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UCF Football Legacy and Future Tied to George O’Leary—For Better or Worse

A report this week suggests George O’Leary, on the eve of his 12th season as UCF football head coach, he’s ready to step down.

The UCF head coaching gig will be an attractive opportunity for any number of candidates. An energetic up-and-comer like P.J. Fleck could take the next step in what is sure to be an illustrious career there. A proven recruiting guru like Ed Orgeron could thrive at UCF, tapping into the deep, local talent pool. The potential for UCF football is sky-high, and O’Leary made that evident in his decade-plus at the helm.

But, with O’Leary declaring his intent to remain as UCF’s athletic director after retiring from football — he’s already the school’s interim AD — any successor takes on the baggage of O’Leary’s tenure along with the potential.

Aside from Daunte Culpepper’s breakout 1998 season, UCF barely warranted a footnote in the annals of college football history. Without O’Leary, UCF would be more recognized today as the backdrop of cult classic ninja flick The Miami Connection than as a burgeoning football power.

But in O’Leary’s tenure, Knight football took advantage of the buzzing, local recruiting scene, UCF’s national-leading undergraduate enrollment, and a changing landscape. UCF upgraded conferences twice, moving to Conference USA in 2005 and the American in 2013, and is now a favorite rumored name for possible Big 12 expansion.

The Knights won 10 or more games four times, the first time in 2007. That then-high watermark coincided with both the opening of Bright House Networks Stadium, a beautiful new venue that signified UCF’s commitment to building up its football program, and with running back Kevin Smith bringing the program national attention.

With his 2,567-yard, 29-touchdown campaign, Smith set the standard for UCF players — a standard matched when quarterback Blake Bortles led UCF and O’Leary to their signature season. The Knights went 12-1 and dominated Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl to cap the 2013 season.

NCAA FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Baylor v UCF

UCF took a chance on O’Leary when it hired him just a few years removed from being caught lying on his resume, shortly after he was hired to replace Bob Davie at Notre Dame. The school’s gamble paid off in victories, bowl appearances and national recognition — but is it fair to say O’Leary made good on his second chance?

The death of Ereck Plancher in March 2008, just a few weeks after the Knights completed their first 10-win season, will forever be as much a part of O’Leary’s legacy as the conference jumps or Fiesta Bowl championship.

In July 2011, a jury found the UCF Athletics Association negligent in Plancher’s death from complications due to sickle cell anemia. The UCFAA boils down to O’Leary, who oversaw the workouts from which Plancher died.

Plancher family attorney Steve Yerrid told reporters after the decision, “If there’s one message that we have sent very loudly and clearly, the welfare of any student athlete is at the top of any football program.”

In other words: Winning doesn’t trump all.

The initial decision found UCFAA liable for $10 million in the wrongful death suit, which was reduced to $200,000 in 2013 — not because UCFAA was no longer found negligent. The university’s push for a new trial was rejected. On the contrary, ruling judge Wendy Berger wrote:

“My opinion regarding the enforceability of the release should not be interpreted to condone the egregious conduct of the UCFAA coaching staff. Indeed, as it appears and as the jury found, it was both the coaching staff’s actions and inactions that led to the tragic death of Ereck Plancher. It is difficult to comprehend how one human being can ignore another in obvious distress or prevent someone else from offering aid to one in distress, but, inexplicably, that is what happened here.”

A new head coach will be well-equipped to build on the success UCF enjoyed on the field under O’Leary. But having a fresh start that scrubs away the stain of O’Leary’s tenure isn’t possible; not if O’Leary remains tied to the program as AD.

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