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Penn State Football: Bill O’Brien and George O’Leary Are Inexorably Linked

by on September 08, 2013 10:10 PM

Bill O’Brien’s football past, this Saturday’s present and a future game in Ireland are all inexorably linked to Central Florida’s George O’Leary.

The two head coaches are decades apart. O’Leary just turned 67, while O’Brien is 44 next month.

But the friends share a great deal:

Seven seasons at Georgia Tech, less than a week at Notre Dame, the current challenges of a reduced roster and the frustration of dealing with NCAA sanctions that were none of their doing. (Penalties, in fact, levied just eight days apart.)

They have also shared sage and experienced assistant coaches. Second-year Penn State assistant head coach/receivers coach Stan Hixon, 56, and offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, 63, were on O’Leary’s staff – along with O’Brien – at Georgia Tech in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

McWhorter even succeeded O’Leary – for all of one game, the 2001 Jeep Seattle Bowl, which Georgia Tech won, 24-14, over Stanford. And get this: Stanford was coached by Tyrone Willingham, who became Notre Dame’s head coach after O’Leary had the job for a week in 2001 – and then was forced to resign.

And you thought one of the biggest twists of Penn State’s game on Saturday against Central Florida in Beaver Stadium was its 6 p.m. kickoff.

Au contraire. There’s so much more. Here’s where the twain – and almost Twain-like storylines, a mixture of wit, satire, success, disappointment, even tragedy -- do meet:


Like Penn State, Central Florida won its first two games of the 2013 season – 38-7 over Akron and 38-0 against Florida International on Friday night. Like Penn State, Central Florida has won 10 of its last dozen games, including a 38-17 win over Ball State in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla. (The Knights like 38 points.) The two offenses are robust, as well. In the first two games of 2013, Penn State has had 907 yards of total offense (619 pass, 288 run), while UCF has 866 (544 pass, 322 run).


Penn State and Central Florida will meet in the “Croke Park Classic” on Aug. 30, 2014, in central Dublin, Ireland. The season opener for both teams, it will be the closest to a bowl game for Penn State until the NCAA postseason sanctions are lifted in 2016, and will count as a Central Florida home game. The marketing line of O'Brien vs. O'Leary can't be o'beat.


After two years at his alma mater, Brown, O’Brien went to Georgia Tech in 1995 to work for O’Leary, who was an assistant at Georgia Tech and then with San Diego in the NFL before returning to Atlanta in 1994 to become Tech’s head coach. 

O’Brien worked his way up the ladder. He was a graduate assistant for the offense (1995-97), followed by a three-year stint as running backs coach (1998-2000). In 2001, O’Leary promoted wunderkid O’Brien to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. In O’Brien’s first seven years, Tech was ranked as high as ninth in the AP polls, with a 52-30 record and a 3-2 mark in postseason.

Hixon was at Georgia Tech with O’Brien and O’Leary for five seasons (1995-99), serving as wide receivers coach. He left in 2000 for LSU after Nick Saban became the Tigers’ head coach. Hixon was Saban’s associate head coach and receivers coach for four seasons, and was an integral part of LSU’s 2003 BCS national championship. 

McWhorter also worked for O’Leary, only to eventually leave and help Texas win a BCS national title as the Longhorns’ associate head coach, in 2005. McWhorter joined Georgia Tech in 2000 as the offensive line coach, then in 2001 O’Leary made McWhorter assistant head coach as well. When O’Leary left for Notre Dame after the 2001 regular season, McWhorter led the Yellowjackets to the Jeep Seattle Bowl victory. The next season McWhorter landed in Texas, where he stayed from 2002-2010, and was the 2008 national assistant coach of the year. 


In December 2001, O’Leary was offered and accepted the head coach’s job at Notre Dame – the dream job of almost any Irishman who coached football, including O’Leary. He held it for less than a week. Some fact-checking by a newspaper in New Hampshire led to revelations that O’Leary had falsely claimed to have earned a master’s degree at NYU and had fabricated a college football playing career at the University of New Hampshire. O’Leary was forced to resign.

For that week, the rising star that was Bill O’Brien – all of 32 years and two months old – was the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. It was the dream job of almost any Irishman who coached football. But O’Leary’s nightmare dashed that dream.

After weeks of being a recluse and much soul-searching, O’Leary landed with the Minnesota Vikings as their defensive coordinator, where he stayed until 2004, when he took the UCF job. (A poignant 8,600-word account of O’Leary’s ordeal, written by Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated, earned him the National Magazine Award. Click here to read, “Lying in Wait.”)

For his part, O’Brien looked at joining O’Leary in Minnesota, interviewing for the offensive coordinator’s position. However, he stayed at Tech another season and in 2002 was new head coach Chan Gailey’s assistant head coach. In 2003, O’Brien went to Maryland to be running backs coach for Ralph Friedgen, who was the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech from 1987-91 and for O’Leary again from 1997-2000, where he mentored a young Brown grad named … Bill O’Brien.


The NCAA levied its many sanctions against Penn State football on July 23, 2012. Eight days later, Central Florida’s football and basketball programs were hit with a bunch of NCAA penalties of their own, and both UCF athletic director Keith Tribble and receivers coach David Kelly resigned.

While the NCAA Committee on Infractions made it a point to report that it found zero violations committed by O’Leary, his program still took a big hit. Football was limited to 20 scholarships a season and 80 total over three academic years. The maximum number of football coaches allowed to be off campus recruiting at one time was cut from seven to five over two seasons. Total football recruiting days were cut by a third, from 212 to 143. And the number of approved paid visits by football recruits fell from 56 to 30 over two years.

The original NCAA sanctions also would have prohibited UCF from playing in a 2012 postseason game. But UCF fought and won an appeal to have that penalty dropped.


This is what O’Leary told the Orlando Sentinel over the weekend about facing O’Brien:

“Penn State just is Penn State. There is tradition, they’ve got players. Even though they might be hurting scholarship-wise … there have always been players at Penn State.”

And this is what O’Brien told the Sentinel last March about facing O’Leary:

“It’s great. It’s a fantastic opportunity for Penn State. Coach O’Leary called me and said what do you think about playing and I said, ‘I would love to do it if we could find a way to maneuver our schedule,’ and we did. Virginia, they wanted out so that opened up a date for us so we got it at Beaver Stadium, which is what Coach O’Leary wanted.

“He’s a guy that’s meant so much to my career. He promoted me all the way through, so I was like a graduate assistant for him and I was a running backs coach and then running backs coach and recruiting coordinator and then I was offensive coordinator. … He just gave me all my shots. So, I owe a lot to that guy. To go out there and coach against him now is just pretty humbling for me.”


Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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