UCF Director of Athletics: 1976-81
|Hall of Fame:|
Class of 2008
To the players on the University of Central Florida inaugural football team, it all began on a dreary and rainy September Saturday in Dade City where the new Fighting Knights were set to play St. Leo College in the 1979 season-opener. However, many of the players would tell you it really started much earlier, in March, when they learned that the UCF athletics director was hosting a meeting for prospective college football players on the university's golf driving range.
There stood Dr. Jack O'Leary in front of an assorted crew of over 100 prospective players. Some were talented and some were not; some came ready and seasoned, while some were just too dumb to know any better. The group would spend the afternoon performing an audition in agility and physical fitness.
Dr. John T. "Jack" O'Leary was the school's first full-time athletics director, hired by the university's founding president, Dr. Charles Millican, in August 1976 when the campus was still known as Florida Technological University. At the time, O'Leary's mission was to continue to build on the successes of the school's first AD, Dr. Frank Rohter, who had began the FTU athletics program in 1969.
Much of O'Leary's legacy today resides with the football program he begun in 1979. Yet, several of FTU's early programs saw great success during his five-year tenure that stretched five years, 1976-77 through 1980-81. Despite budget restraints, the program was able to move from five sports in 1975 to 15 sports in 1981.
During O'Leary's tenure men's basketball qualified for four NCAA Division II Tournaments, with an appearance in the 1978 NCAA National Championship game. From 1976-80, women's volleyball played in five straight NCAA Division II Tournaments, winning the 1978 National Championship. The women's soccer program, led by a pair of future UCF Athletics Hall of Famers in Coach Jim Rudy and star player Michelle Akers, advanced all the way to the National Championship game in their 1981 inaugural season. Baseball also qualified for its first NCAA Tournament in 1979.
Even though FTU had no varsity football program at the time he was hired, O'Leary brought a wealth of college football experience with him nevertheless, having served as an assistant, head coach and administrator for nearly 25 years prior. This included the 1968-70 seasons under Paul "Bear" Bryant while earning his doctorate at the University of Alabama.
This experience proved beneficial a couple of years later in 1978 when the university's second president, Dr. Trevor Colbourn, took office and spoke of the importance of starting a varsity football program during his January 15, 1979 inauguration speech. Colbourn felt having football would increase the visibility of a young university that opened its doors just over a decade ago, in addition to exposing its recent name change from FTU to the University of Central Florida.
A new charge was there for O'Leary. Working with Bill Goldsby, who managed the athletics business office, O'Leary now focused on raising the necessary funds to make football a reality. He lined up a deal to play in the Tangerine Bowl in addition to media partners, WDBO and WKIS, to air public service announcements and eventually game broadcasts. During these first years of the team, O'Leary served as radio announcer for all of the UCF games, making all the long road trips, all the while continuing his regular duties as the Director of Athletics. The Gridiron Club was formed alongside the athletic department's Black and Gold Club, today's Golden Knights Club, specifically to fundraise for the football program. He organized flyers to be sent out to area high schools, junior colleges and current UCF students advertising tryout dates.
A one-day "blitz" was held on June 13 by the Orlando Chamber of Commerce Sports Committee in June that raised an excess of $40,000 through area businesses. Along with money raised at a luncheon hosted by Senator George Stuart, UCF had built enough funds to start its first football season. A day later, June 14, an eight-game home schedule, dubbed "Saturday Knights Live", was announced along with a season ticket campaign that promoted "1949" prices: $13 for the four-game package, with single game tickets available for $4 each.
At first, O'Leary took on the job of being the team's head coach because there was no funding to hire anyone else. He was also able to lure a staff of six volunteer assistant coaches who were already on campus going to graduate school. UCF would eventually be granted access to play in Division III, but that didn't matter. Area players were ecstatic that there was now an opportunity to play in front of a hometown crowd. When the group of prospective players met with O'Leary for the first time, they knew history was about to be made. O'Leary gathered the players to a half circle while holding a brown paper grocery bag he slowly pulled out a football uniform for display and proclaimed "We are going to look like Notre Dame." With black jerseys, gold pants and solid gold helmets, the team would be known as "The Fighting Knights."
However, the task of managing an athletics program, coupled with building a football team, was daunting. As a result, O'Leary tapped former pro quarterback Don Jonas, who was working as a promotions specialist with the City of Orlando, to become the team's first head coach, with Jonas agreeing to do so in a voluntary capacity. The coaching hire completed a rather quick turnaround in starting football at UCF, which would be granted access to compete at the NCAA Division III level, less then a year after Colbourn championed the cause. With no money to hire a coaching staff, O'Leary and Jonas were fortunate to lure good coaches to help, with Bugsy Engelberg, Tommy Bland and Tom Murphy, to name a few.
In 1981, with the football program moving forward, O'Leary had requested a reassignment to a faculty role in the Department of Physical Education where he could continue to his passion for teaching. He would go on to teach golf to University of Central Florida students, in addition to serving as a teacher and mentor to the Physical Education Department interns.
Tragically, Dr. Jack O'Leary died suddenly on December 2, 1983. He had a massive heart attack while driving his daughter to school. He was survived by his wife Ann, and their three children - Mike, Tom and Jackie.
Born and raised in Portsmouth, NH, O'Leary would go on to serve as a lieutenant in the Army during the Korean War, where he did one tour of duty. He received both his Bachelor and Masters degrees from Colorado College in addition to playing varsity football and coaching JV basketball. From there he went to St. Mary's of the Plains College where he was the AD, as well as head basketball and football coach. At Tulane University, he was head football coach for the freshman and JV squads and offensive coordinator for the varsity squad. He went on to the University of Alabama where he received his Doctorate degree, and was an assistant football coach and recruiter for Paul "Bear Bryant. After that O'Leary served briefly as Athletic Director at Miami-Dade Community College before moving on to fill the same role at Colorado State University.