCF athletic director Steve Orsini, a captain on Notre Dame's 1977 national championship team. "And he's more motivated than ever, both for himself to clear his record professionally, and to turn this program around."

That process has advanced faster than anyone — O'Leary included — could imagine.

Most preseason magazines ranked UCF near the very bottom of all the 119 teams in Division I-A football. The team's media guide offered probably the most positive outlook, saying the Golden Knights "enter 2005 hopeful to continue to lay the groundwork for a successful football program."

Hardly a ringing endorsement. And O'Leary's goal for the season? Six wins.

"I got a lot of twisted eyes looking at me when I said that," O'Leary said.

The Golden Knights opened with a respectable 24-15 loss at South Carolina, then lost by 17 to South Florida. The program went exactly 700 days without a victory, and it seemed even longer to the players.

"After the USF game, I know a lot of guys were thinking, 'Here we go again," ' said senior defensive end Paul Carrington, a tri-captain. "But the fortunate thing about seasons is, it's not how you start them, it's how you finish them. And again, that's something Coach O'Leary has always stressed and instilled in us."

UCF's 17-game losing streak ended with a win over Marshall, starting a run of eight wins in nine games for the Golden Knights, who have only 10 seasons of Division I-A football history and are in their inaugural Conference USA campaign.

"It wasn't just a win, it was breaking a lot of bad records we had at the time," O'Leary said. "Continuous losses in the country. The first win with this staff, a new staff that was here. I told the kids, we're going to throw all that in the garbage pail, throw the lid on and keep it on."

UCF hasn't exactly outclassed its opponents. But if there's any positive to glean from an epic losing streak, it's resiliency. And the Golden Knights have clearly shown that.

Only one of their wins was by more than 10 points. They've won five straight games and trailed in every one, including a 12-point halftime deficit last week at Rice, and an 11-point deficit the previous week at UAB.

"It's definitely surreal, how everything's worked out for us," Carrington said.

Until now, UCF's biggest football accomplishment was the exploits of Daunte Culpepper, who threw and ran for 12,432 yards from 1995-98.

The school is planning a 45,000-seat on-campus stadium and has indicated that it will do whatever is necessary to keep O'Leary if any other program comes to woo the man who was 2000's national coach of the year at Georgia Tech.

"We're going to do the right thing," Orsini said. "He has earned us to step up now, too. He has done his job. It's time for us to do our job and do the right thing for him. He and his staff have earned that. He has a chance to create the program, the next big Division I program in the state of Florida."

Whether O'Leary stays or goes, the Golden Knights could have an extremely bright future. Most of the team is composed of freshmen and sophomores, with only a handful of seniors in key roles.

"When you come back to college and you go 0-11, I'm sure there was a lot of doubters," O'Leary said. "But I never doubted that we were going to win. And you know, could-ofs and would-ofs don't get it done. So I've moved on from what happened at Notre Dame. And I'm real happy for this program here."

02/23/07 10:43 AM

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