ORLANDO -- George O'Leary is 67 but doesn't forget much. The UCF coach remembers not too long ago “there were people who wanted us out” after a few losing seasons coupled with some off-field turbulence. UCF faced a wrongful death suit over the death of Ereck Plancher during a 2008 practice and NCAA sanctions four years later that required a petition to avoid a bowl ban.
And the résumé thing. Can't forget about that one. He mentions the infamous résumé embellishment in 2001 that cost him the Notre Dame job unprompted during an interview this week.
“I've been through it all,” O'Leary said.
Call O'Leary's run at UCF a lot of things, but one thing you can't call this year's charmed season is an accident.
O'Leary never forgot how to coach. To reinforce that point, O'Leary just pumped out his fourth 10-win season in 10 years.
Make no mistake, this UCF team is living right. The Knights turned the ball over five times last week against USF and still won, perpetuating a run of blessed football that Auburn can appreciate.
But when thinking about his Knights -- yes, the BCS-bound Knights -- O'Leary knows his staff slowly built this opportunity. O'Leary recalls his first team barely fielding 60 scholarship players, the football offices overlooking a patch of stale Florida grass instead of a new stadium.
Chalking up this year's 10-1 performance and at least a share of the American Athletic Conference title to a lucky bounce underplays the day-to-day process, the staff continuity and the sneaky-good recruiting.
When expansion stunted the win totals of several programs -- just look at Colorado, Utah, West Virginia and TCU -- UCF was ready for its call-up and enhanced television exposure.
“We had two 10-win seasons in three years and nobody knew it -- that was the problem,” said O'Leary about entering the league from C-USA.
Now they know.
Not even O'Leary expected this kind of resiliency when he looked at his defensive two-deep in August and saw at least 10 underclassmen. But UCF has found a way to win six games by seven points or less this season. The only loss was by a respectable three points to South Carolina.
But O'Leary had past teams he thought would be solid but lost those same close games. When a program finds stability, he breakout years can come at unexpected times.
It couldn't have come at a better time for the first-year American, which needs a cornerstone team with Louisville departing for the ACC next season.
That muscle's not coming from USF, which once eschewed UCF's request for an annual rivalry game and reportedly boxed out the Knights from joining the Big East.
Ranked No. 2 six years ago, USF is on its third coach in five years and could finish with its first-ever 10-loss season.
|O'Leary's UCF Record|
|2009||8-5||L, St. Pete|
|2012||10-4||W, St. Pete|
Now, UCF might be No. 2 -- the second-best team in the state.
“I think the key ingredient is George O'Leary,” athletic director Todd Stansbury said. “Anybody that is trying to build a program essentially from scratch that first year, he just built a foundation and recruited the right players and instituted an ethic and culture that is really culminating.”
A Cincinnati loss to Louisville on Thursday or a UCF win over SMU in Saturday's season finale clinches an American title and a spot in the conference's last automatic BCS bid.
A Sugar Bowl matchup with Auburn is a realistic possibility. Understandably, the Knights want SMU first, in part to play their first complete game in awhile.
“We don't back into anything,” said O'Leary about potentially clinching before playing SMU. “I don't.”
UCF can play down to competition against sub-par teams and often looks flat. The Knights needed a ridiculous touchdown catch from J.J. Worton to tie a two-win Temple team on the road.
But what's surprised the Knights staff is the team's opportunistic approach, especially late in games.
Quarterback Blake Bortles, whom O'Leary says is the best quarterback he's had at UCF, pressed all game against South Florida but still delivered a perfect deep ball to Breshad Perriman for the game-winning, 52-yard score.
Defensive back Jordan Ozerities sealed the game with a pick of USF quarterback Mike White.
Fourth quarter hits and plays are made.
“It starts to come naturally, like, ‘OK, this is going to happen,” tight end Justin Tukes said. “You can't really be negative.”
There were UCF fans that used to clutch season tickets somberly, knowing the wild SEC gameday atmosphere was two hours north Bright House Networks Stadium would barely house 40,000.
Friday night against USF, you could find smoked meats, Ford trucks and Evan Williams tents outside the stadium.
To Stansbury, that was sort of the point.
“I don't know that UCF has ever carried the city the way it is right now,” Stansbury said. “There's a lot of anticipation.”
O'Leary has the program where he wants it but hasn't changed his routine, arriving every day at 6 a.m. and leaving with his coaches that evening. He's probably more hands-on than ever, he says, especially with the young defense. He still benches players for missing class, he says.
Now that he can use recruiting to replenish the roster instead of overhaul it, he doesn't sound like a guy ready to start the retirement clock.
Winning's the fun part.
“All my life, after 45 years of coaching, I never knew what I would want to do more,” O'Leary said.