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Graven image, grave error: UCF’s George O’Leary statue is appalling

Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire
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Some human beings deserve statues … but not many, and certainly not people whose greatest contribution to the world was merely winning a lot of football games.

There is a place in the world for a Lincoln Memorial, or for our French friends, a statue of Joan of Arc. Remembering capital-G “Great Men and Women” is important. History should breathe and live in future generations. The lessons of the past — and the courageous people who taught them — should indeed be accessible to the children of tomorrow.

Football coaches — sports coaches — should not be part of that story unless, through their on-field excellence, they made contributions which transcended gameday and a 120-yard field or a 94-foot-long slab of hardwood.

Let’s be charitable, however.

Let’s acknowledge that Paul W. “Bear” Bryant meant a great deal to the South for being as excellent as he was for more than 30 years as a college football coach. Let’s acknowledge that, over a third of a century after his death, Bryant retains his larger-than-life dimensions. Would I wage a life-and-death struggle over the idea that a statue shouldn’t be built to honor The Bear?

No, I don’t think I’m that much of a zealot on this issue. Once in a great while, it’s okay to build a statue of a great sports figure, but again, these kinds of episodes should be extremely rare. They should not become commonplace to the point of being ordinary and unremarkable events.

That’s precisely part of the point, too: Statues — on the rare occasions they’re merited — ought to remember remarkable human beings, not mediocre ones.

George O’Leary, former coach of the UCF Knights, will reportedly get a statue made in his image. He is not a remarkable man; he’s a mediocre man at best. 

Far less benign but entirely reasonable appraisals of O’Leary would view him as a liar and a generally negligent professional who — if not immediately responsible for the death of Ereck Plancher — certainly created (and/or ignored) circumstances which contributed to the death of Plancher, a player O’Leary was supposed to care for.

O’Leary lied on his resume at Notre Dame in 2001, paving the way for Tyrone Willingham to become the school’s head coach, thereby altering the course of college football in the 21st century.

Yes, O’Leary was extremely good at winning games. That’s never been in question. Guiding UCF to a Fiesta Bowl appearance, and then an emphatic takedown of Baylor as a massive Vegas underdog, represents one of the foremost feats of coaching in recent college football memory. O’Leary could coach with the best of them. Between the painted lines, he deserved admiration.

Beyond the painted lines … not one bit.

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It is jarring, isn’t it? We are not that far removed from the Penn State scandal. To put a finer point on the matter, new reports of just how much Joe Paterno knew have continued to surface into this calendar year. The shadow of Penn State becomes larger with the passage of time, not smaller.

The idea that Joe Paterno deserved a statue might have held merit 15 years ago, but it’s worth noting that statues shouldn’t be built for people while they’re still alive. Statues — graven images — are objects of remembrance, vehicles through which an important, meaningful aspect of shared history can be conveyed. The living person — while still alive — is himself (or herself) the continuation of history. The statue should follow that person’s death, and if it’s determined — as in JoePa’s case — that a life wasn’t as honorable as it first appeared, no statue should be built.

We don’t need to rush to build graven images of fellow human beings. No, we shouldn’t wait hundreds of years, but we can wait five or 10. Joe Paterno was supposed to teach us that.

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Yet, that’s a discussion carried at a relatively higher level. It’s a complicated debate, but one which demands care and discernment. Many reasonable people, in 2001, would have felt it acceptable to build a statue of Paterno. It’s easy to refute the idea today, but back then, it was a different world.

In George O’Leary’s case, however, the idea of building a statue — if raised by UCF administrators or other power brokers in Orlando — should have been shot down the moment it was raised. In a sane society, such a claim should encounter no opposition whatsoever.

Let’s go beyond the Plancher death itself and note that UCF and the Plancher family locked horns in prolonged litigation after the initial wrongful death trial.

Even the biggest UCF die-hard in the world, someone who genuinely loves O’Leary for his football achievements, should be able to realize that erecting a statue of the coach is a big, fat flip-the-bird gesture to the Plancher family.

Is this what a secondary academic institution wants to be remembered for? Is football glory that important, to the exclusion, diminishment and — in the case of the Planchers — humiliation of others?

Human communities shouldn’t reflexively want to build statues of people who were merely successful in commercial or competitive realms. We shouldn’t build many statues of people, but if and when we do, we need to reserve such monuments for the Martin Luther Kings and Mother Teresas among us.

Building a statue of George O’Leary never should have passed the sniff test. The fact that it has at UCF — at least to the point of preliminary approval (we’ll see if the project goes through) — makes sense in no rational context.

In an America which propelled Donald Trump to the GOP nomination, however, it begins to make some sense.

Heaven help us.

Graven image, grave error: UCF’s George O’Leary statue is appalling

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