Whatever Circumstances Require
Haughty. Living the good life. Spiteful. Unwilling to compromise. She’ll move on up, not caring about who she steps on, making her way to the top. After all, she’s not coming down, or so she thinks.
Bob Dylan casts judgement at someone who has fallen — quite badly — in “Like A Rolling Stone.” It’s one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever, one that contains an equally great story. The figure in “Like A Rolling Stone” has committed a lifetime of sins and slights in what must’ve been a short span of time. Dylan’s figure is hardly sympathetic; she seemed to have it coming to her. Perhaps there are many among us who’ve been wronged by a person who’s also managed to secure his or her own downfall. No vengeance is called for, but it does bring satisfaction to ask that pointed question: How does it feel?
Mark Bradley, a sportswriter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), has an enthusiasm for music that’s often shaped his perspective of the games he covers. Once he referred to Neil Young as the coolest guy on the planet. There’s enough symmetry in that. Young’s father, Scott Young, was a celebrated hockey writer in Canada. Interestingly, Neil Young’s career has comparisons to that of hockey great Gordie Howe, the National Hockey League Hall of Famer who played professionally from 1945 through 1980. Bradley and Neil Young have lots they could talk about, including that famous song by Bob Dylan. After all, like any aspiring Dylanologist would, Bradley had given the song a lot of thought. In December 2001, Bradley took that pointed question of Dylan’s and applied it to George O’ Leary, the head coach of Georgia Tech’s football team over the previous seven seasons. He implored O’Leary: How does it feel?
For most of his tenure at Georgia Tech, O’Leary was the toast of Atlanta. He turned the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets around in his third full year as head coach. On Saturdays at the “Flats,” it felt as if the glory days of Bobby Dodd had returned. Attending a game at Grant Field now promised more than the fun of singing “Ramblin’ Wreck,” with its most famous line,”to Hell with Georgia” shouted lustily. People around the world love singing that song, rooted in “Son of a Gambolier,” an old barroom tune written by Charles Ives, the American classical composer whose works influenced many, including the Grateful Dead. Richard Nixon and Nikita Khruschev sang “Ramblin’ Wreck” together in 1959, although it was performed more vibrantly by Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
When Peck, playing a soldier in Italy during World War ll, grabbed the ukelele and sung the college fight song to his young lover, he thought it possible he’d have to cover up some deception if and when he got back to America. As it turned out, Peck’s secret about his affair and out-of-wedlock child would eventually be shared by a few. George O’Leary’s case was different. Millions would learn he padded his resume. Coast to coast, people who had admired O’ Leary for his great work at Georgia Tech learned he really wasn’t where it’s at.
The results on the field, though, were authentic. In his brief span of glory, O’Leary had two great quarterbacks, Joe Hamilton and, then, George Godsey, leading Georgia Tech to top bowl games from 1998 through 2000. Most significant of all, the Yellow Jackets beat the hated Georgia Bulldogs in each of those three years. Talk about “to Hell with Georgia.”Life was great at Georgia Tech. Once upon a time, George O’Leary lived so fine.
Also once upon a time, coaching a college football team was a more secure job. The coaches then didn’t make a fraction of the money they do now, but they had more job security. When O’Leary won the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year Award in 2000, it made one think of the award’s namesake and how times and loyalties had changed. Dodd was at Georgia Tech as assistant coach, head coach and athletic director over 45 years (’31-’76). He was the head coach for 22 years. But by 1967, when Dodd coached his last game, money — big money — was starting to gain a foothold in college athletics. There was more riding on the score. Coaches felt less secure with their teams. Teams felt less secure they’d keep their coaches. Over the next 35 years, seven men would serve as head coach at Georgia Tech. Times changed. So had priorities. The integrity possessed by Dodd, readily apparent in his seriousness about his players’ education, seemed quaint to many. However, it made all the sense in the world to him that school athletes should attend their classes and make the most of opportunities their talents afforded them. Life away from the gridiron would begin sooner than later for most of the players.
Dodd passed away more than a dozen years before O’Leary won that great award. So did most of the principles Dodd lived and coached by In the world of big-time college athletics. Integrity had taken a back seat to shoe contracts. Do you want to make a deal?
Not everyone at Georgia Tech found O’Leary to be the most affable guy on campus. He was a bit of an operator and his manner could be brusque. In his last game as head coach, he bad-mouthed his players to the press. Not a good thing. It’s bad form to boo a college athlete from the stands and it’s even worse for the coach to hurl the raspberries. As one member of the school’s marketing department lamented, “They’re just kids, you know.”
And so like a kid, O’Leary decided to take his ball and go home. Home, that is, to the finest school all right — to the dream job for any football coach born with an Irish surname. Home to South Bend, Indiana. George O’Leary was named head coach of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Talk about exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things, O’Leary now had one of the two or three best jobs in sports. He had the job for all of five days.
One didn’t have to look into the vacuum of his eyes to know O’Leary really wasn’t where it’s at. All it took was checking his resume, which a reporter with The Manchester Union-Leader did while working up a story on Notre Dame’s new head coach. O’Leary had falsely claimed on his resume that he had played football at the University of New Hampshire, lettering ’66 through ’68. None of the players and coaches from the team remembered O’Leary playing there. His claim of receiving a masters degree in education from New York University wasn’t true either. O’Leary’s supposed accomplishments had been placed on his resume in 1980 when he began working as a defensive line coach at Syracuse. Even as the jobs got better for O’Leary in the years to come, the lies stayed on the resume. He could have easily removed the claims and no one would have noticed. The reporter in Manchester would’ve likely focused on O’Leary’s accomplishments, which were many, as a coach. As it was, however, O’Leary resigned from his dream job, then returned to Atlanta, pondering life with no secrets to conceal. Mark Bradley, in his December 15, 2001 column for the AJC, conveyed a reasonable amount of empathy for O’Leary. After all, it was the basic hubris and stupidity often seen in the world of football that left O’Leary’s life in tatters. How does it feel? Bradley has a good idea:
A man works all his life to make a reputation. At age 55, the man accepts the job of his dreams. In less than a week, the man is left without the job and without his dreams. Six days later, the man reputation isn’t of “class” or “integrity” or any of those lofty concepts he claimed to espouse. The man stands exposed as a liar.
O’Leary needn’t have worried about living out on the streets. The National Football League, more about winning than honor, can always find a place for a “liar.” So O’Leary was named defensive coordinator and defensive line coach for the Minnesota Vikings, who ranked 30th in the NFL in defense in 2001. As he did at Georgia Tech, O’Leary turned things around, bringing the Vikings up to a respectable 10th in defense. The latest entry in O’Leary’s resume was legitimate, bringing him another chance in college football: the head coaching job at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, near Disney World. As Warren Zevon sang, “Goofy, take my hand.”
At Central Florida, it was turnaround time again. After a brutal first season (0-11) in 2004, O’Leary made the Central Florida Knights a team no opponent took lightly. Over the next eight seasons, O’Leary took the Knights to five post-season bowl games with 2010 being the team’s best year, as they finished with a record of 11-3 and national rankings of 21 and 22 (Coaches and A.P. polls, respectively).
In “Honest With Me,” from his 2001 “Love and Theft” album, Bob Dylan sings, “I’m going to do whatever circumstances require.” George O’Leary appeared to take such a philosophy to extremes. After a 2007 season in which the Knights went 10-4 and played in the Liberty Bowl, O’Leary continued with his tough-guy approach in spring practice. On March 18, 2008, O’Leary vented his frustrations at running back Ereck Plancher. As the work-outs went on, Plancher got weaker, not up to continuing. O’Leary heaped on more verbal abuse and demanded that Plancher suck it up and sweat it out. More obscenities were hurled at Planchert by O’Leary in a post-practice huddle. Soon after the practice, Plancher collapsed and was rushed to a hospital. He died one hour later.
Players told ESPN and the Orlando Sentinel the practice was far longer and more rigorous than what O’Leary and his assistants would later admit. The same players also said O’Leary demanded others not assist Plancher when the pain hit. Worst of all, college medical reports indicated that UCF coaches knew of Plancher’s sickle-cell trait which was potentially troublesome. Even death could result when physical exertion became too intense.
The gang at UCF went into full denial mode, all the way through a trial that awarded Plancher’s parents $10,000,000.00. (The award was appealed earlier this year.) All the while, it appears O’Leary’s contract will be extended two more years, to 2017. The UCF administration is happy with O’Leary’s efforts as coach and the scholastic improvements his players have made. The ugliness of the Plancher case is something they appear willing to overlook, just as they did an O’Leary incident that occurred in 2000. At a Georgia Tech practice, sophomore Dustin Vaitekunas, an offensive lineman, missed a block, allowing the defenders to reach the Tech quarterback. O’Leary hit a boiling point. He called Vaitekunas, had him stand in position as four players were assigned to run at him – full tilt – and sack their teammate. The hit was savage. Vaitekunas, all 6-7 and 314 pounds of him, was down for 15 minutes. He got up and was given some medication. From there he walked back to his room and off the team. He told the AJC he was injured physically and mentally, “but to tell the truth, maybe more mentally.” A member of the National Honors Society and the Beta Club, Vaitekunas gave up his scholarship but kept his integrity. He continued his studies close to home at Cleveland State University. His mother considered filing assault charges against O’Leary but later chose not to, despite no apology from the coach.
But even with his checkered reputation, Central Florida’s admistration is thinkin’ they got it made. UCF believes O’Leary can still recruit top players to the school. After all, Notre Dame once believed he was the man to lead their hallowed program. As Atlanta writer Tommy Housworth despairs, “O’Leary is a coach to die for.” How does it feel? Dustin Vaitekunas can tell you. Ereck Plancher can’t. George O’Leary knows but it doesn’t matter. He’s only done “whatever circumstances require.”
Author’s Note: Helpful in the research for this story were reports from Sports Illustrated,ESPN, The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Orlando Sentinel as well as Georgia Tech football media guides. On a personal note, in the spirit of full disclosure, while working with the AJC, I handled the Georgia Tech Athletic Department’s advertising from 1987 through 2002. The people there were always very kind and professional. During several of the O’Leary years, my son and I were season ticket holders to Georgia Tech football games.