December 10, 2001
By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA (AP) - George O'Leary popped into the room and took his seat as though it was just another day at Georgia Tech. "What's new?" he asked, managing a slight grin.
Of course, this was hardly just another day. O'Leary is a Notre Dame man now (the dark blue sweater was a giveaway), and he was back at Georgia Tech merely to pack up and say good-bye.
"Georgia Tech was a great place for coach O'Leary," he said Monday. "Notre Dame is a great fit for coach O'Leary."
After being introduced as Notre Dame's new coach the previous day, O'Leary sorted through papers and tossed out the stuff he won't need in South Bend. He also met with some of his assistants - who will remain with the Yellow Jackets at least through the Seattle Bowl on Dec. 27 - and a few of his now-former players.
"When you take another job, you need to get out of there," O'Leary said.
While conceding that Notre Dame was his dream job, O'Leary insisted it wasn't easy to leave Georgia Tech. He was an assistant for five seasons, left for a couple of years in the NFL, then returned to Atlanta in 1994. He had a lot of close friends, plenty of roots, even a lake house about an hour's drive away where he still plans to retire.
"Georgia Tech has been outstanding for me," said O'Leary, 52-33 in seven-plus seasons as head coach. "I was up in the air. My wife didn't know until I got home" from the interview.
In the end, the mystique of Notre Dame won out.
"That's my background," said O'Leary, a Catholic of Irish descent from the New York area who grew up listening to Notre Dame games on the radio. "It's not a financial deal. It's what I felt in my heart."
Under O'Leary, the Yellow Jackets beat Georgia three years in a row for the first time since the early 1960s and earned five straight bowl invitations for the first time since the 1950s. In addition, he pushed through an expansion of 41,000-seat Bobby Dodd Stadium, which will grow to 55,000.
Even as he spoke Monday, tractor trailer rigs were buzzing around the athletic building, hauling in equipment and materials for the $70 million renovation.
"I've been pushing for that for a year and a half, and now I'm not going to be here," O'Leary said. "But that shouldn't be the message. Georgia Tech deserves good facilities, no matter who's the coach."
O'Leary isn't happy with the way his tenure ended. The Yellow Jackets started the season in the Top 10 but wound up 7-5, losing two games in overtime and another in the final minute of regulation on a trick play.
"I always count on winning a game or two from the sideline," O'Leary said. "This year, we did not get that done. But when you look at other seasons, the whole composite, what have we done? Where has the program gone?"
O'Leary, who was making $1.1 million a year, doesn't think the Yellow Jackets will have any trouble getting a quality replacement. The team loses only five starters on offense, three on defense. Life will go on, he said.
"There's always somebody coming over the hill," he said. "People forget about you real quick."
Georgia Tech athletic director Dave Braine won't discuss the search for O'Leary's successor until the contract is signed. In the meantime, some obvious names have cropped up, including Maryland's Ralph Friedgen, once O'Leary's top aide.
In his first season with the Terrapins, Friedgen won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and a trip to the Orange Bowl.
"I know he likes Georgia Tech, make no bones about it," O'Leary said. "To get him would be a great coup."
The players like the current staff, but they aren't going to push for one of them as O'Leary's replacement. Mac McWhorter will serve as interim coach for the bowl game and wants to be considered as a permanent replacement.
"Most of us are only here a few years," said senior quarterback George Godsey. "We'll leave it up to a higher power."
Godsey, whose younger brother Gary is a tight end at Notre Dame, believes O'Leary is the right kind of coach to turn the Fighting Irish around.
"We're lifting weights at 6 a.m.," Godsey said. "I'd call Gary and he'd be sleeping till 10 or so. I think he's in for a change, but it's a change for the better. He needs to get up and start moving around."
O'Leary hasn't decided which assistants he might take with him to Notre Dame. He'll meet with them Monday and Tuesday, then return to South Bend on Wednesday to begin interviewing former coach Bob Davie's assistants.
"It's like a puzzle. I'll have to see where it all fits," O'Leary said. "The most important thing is securing a staff."
He doesn't plan to allow any of his Georgia Tech players to transfer to Notre Dame.
"It's not only important how you take a job, it's how you leave," O'Leary said. "You leave with class and dignity."