In his 10th year at UCF in 2013, 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, two conference championships, four division titles and trips to 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 C-USA and the American Athletic Conference, as well as the 11th in the nation, the veteran head coach 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.
Before heading off to the American Athletic Conference 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, tying for the second-most victories in a single season. It culminated in a 38-17 thumping of Ball State in the 2012 Beef `O' Brady's Bowl.
Guided by the winningest senior class in school history in 2012, UCF paced C-USA 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 also would be 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 rankings 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.
The 2010 season surpassed even the 2007 year when O'Leary guided the Knights to what was then arguably the finest campaign in program history. UCF won 10 contests, 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 either. 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 has built the Knights into a powerful program.
And just two years later, 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.
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 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, and 29 touchdowns. He became the only rusher in the state of Florida and the 12th all-time in the NCAA FBS to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark in a season.
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 American Football Coaches Association recognized UCF football Nov. 29, 2011, 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.
The 2012-13 campaign alone delivered numerous academic achievements. UCF's 974 APR was 13th out of the 70 teams that qualified for a bowl, while the program received the C-USA Sport Academic Award for having the highest team GPA among all 12 C-USA football teams. 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 Knights turned in a successful effort in the classroom during the 2008 campaign, registering the highest in-season grade-point average in program history at 2.782. A total of 55 student-athletes recorded a GPA of least 3.0 during the fall 2008 semester.
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, 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.
In 2005, O'Leary's second season at UCF, he engineered one of the top turnarounds in the history of college football. Just one year removed from an 0-11 campaign, he guided the Knights to a historic season, complete 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. Ten Knights who played under O'Leary have been selected in the NFL Draft.
Torell Troup went in the second round, 41st overall, to Buffalo in 2010, and the Knights had a pair of selections in 2011 in Jah Reid (third round by Baltimore) and Miller (seventh round by San Francisco). The trend continued in 2012 when Robinson heard his name called in the third round by Minnesota, and in 2013 Latavius Murray (Oakland, sixth round) and Kemal Ishmael (Atlanta, seventh round) were drafted as well.
Burnett was a fifth-round pick of Pittsburgh in 2009. Smith was one of three UCF players taken in the 2008 draft. He was the first pick of the third round by Detroit. Offensive lineman Josh Sitton went to Green Bay in the fourth round and Kansas City selected tight end Mike Merritt with its seventh-round pick.
After his incredible senior season in 2006, Sims-Walker was selected by Jacksonville in the third round. In the previous year's draft, wide receiver Brandon Marshall was Denver's fourth-round selection.
Other former Knights who played under O'Leary, including defensive lineman Paul Carrington, tailback Alex Haynes, wide receivers Jamar Newsome and Kamar Aiken, defensive tackle Leger Douzable, 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 five assistants later garner head coaching jobs: Ralph Friedgen (Maryland), Randy Edsall (Connecticut), Ted Roof (Duke) and Bill O'Brien (Penn State) at Georgia Tech and Brian Polian (Nevada) at UCF. Both Friedgen and Edsall have 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'Leary's 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.