NCAA Football: Bethune Cookman at Central Florida (USATSI)
In his 12th year at UCF in 2015, George O'Leary has helped the Knights achieve dozens of historic firsts, including games in front of sellout crowds on campus, individual accolades for student-athletes, four conference championships and victories in prestigious bowl games. For O'Leary, it has been business as usual.
Since taking over the program in 2004, O'Leary has made sure that UCF has reached new heights. The longest-tenured coach in the American Athletic Conference, the veteran football mind has molded his program into a consistent winner on and off of the field.
His hard work contributed to the construction of Bright House Networks Stadium. Interest in the program has never been higher. His student-athletes are enjoying record success in the classroom, and the Knights are winning on the football field.
Earning back-to-back conference titles for the first time, UCF captured the American Athletic Conference crown thanks to a 7-1 league record in 2014. It received a spot in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl and ultimately landed a 9-4 overall record, marking the third straight year the Knights had at least nine victories.
The 2014 campaign began in Dublin, Ireland, where O'Leary was honored with a Certificate of Irish Heritage from Lord Mayor of Dublin Christy Burke and Croke Park stadium director Peter McKenna. At the end of the season, UCF placed five Knights on the all-conference first team, highlighted by Jacoby Glenn being voted as The American's Co-Defensive Player of the Year and an Associated Press Second Team All-American.
Joining The American in 2013, UCF set school records with 12 wins, seven victories away from Orlando and a nine-game winning streak. UCF was undefeated in league play for the first time (8-0) en route to the outright conference title.
The 2013 squad also posted UCF's first two wins over top-10 teams (No. 8/6 Louisville and No. 6/5 Baylor) and its first victories against Big Ten (Penn State) and Big 12 (Baylor) programs. And on Dec. 8, exactly 10 years to the day O'Leary was hired at UCF, the Knights accepted their first BCS bowl berth.
Ranked No. 15 heading into the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, UCF lit up University of Phoenix Stadium with a 52-42 triumph over Big 12 champion Baylor. And the celebration continued in the days after as the Knights achieved their first top-10 ranking by placing 10th in the final AP Top 25 Poll. They were then honored by thousands with a massive pep rally at CFE Arena and a once-in-a-lifetime parade at Magic Kingdom.
O'Leary was named The American's Coach of the Year in 2013, as well as a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, to The Paul Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Award Watch List and a semifinalist for the Maxwell Football Club Collegiate Coach of the Year.
The eight seniors on the 2013 roster left as the winningest senior class with a 38-15 record from 2010-13, while Blake Bortles was named The American's Offensive Player of the Year. He joined five others as UCF representatives on the league's first team. To top it off, Bortles became the highest NFL Draft pick in UCF history when he was selected third overall by Jacksonville.
Before heading off to The American for 2013, O'Leary and his Knights had work to do in Conference USA, and they definitely made 2012 another memorable season. UCF went on to earn its fourth East Division title and post a 10-4 record. It culminated in a 38-17 thumping of Ball State in the 2012 Beef `O' Brady's Bowl.
UCF paced the league with six players on the All-C-USA First Team. That included C-USA Defensive Player of the Year Kemal Ishmael and C-USA Special Teams Player of the Year Quincy McDuffie, who was also named a Sports Illustrated First-Team All-American.
Freshmen seemed to take over on the field in 2011. UCF led the league with six players voted onto the C-USA All-Freshman Team, which were the most by any team since Houston had six in 2008. Rannell Hall served as the lone freshman from any school to grab a spot on the All-C-USA First Team, as he was the first freshman kick returner in C-USA since 2002 to be voted onto the first team.
In all, 14 players received postseason honors by the league, including cornerback Josh Robinson, who was voted onto the All-C-USA First Team for the second-straight year, and wide receiver J.J. Worton who set a UCF freshman record with 41 receptions during the season.
O'Leary guided the 2010 Knights to the school's first 11-win season, the C-USA championship and an AutoZone Liberty Bowl win over Georgia. The Knights earned their first-ever national ranking in 2010, finishing the year at No. 20 in the coaches poll and O'Leary was rewarded with the C-USA Coach of the Year award as voted on by his peers for the third time in six years.
Just one year prior to that, O'Leary and the Knights put together an impressive run at the end of the 2009 season to earn a bid to the St. Petersburg Bowl. UCF went 5-1 down the stretch and won six-straight C-USA contests to close out the regular season. That included the Knights' first win in school history over a nationally-ranked Football Bowl Subdivision program when they upset No. 13/12 Houston, 37-32, on Homecoming.
UCF broke out in 2007 with 10 victories, claimed the C-USA Championship and participated in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in front of a nationally-televised audience on ESPN.
There was little suspense as to who would garner C-USA Coach of the Year honors that year. For the Knights and their fans, 2007 was truly a year to remember. For the college football world, the season was more evidence that O'Leary was only just beginning to build the Knights into a powerful bunch.
Helping UCF Arrive on the National Scene
O'Leary has already left his stamp on the Knights' program. When he arrived in Orlando in 2004, UCF was not a factor on the regional or national scenes.
O'Leary rebuilt the program from the ground up. He lobbied for new facilities, toured the state to gain publicity, restocked UCF with top recruits and made sure his student-athletes excelled in their studies.
The growth of the program was no more evident than in 2007. UCF posted a then-school-record seven-game winning streak during the season. The conference championship was the first in program history.
O'Leary helped tailback Kevin Smith post one of the most dominant single-season rushing performances. The junior rushed for 2,567 yards, good for second all-time in NCAA history at the time, and 29 touchdowns.
The 2008 season saw Joe Burnett also earn first-team All-America honors as he shattered the school and C-USA punt return records and graduated ranked 19th in NCAA history in career punt return yards.
In 2009, Robinson was a first-team freshman All-American and Bruce Miller won the first of two consecutive C-USA Defensive Player of the Year awards. In addition to Miller, Jeff Godfrey was named the 2010 C-USA Freshman of the Year and a school record five Knights made the All-Conference USA first team that year.
Excellence off the Field
O'Leary has reshaped the UCF program in every facet, including improved results in the classroom. The Knights exited C-USA as the top football program academically in 2011 and 2012, then continued that trend by winning the American Athletic Conference Team Academic Excellence Award for 2013.
When the 2014 Graduation Success Rates were released by the NCAA, UCF's 90 percent as the 10th highest among all FBS schools, third among public institutions and first in the state of Florida and in the conference. It was the eighth consecutive year the football program improved its GSR, and it was a program-best score.
During that 2013 campaign while UCF was busy working toward the eventual AAC championship and Tostitos Fiesta Bowl title, it also was opening eyes in the classroom besides its impressive team GPA. The Knights checked in with a program-high APR of 994 for 2012-13, only six points shy of a perfect score and tied for fifth in the country. It also marked eight consecutive years that UCF was ahead of the national average. UCF's multi-year APR rate jumped from 975 to 978, placing the Knights 15th overall among all FBS schools and 27 points higher than the average.
UCF became the first football program in C-USA history to have a team GPA of at least 3.0. The Knights also tied for third in the country for having the most players who already had their degrees (11). At the end of the spring, UCF posted its highest average GPA for two consecutive terms under O'Leary.
The American Football Coaches Association recognized UCF for being one of just 17 institutions for graduating at least 90 percent of its members of the freshman student-athlete class of 2004, which was UCF's first year with O'Leary at the helm of the program.
Defensive lineman Keith Shologan became the first player in school history to receive ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America First Team honors in 2007. Rocky Ross picked up Academic All-America honors in 2009, as did Lyle Dankenbring in 2012. Ross, Shologan, Sha'reff Rashad, Josh Linam and Ray Shipman have been selected to the C-USA Football All-Academic Team under O'Leary. T.J. Harnden received UCF's highest honor, the Order of Pegasus, in 2009, becoming the second active student-athlete to be so recognized.
In 2008, Sha'reff Rashad was named to the league all-academic squad for the second-consecutive year. In 2007, he was named the UCF Male Scholar Athlete of the Year, becoming the second-straight football player to earn the honor. Rashad was twice named to the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame's Hampshire Honors Society. Offensive lineman Dan Veenstra was the award winner in 2006.
Guiding the Knights Toward Prominence
The 2006 season featured several memorable moments for the Knights as they finished their final campaign at the Florida Citrus Bowl. Wide receiver Mike Sims-Walker had a record-breaking season. The Orlando native broke the single-season school record for receptions with 90 and hauled in 1,178 receiving yards just a year removed from an ACL injury. He earned All-C-USA First Team honors and was one of five Knights recognized for their strong play by the league office.
Just one year removed from an 0-11 campaign, he guided the Knights to an historic season in 2005, capping it off with the program's first bowl appearance. O'Leary led UCF to the fourth-best turnaround in NCAA history with a record of 8-5. The Knights went 7-1 in C-USA and claimed the league's East Division title. The squad became just the sixth team in NCAA history to go to a bowl game a year after going winless as the Knights participated in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.
The college football world took notice of the turnaround. O'Leary was named the C-USA Coach of the Year. Both CBSsports.com and SportsIllustrated.com named him the national coach of the year.
Facing an 11-game schedule with just four home games, his squad became just the fourth team in NCAA history to earn a bowl berth while playing seven road contests. Even more remarkable, the turnaround was made with a team of mostly underclassmen.
Pipeline to the Pros
O'Leary has experience coaching on the professional level and, as a result, has helped several Knights move on to the NFL. Fourteen Knights who played under O'Leary have been selected in the NFL Draft.
Player - Pos. - Team - Year - Round - Pick
Brandon Marshall - WR - Denver Broncos - 2006 - 4 - 119
Mike Sims-Walker - WR - Jacksonville Jaguars - 2007 - 3 - 79
Kevin Smith - TB - Detroit Lions - 2008 - 3 - 64
Josh Sitton - OL - Green Bay Packers - 2008 - 4 - 135
Mike Merritt - TE - Kansas City Chiefs - 2008 - 7 - 239
Joe Burnett - CB - Pittsburgh Steelers - 2009 - 5 - 168
Torell Troup - DT - Buffalo Bills - 2010 - 2 - 41
Jah Reid - OT - Baltimore Ravens - 2011 - 3 - 85
Bruce Miller - DE/FB - San Francisco 49ers - 2011 - 7 - 211
Josh Robinson - DB - Minnesota Vikings - 2012 - 3 - 66
Latavius Murray - RB - Oakland Raiders - 2013 - 6 - 181
Kemal Ishmael - DB - Atlanta Falcons - 2013 - 7 - 243
Blake Bortles - QB - Jacksonville Jaguars - 2014 - 1 - 3
Storm Johnson - RB - Jacksonville Jaguars - 2014 - 7 - 222
Other former Knights who played under O'Leary, including defensive linemen Paul Carrington, Leger Douzable and Troy Davis, tailback Alex Haynes, wide receivers Jamar Newsome and Kamar Aiken, cornerback A.J. Bouye, tight end Darcy Johnson and kicker Matt Prater, have also spent time in the NFL.
Success at Georgia Tech
O'Leary was the head coach at Georgia Tech from 1994-01 after taking over as interim head coach for the final three games of the 1994 season. During his seven-year stint at Georgia Tech, O'Leary guided the Yellow Jackets to a 52-33 record. The squad made five bowl appearances under O'Leary.
From 1995-01, Georgia Tech recorded five winning seasons in six years. His 1998 squad won the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship and played in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day. O'Leary's Georgia Tech teams won at least seven games on four occasions , including a 10-win campaign in 1998 and nine victories in 2000. The 2000 Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year, O'Leary was named the ACC Coach of the Year in 1998 and 2000.
One trademark of O'Leary's tenure as a head coach has been the quality of his coaching staffs. He has had six assistants later garner head coaching jobs: Ralph Friedgen (Maryland), Randy Edsall (Connecticut), Ted Roof (Duke), Doug Marrone (Syracuse and Buffalo Bills) and Bill O'Brien (Penn State and the Houston Texans) at Georgia Tech and Brian Polian (Nevada) at UCF. Both Friedgen and Edsall led schools to BCS conference titles.
Prior to coming to UCF, O'Leary served on Minnesota's NFL coaching staff for two seasons. In 2003, he was the Vikings' defensive coordinator. In his first season with the team in 2002, he guided the defensive line into becoming the strength of the Minnesota defense. He also served as the squad's assistant head coach.
O'Leary also served as the defensive line coach for San Diego from 1992-93. In 1992, the defense had 51 sacks as the Chargers won the AFC West with an 11-5 record.
Moving Up the Ranks
O'Leary had the first of two stints at Georgia Tech from 1987-91. He served as the defensive coordinator/defensive line coach. The team finished 11-0-1 in 1990 and won the national championship, defeating Nebraska in the Florida Citrus Bowl.
A Long Island native, O'Leary received his first coaching job at the collegiate level at Syracuse (1980-86). He coached the defensive line and was also the assistant head coach his final two seasons.
He started his coaching career at the high school level. From 1968-76, he coached at Central Islip (N.Y.) High School. O'Leary was the head coach at the school from 1975-76, before taking over as the head coach at Liverpool High School. He posted a 37-8-1 record in five seasons as a prep head coach, including a perfect 10-0 campaign in 1979.
O'Leary was born in Central Islip, N.Y., and attended Central Islip High School. He attended the University of New Hampshire and earned his degree in physical education. O'Leary and his wife, Sharon, have two daughters, Chris and Trish, and two sons, Tim and Marty. The O'Learys welcomed their first grandchild in 2006 as Tim and his wife Jennifer gave birth to a son named Tate. The couple had a second son, Cullen, in 2008 and a daughter, Maggie, in 2010.
UCF, 2004-Present Head Coach
Minnesota Vikings, 2003 Defensive Coordinator
Minnesota Vikings, 2002 Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Line
Georgia Tech, 1995-01 Head Coach
Georgia Tech, 1994 Interim Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line
San Diego Chargers, 1992-93 Defensive Line
Georgia Tech, 1987-91 Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line
Syracuse, 1985-86 Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Line
Syracuse, 1980-84 Defensive Line
Liverpool (N.Y.) High School, 1977-79 Head Coach
Central Islip (N.Y.) High School, 1975-76 Head Coach
Central Islip (N.Y.) High School, 1968-74 Assistant Head Coach
Honors and Awards
2013 - American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year
2013 - Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year finalist
2010 - C-USA Coach of the Year
2007 - C-USA Coach of the Year
2007 - Atlanta Touchdown Club C-USA Coach of the Year
2005 - C-USA Coach of the Year
2005 - CBSSports.com National Coach of the Year
2005 - SportsIllustrated.com National Coach of the Year
2005 - Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year finalist
2005 - Paul "Bear" Bryant National Coach of the Year finalist
2000 - Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year
2000 - Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year
1998 - Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year
1998 - AFCA Region I Coach of the Year
1998 - Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year finalist