George O’Leary has had a successful tenure as head coach of the Central Florida Knights. Coming into this season, he had compiled an 81-60 record and taken his team to 7 bowl games, winning three.
He came to Orlando in 2004 after a successful run with Georgia Tech. He briefly held the Notre Dame job, but never coached a game.
O’Leary pledged to build the Knights into a winning program. After his first year, there was no place to go but up.
The 2004 season saw the Knights lose all 11 of their games, but bright days came quickly. In 2005, they turned it all around and went 8-5 and qualifying for the Hawaii Bowl.
From 2005 through the next 10 years, Central Florida won 81 games while losing 49, a winning percentage of 62 percent. The highlights were many.
O’Leary’s teams won at least 10 games on four occasions, including a 12-1 record in 2013. That year, the Knights defeated Penn State in Happy Valley, the program’s first win over a Big Ten team.
On a memorable New Year’s Night of 2014, Quarterback Blake Bortles led Central Florida to a 52-42 upset win over Number 6 Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. It was the Knight’s first appearance in a BCS Bowl.
Without Bortles, they still went 9-4 in 2014. This season has been an ugly flashback for O’Leary.
Just like 2004, Central Florida has lost their first five games. Saturday’s 45-31 loss to Tulane is just the latest in a string of disappointments.
They were without starting quarterback Justin Holman and other contributors, but scoring points wasn’t the problem. Very few win games when the opponent scores 45 points. The Knights were trailing by 28 points in the fourth quarter.
This season is rumored to be O’Leary’s last. In June, he was named UCF’s interim athletic director. If he is given the full time gig at age 69, he may choose someone other than him to wear the headsets on Saturdays.
Should he move to the office, O’Leary will be defined by who he hires to replace him. He has built this program into one that can attract an up-and-coming young coach.
No matter who coaches Central Florida in 2016, some rebuilding will be necessary. Not like what O’Leary faced in 2004, but enough to restore the brand to the stature he has developed.
Meanwhile, he has plenty of work to do this year.