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Ozymandias: A Retrospective on the Resignation of UCF Knights Head Coach George O'Leary

O'Leary built the UCF football program and raised our expectations for what the Knights should be. He leaves it amid an 0-8 season.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

- Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias (1818)

Shelley's point was this: achievement is impermanent, and time has a way of making empires fade.

If you told me before the season began that it would be George O'Leary's last season at UCF, I would have believed it. The retirement rumors had long swirled and were at a fever pitch in 2014 when some claimed that O'Leary would retire following the Penn State game in Ireland. If you told me that he would leave after presiding over a colossal wreck of a season, sitting at 0-8, I would have been shocked.

O'Leary leaves a complicated legacy. He built this UCF program, leading it to virtually every meaningful achievement. The Knights' first bowl appearance. Their first bowl win. A Fiesta Bowl win. Their first national ranking. Their first top ten ranking. On O'Leary's watch, UCF built an on-campus stadium and jumped conferences twice.[1] He coached the Knights to four conference championships: two in Conference USA and two in the American Athletic Conference. He built winning teams from unheralded recruits, putting players like Blake Bortles, Breshad Perriman, and Latavius Murray into the NFL.

And he bookended all of this with winless seasons. O'Leary went 0-11 in 2004, his first season with the Knights. Even if the team can notch a win this year - which seems very unlikely - O'Leary won't be wearing the headset for it.

What happened off the field also complicates O'Leary's legacy. Before UCF, he spent a total of five days as the head coach of Notre Dame before being fired for making false statements on his resume. O'Leary described it this way:

Many years ago, as a young, married father, I sought to pursue my dream as a football coach. In seeking employment, I prepared a resume that contained inaccuracies regarding my completion of course work for a master's degree and also my level of participation in football at my alma mater. These misstatements were never stricken from my resume or biographical sketch in later years. During my coaching career, I believe I have been hired because of the success of my players on the field and the evaluation of my peers. However, these misstatements have resurfaced and become a distraction and embarrassment to the University of Notre Dame, an institution I dearly love.

And of course, this meant that UCF was able to get a coach who would have been otherwise inaccessible, and at a bargain price.  Over the years, UCF proved loyal to O'Leary - even in difficult times and rocky seasons - and O'Leary reciprocated.

Though O'Leary was fired in ignominy from Notre Dame, the UCF sports marketing department embraced a campaign that focused on the entity of the Knight's new coach, casting him as a heel and old school tough guy. The 2004 UCF football poster featured a close-up of a shouting O'Leary and the unfortunate phrase, "Change is nothing to FEAR. The Coach, now that's another story." This, in a year in which the Knights would end up losing every game. Commercials highlighting O'Leary were also . . . awkward.

It was during George O'Leary's tenure that player Ereck Plancher collapsed and following conditioning drills in March 2008. Plancher's death, determined by the Orange County medical examiner to have resulted from sickle cell trait complications, was an absolute tragedy. Extensive civil litigation followed, and though O'Leary was not a defendant, he was a prominent figure in the case. The jury found that UCF's Athletic Association was negligent in Plancher's death. UCF ultimately prevailed on a sovereign immunity issue, and UCFAA's liability was reduced to $200,000.

O'Leary's often candid comments to the media seemed sometimes refreshing, and at other times remarkably tone deaf, especially when cast in the light of the Plancher tragedy. He drew criticism for his statement that "There is no question the kids today are softer than kids in the past, in my mind. I think it comes from too much parental babying . . . ."

Still, O'Leary's emphasis on discipline and academics were praiseworthy (and, in truth, not praised nearly enough). In O'Leary's twelve years, there were few player arrests. And Knights earned degrees. UCF had a 90 percent graduation success rate in 2014 - third among public universities, first in the state of Florida, and first in the AAC. The football program improved its graduation success rate the last eight years in a row.

His influence on the fledgling AAC is significant. The Knights won the first conference title in 2013 outright and shared the second with Cincinnati and Memphis last year. The tremendous Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor gave the conference instant credibility in its inaugural year.

This year has been an unqualified failure on the field as the Knights sank to a spectacularly bad 0-8, including a loss to FCS Furman (the Knight's first loss to an FCS or Division II program since leaving Division II themselves). And for a coach who achieved so much success, it's unfortunate that it ends like this. More so considering the revelation that he wanted to retire following the Fiesta Bowl win and was talked back into returning for two more seasons. O'Leary could have easily gone out on the high note, but it wasn't to be. The disappointment of this season would not sting so badly had O'Leary not brought the program to the heights he did. He is the reason the UCF program has the privilege of having real expectations.

O'Leary is in the unusual position of having resigned twice from UCF this year - once from his gig as the interim athletic director, and now from the head coaching job. His choice to step away now will draw comparisons to Steve Spurrier's recent mid-season resignation. And like Spurrier, O'Leary's choice to end things now will help the program he put on the map move on to the future.

So long, George O'Leary. And thanks for the memories. May you have a better fate than Shelley's statue.

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[1] Though the invitation to Conference USA came in 2003 before O'Leary was hired.