Long-awaited return put on hold

George O'Leary returns to NCAA to rebuild Golden Knights

One week ago, the big story surrounding Saturday's meeting between Wisconsin and Central Florida was the presence of UCF head coach George O'Leary. Now, it might be the absence of O'Leary, who will miss the season opener to attend to more pressing family matters. O'Leary will be attending the funeral of his mother Margaret, who died Wednesday at the age of 83.

"I've always preached family, religion, and football," O'Leary said in a statement released by UCF. "Not going to my mother's funeral would be hypocritical."

For O'Leary, the 2000 Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year winner at Georgia Tech, Saturday was to be a long-awaited return to the NCAA sidelines. After a successful seven-plus years with the Yellow Jackets, in December of 2001, he moved on to one of the most prestigious jobs in sports: head football coach at Notre Dame. However, his time in South Bend quickly came to an end after discrepancies on his resume emerged.

O'Leary landed back on his feet in the professional ranks, joining Mike Tice's staff in Minnesota. With the Vikings, he served as an assistant coach and defensive line coach in 2002 before becoming defensive coordinator in 2003.

Two years after he accepted the Notre Dame job, Central Florida came calling and O'Leary became the eighth head coach in the school's history. Since taking over, he has been able to put his past behind him and has been welcomed back by his fellow NCAA coaches.

"I tell you what, it has been a great situation for us here," O'Leary said earlier in the week. "Coaching is coaching. I think people understand, guys that work the game and guys that work at it and guys that do what they're supposed to do from an NCAA standpoint. I think they understand that coaches are going to coach and life moves on. I don't think they harbor on anything that happened in the past."

Slowly, O'Leary is putting his stamp on the UCF program. He inherits a team that finished the 2003 campaign with a 3-9 record and a 2-6 mark in conference play.

"We've improved… obviously not where I'd like to see it right now but I think we'll get better," O'Leary said. "We just have to continue to recruit the right players so that—I think coaching is a part of the game—I think good players win big games. I think we have to get more big, big-time players here to get that done."

While he knows it will not happen overnight, O'Leary is not exactly accustomed to losing as a head coach, owning a 52-33 record. As the Golden Knights near the end of their three-year run in the MAC and prepare for life in Conference USA, which begins in 2005, O'Leary will look to mold them into a perennial power in their new league.

"I think it's a rebuilding process," O'Leary said. "Obviously we have some good skilled athletes I think that can make big plays. I think at the level that we want to play at you win the game up front, offensive line, defensive lines. I think obviously recruiting has to take place the next couple years to get this program where I'd like to see it."

In his absence, the coaching duties will be handled by O'Leary's coordinators: offensive coordinator Tim Salem and defensive coordinator Lance Thompson. Special teams coordinator Dave Huxtable will act has head coach.

"I have an experienced staff," O'Leary said. "All three coordinators been there before and they pretty much do what they need to do. It's not like I'm leaving them with a bunch of rookies."

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