ND hires O'Leary
By ANDREW SOUKUP
Associate Sports Editor
George O'Leary made it very clear what he intends to do as the head football coach of Notre Dame.
"Understand one thing," he said. "I'm here because I believe we can win and we can win big and make no guesses out of Saturday afternoons."
Over 1,500 people attended a public press conference in the Joyce Center as the former Georgia Tech head coach was formally introduced as Notre Dame's 27th head football coach Sunday afternoon, just one week after former head coach Bob Davie was fired in the same building.
During the half-hour press conference, O'Leary, who signed a six-year contract, acknowledged that Notre Dame is a truly special place to coach and that he intends to make Notre Dame a perennial contender for the national championship.
"I'm very happy to be at Notre Dame," he said. "I think the two best jobs in America are the head football coach of Notre Dame and the manager of the New York Yankees."
When news of Davie's firing was announced, O'Leary never thought he would end up being the man chosen to replace him. While he hoped he was on White's list of candidates, he said he didn't actively seek the position. For him, Notre Dame represents the pinnacle of college coaching positions.
"It was never a goal [to be head coach at Notre Dame] because I never thought I could reach it," he said. "If you set goals, they should be realistic. Notre Dame is a job you always look at if you're coaching and would really like to be there. If you get the opportunity, it's something very special."
In his seven-year tenure with Georgia Tech, O'Leary led the Yellow Jackets to a 52-33 record. He was named Coach of the Year in 2000 after Georgia Tech finished 9-3 and was named ACC Coach of the Year twice.
"I love the fact that he's a very seasoned football coach," Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said. "On top of that, he represents a great fit at Notre Dame. What do I like more? I like the fit."
Both White and Notre Dame President Father Edward Malloy praised O'Leary's deep respect for Notre Dame standards. The Irish were looking for a coach who was a proven winner, who shared a passion for Notre Dame's tradition and who could be a good public representative. O'Leary, White said, was the only person interviewed who fit that description.
"Of all the people we talked to about the job ... this gentleman seems to offer without a doubt the best combination of those three articulated qualities," White said. "He knows what championship football is all about."
"I do think that I understand what takes place at this school," he said. "It's more than football and it's more than academics, and you don't know it until you arrive."
O'Leary was hired following an exhaustive, nationwide search that took White from California to Georgia. White said he left Monday morning to begin looking for a new head coach. He added that he interviewed four potential candidates, although he would not reveal the names of the other three. However, both Oakland Raiders' head coach Jon Gruden and Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti said they had spoken with White, but removed their names from the list of potential candidates for the coaching vacancy.
"A week ago when we were beginning the search, I said that it would be a thorough, intense national search and that's what it has been," White said. "We traveled literally to all parts of the country and spoke with dozens of people throughout the football community. We interviewed four candidates, and we offered the job to one."
O'Leary was first contacted by Notre Dame officials late Thursday night about the coaching vacancy and sat down with White on Friday for a formal interview. On Saturday, Malloy privately interviewed O'Leary for an hour. Sometime Saturday, after meeting with a 10-member committee commissioned to help select the new head coach, O'Leary was formally offered the job.
"On every account, I sensed very quickly a great rapport and a kind of deep-seeded desire to join our family here at Notre Dame," said Malloy. "When he had a chance to meet with some of the people I invited to be part of the process ... he won us over with his sincerity, with his commitment to the task, with his toughness of spirit and with his concern for the student athletes to be trusted to his care."
The story about O'Leary's hiring broke late Saturday night. On Sunday, O'Leary notified Georgia Tech officials and players of his decision before flying to South Bend. Once on the Notre Dame campus, O'Leary met with Gary Godsey and Jeff Faine — two of the three players appointed by White as team leaders — before meeting with the entire team.
"This is a tough school and I think it needs a tough guy at this school," quarterback Carlyle Holiday said. "It seems like he's a real business guy and he just wants to get things done and he won't take anything else other than winning."
During the press conference, O'Leary answered questions cleverly and caused the crowd to break into laughter several times. When a group of students yelled, "We love you George!" he quickly responded, "I hope you feel that way at midseason."
O'Leary's coaching career began in 1968 at Central Islip High School in New York. He spent eight years at Central Islip and three years at Liverpool High School in New York before moving to Syracuse for six years as the defensive line coach. In 1987, O'Leary went to Georgia Tech for five years as the defensive coordinator. In 1992 and 1993, O'Leary was the defensive line coach with the San Diego Chargers before moving back to Georgia Tech in 1994 as the interim head coach. The interim tag was removed in 1995.
During his head coaching tenure with the Yellow Jackets, O'Leary led Georgia Tech to five consecutive bowls and three Top 25 finishes from 1998 to 2000. Under O'Leary's tenure, the Yellow Jackets faced Notre Dame on Sept. 6, 1997 during the rededication of Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 17-13, but O'Leary would get revenge two years later when the Yellow Jackets beat the Irish 35-28 in the Gator Bowl.
A gruff, honest coach, O'Leary endured a pair of minor controversies during his final three seasons at Georgia Tech. In 1999, he was forced to spend one game coaching from the press box after he improperly loaned money to a running back. And last year, O'Leary came under fire when offensive lineman Dustin Vaitekunas quit the team after accusing O'Leary of having four defensive linemen rush at him full speed in practice as punishment for missing blocks during a game. O'Leary said it was a breakdown in communication and he never intended to cause harm to any of his players.
But O'Leary made it clear that his Georgia Tech days are in the past. He does not plan to coach the Yellow Jackets in the Dec. 27 Seattle Bowl against Stanford. While he said he planned on returning to Atlanta Sunday night to finish up business with the Yellow Jackets, he planned to return to South Bend on Wednesday.
"Obviously, my job is twofold: To graduate your athletes and to win a lot of football games," he said. "I came to Notre Dame to win games, and a lot of them. That's what it's all about."
All News Stories for Monday, December 10, 2001