December 22, 2005

Strange journey for coach, Irish

It was four years ago this month when Jim Fennell unknowingly changed the landscape of college football.

It couldn't have been further from his intention. He was, as he told Rivals.com this week, just looking into an "idea of doing what surely would have been a flattering feature on a University of New Hampshire grad."

Fennell was, and still is, a sports writer for the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader. The UNH grad to whom he refers was George O'Leary. O'Leary had accepted the Notre Dame job in December 2001, and his resume listed him as a three-year letterwinner on the UNH football team in the late 1960s.

By now you know the rest of the story. Fennell wanted to check on O'Leary's exploits with the Wildcats only to find there had been none. UNH had no record of him ever setting foot on the football field. He had, in fact, lied on his resume.

"ResumeGate" exploded nationally. O'Leary, who had risen to such heights that he was a logical hire for one of the most visible jobs in college football, was forced to resign from his dream job less than a week after accepting it. Notre Dame, with enough egg on its face to make one huge omelet, was forced to scramble, too. No one likes to be the second choice, and Tyrone Willingham clearly was.

What ensued was a nightmare for O'Leary and for the Irish. O'Leary released a statement in which he admitted to preparing a resume "that contained inaccuracies regarding my completion of course work for a master's degree and also my level of participation in football at my alma mater." He was embarrassed and out of football for the time being.

Willingham stepped into the maelstrom and lasted three years before being unceremoniously dumped short of his five-year contract, a move never before taken in South Bend. Notre Dame was roundly criticized for abandoning Willingham too soon, but school officials felt the program had slid too much.

In the meantime, O'Leary had resurfaced, albeit quietly as an assistant for the Minnesota Vikings. Then, in 2004, the University of Central Florida offered him his entrée back into both the college ranks and the head coaching fraternity.

"I talked to O'Leary several months before he began his first season at Central Florida," Fennell said. "He seemed excited about building the program there and was gracious during the 40 or so minutes we spent in his office."

What he has done with the Golden Knights this season is nothing short of sensational. After going 0-11 in his first season and entering this one with the nation's longest losing streak, O'Leary led a freshman-laden starting unit to an 8-3 record and a berth in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve.

What if Fennell had never looked into O'Leary's background? It's possible, even likely, O'Leary would still be at Notre Dame. Which means a different career arc for Willingham, and better days in South Bend.

Who knows where Charlie Weis would be? Waiting to take over the Texans?

And where would UCF be? Could it be that only a guy who'd lost as much as O'Leary could show the Golden Knights how to win again?

"I think O'Leary was/is an honest guy who made a mistake and paid a steep price
for that," Fennell said. "The fact that he lost his dream job at Notre Dame is nothing I take satisfaction in."

It's difficult to say that it has all worked out for the best. But you can say this much: Four years ago it was the bleakest Christmas imaginable. This week, it's Christmas in Hawaii.



 

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