Last week, a somewhat surprising college athletics succession story appeared on sports tickers everywhere, accompanied by relatively little national fanfare (at least relative to what we feel it merited). The University of Central Florida, without an athletic director since former incumbent Todd Stansbury opted for a future in Corvallis instead of Orlando, announced on Tuesday that it would postpone an immediate search/decision on its next athletic director and instead name current head football coach George O’Leary the interim AD. Further, sources tell CollegeAD.com that the university intends to delay any formal decision on the permanent occupant of the throne for at least six months, timing that dovetails almost perfectly with the conclusion of football season. This would, at least on the surface, seemingly offer ideal timing for O’Leary to either retire from coaching (something rumored prior to last season) and slide right over into the AD chair, or provide him with a six-month trial basis while he determines if he can effectively do both jobs.
There are, quite frankly, a host of reasons why the selection of O’Leary to man double-duty at UCF warrants closer evaluation. To say nothing of several controversial events in O’Leary’s past – we will get to that in a bit, for certain – this decision immediately stands out because it has so few analogs in recent college sports history. Consider that no one has served as both the head football coach and athletic director of an FBS program simultaneously since 2010, when Derek Dooley left both offices empty in Ruston, LA, to become the head football coach at Tennessee. Barry Alvarez did it for a very brief stint back in the mid 2000s, before handing the football program over to one of his assistants in order to focus solely on running the entire Wisconsin athletic department. Other than that, the recent pool of successful multitaskers is extremely shallow.
And there’s a good reason for that, in this day and age, as it’s almost an impossible, Sisyphean endeavor to excel in both roles. Even the most casual of college sports fans are aware of the near-legendary time demands associated with being the head football coach at an FBS program. Similarly, we have been inundated for the last decade-plus about the “big business” that is college sports, and how the days of the glad-handing, former-athlete-turned-figurehead-of-an-AD is a relic of the past. College athletic departments are multi-faceted entities with budgets in the hundreds of millions, and they require experienced business leaders adept at stewarding conglomerates consistently teeming with competing interests. So, in other words, someone exactly like the in-season, career football coach.
Still, “questions regarding effective time management” isn’t even close to the most compelling reason that O’Leary may be ill-suited for his new dual responsibilities. Even put under a light most charitable to the man himself, his resume (and I’m consciously avoiding the lowest-hanging fruit in the history of orchards right here) comes with some quarry-sized pockmarks. Just last year, O’Leary was named in a suit alleging breach of contract by his former defensive coordinator of a little over two months. While it’s important to note that these are still merely allegations (as the case is not yet resolved), the former coach paints a less-than-flattering picture of O’Leary’s football program, describing a workplace dominated by an abusive, bullying tyrant almost incapable of having a conversation not littered with racial epithets (including some sage insights into the periodontal makeup of African Americans that are so unbelievable and offensive they read like something straight out of Jimmy the Greek’s diary).
In addition, O’Leary’s football program was accused, found guilty of, and placed on two years’ probation by the NCAA only five years ago as a result of some “major” violations connected to recruiting practices. And while O’Leary himself wasn’t found personally at fault with respect to these violations, two of his direct reports were. In light of a less-than-optimal record in overseeing compliance within the universe he’s presumably an expert in, how wise is it to add “the entire athletic department” to O’Leary’s personal Org Chart?
But all of the above pales in comparison to the most sordid chapter in O’Leary’s UCF tenure, and one that doesn’t deserve any flippant comments accompanying it. That is, in 2008, one of George O’Leary’s UCF players, a young man named Ereck Plancher, died following offseason conditioning drills that O’Leary himself was overseeing. Plancher’s parents eventually sued the university and the UCF Athletic Association (whose most famous member is, naturally, O’Leary), winning a 10 million dollar negligence verdict. Though the amount was later reduced to 200K in 2013 by a Florida appeals court, that court made note of the “egregious conduct” of the UCFAA staff involved the day Plancher died. The details of the trial were not kind to O’Leary, as Plancher’s attorneys presented evidence from four former UCF football players (including a former team captain) who all recalled a more strenuous workout than UCF coaches originally said took place. The players also testified that Plancher was struggling throughout the conditioning session, gasping for breath at times, and that, unbelievably, no water or trainers were present. Finally, and perhaps most damning in the court of public opinion, evidence was offered that O’Leary cursed Plancher shortly before he collapsed and ultimately had to be carried outside by teammates.
While I am not inferring that O’Leary himself knowingly caused the death of one of his players, or that he isn’t as personally devastated about Plancher’s death as he has repeatedly stated, it’s nevertheless a germane topic to revisit now that O’Leary has been elevated to the position of head man at UCF. And at the risk of inadvertently sounding callous, fault is in many ways less important in this particular context than is responsibility. O’Leary, as the steward of the UCF football program, is ultimately responsible for everything that happens within the confines of that program, especially in those instances where he is personally present. At the very least, it seems almost superhumanly tone deaf against this backdrop for O’Leary to give an interview in 2013 in which he decries the state of football practices today and states that there is “no question that kids today are softer than kinds in the past,” a phenomenon he attributes mainly to “parental babying.” Given that massaging the public perception of the UCF athletic department now falls directly within his purview, the aforementioned quote is particularly cringe-worthy, and raises legitimate questions about whether O’Leary’s skill set is a ideally suited for this type of role.
Yet despite all the reasons listed above, I can’t definitively state that George O’Leary won’t be a successful AD at UCF should he decide in six months to focus his attention in that arena, exclusively. His record as a football coach alone is beyond reproach, and it’s not hyperbole to say, given the history of the Golden Knight program before his arrival, that O’Leary is UCF football. I don’t purport to have any particular insight into the collective mind of the UCF fan base, but I imagine that he’s a pretty popular guy around Orlando based solely on his gridiron exploits. Given that one of his chief duties as the permanent AD would be revenue generation and fund-raising, I imagine that there are worse situations to find oneself in than to be the all-time winningest coach of the nation’s largest public university’s football team in a region of the country that will only continue to grow. And it would be remiss to not mention that UCF boasts the highest Graduation Success Rate for student-athletes of any public NCAA Division I FBS school in the nation. That’s a laudable accomplishment for which O’Leary must receive credit and is deservedly proud. Still, for all those neither located in central Florida nor with any connection to the black and gold football program, the totality of the circumstances that have resulted in George O’Leary being elevated to an even higher rung of the UCF athletic department remain curious, and deserving of high degree of scrutiny.
Feature image via Wikimedia
Jeff Troxclair is an executive, lawyer, and life-long college sports fan. He is a graduate of both NC State University and the University of Notre Dame, and is a hopelessly optimistic Wolfpack and Irish fan. Jeff is originally from New Orleans, LA, but has lived for extended periods of time in both Raleigh, NC, and Chicago, IL. He currently resides in Oakland, CA, with his wife and daughter. Having seen the New Orleans Saints actually win a Super Bowl, he is now convinced that we live in a world where no sports-related achievement is impossible.