George O'Leary has brought No. 15 UCF to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, arriving at the BCS party just as the band is breaking down and the barkeep is cleaning up. But O'Leary's career has been a case study in living one step out of the spotlight.
"You know what's funny about the whole thing?" O'Leary said. "We've won 10 games three out of the last four years. And nobody knew it. All of a sudden, we won 11, and because of the BCS, everybody sees it."
As the sweet old ladies in his New York City parish used to say, the map of Ireland is on O'Leary's face. The 67-year-old coach has that Big Apple mixture of romanticism wrapped in a cynical crust. His favorite tool is the needle. He has a million bits of Irish wisdom, aphorisms and toasts, nearly all of which his players hear over the span of their careers.
Put team before self. Don't ask for your name on your jersey. "It has your number on it," O'Leary tells them. "If you're any good, they'll know who you are."
Don't take shortcuts. "Don't learn the tricks of the trade," he has said. "Learn the trade."
What's funny about the whole thing is that a dozen years after he fell off the top of the mountain -- because he took a shortcut -- O'Leary has reached the top again.
Promoted to head coach at Georgia Tech near the end of the 1994 season, O'Leary won more often on the Flats than any coach since Bobby Dodd retired in 1966. In seven seasons, he had a record of 52-33 (.612), including an Atlantic Coast Conference co-championship in 1998.
He assembled a staff of future head coaches (Ralph Friedgen, Doug Marrone, Randy Edsall, Ted Roof and a young running backs coach named Bill O'Brien). Quarterback Joe Hamilton ran and threw his way to second place in the 1999 Heisman Trophy race.
But Georgia Tech had the misfortune of being in the same ACC as Florida State, when Bobby Bowden took the Seminoles to 14 seasons of consecutive top-five finishes.
In Dec. 2001, O'Leary ascended to the dream job of a Catholic kid from New York. He became head coach at Notre Dame. His life in the spotlight lasted just long enough for his résumé to unravel. He claimed a master's degree from NYU. He claimed he played college football at New Hampshire. Neither was true.
As a young coach, trying to get a foothold in the business, O'Leary embellished his résumé. He may not have been the first to do so, but five days after his hiring, O'Leary became the example of why coaches couldn't do that anymore. He resigned and went into seclusion.
O'Leary emerged on the staff of the Minnesota Vikings. At the 2003 Senior Bowl, he spotted someone he knew from his college days. Before he said hello, goodbye, how are you or anything else, O'Leary said, "I'll be back."
At the end of the year, he got a chance. UCF athletic director Steve Orsini had worked with O'Leary at Georgia Tech. The Knights needed help. The program had been in the FBS for less than a decade. UCF needed a coach who could build.
In O'Leary's first season, the Knights went 0-11. "Oh, boy," O'Leary said. "When I showed up, there were only eight linemen in the whole program. They had gotten rid of 31 guys who were academic issues before I even showed up. There were about 60 [on the roster]. Eight total linemen. We just didn't have players."
UCF didn't have much of anything. The school had a new football building. That was about it.
"There was a practice field that had swamp around it," O'Leary said.
O'Leary trusted Orsini and the university administration to do what they promised. They did. UCF opened Bright House Networks Stadium in 2007. The Knights have real practice fields. They have an indoor facility. Training table, study hall, dorms -- it's all right there, a short walk from the center of campus.
"When you put up a building," O'Leary said, "the people who don't get any better just put the building up. I made sure the foundation was there. Then we put furniture in the building each year. That's how you get better. That comes down to recruiting, to the culture of the program."
O'Leary looked for team captains, self-starters, kids who wanted a degree. One of the guys he signed in his first February, before that winless season, was Josh Sitton. His senior year, UCF won the Conference USA title. Sitton just finished his sixth season as a guard for the Green Bay Packers. He made the Pro Bowl last season.
Another guy, quarterback Blake Bortles, played in a wing-T offense at Oviedo High, close to the UCF campus. He just led the Knights to the Fiesta Bowl, and Scouts Inc. projects that Bortles will be hugging it out with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
His players graduate. Last year, UCF finished with a 974 APR, 13th among the 70 bowl teams. And now, his teams win. Even with that 0-11 start, O'Leary's UCF record is 71-56 (.559).
UCF went through the inaugural season in the American undefeated in league play. The Knights knocked off preseason favorite Louisville. They finished 11-1, losing only by a field goal to No. 9 South Carolina. They went 6-1 in games decided by five points or fewer.
When UCF takes the field Wednesday night against No. 6 Baylor, the Knights will be a 17-point underdog. That's where O'Leary is used to living. He may be one step out of the spotlight, but the funny thing is, he knows how to win there.