George's Big Chance on Saturday

Jim FolsomContributorNovember 4, 2009

MEMPHIS, TN - DECEMBER 29: The UCF Knights line up against the Mississippi State Bulldogs on December 29, 2007 at the Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis, Tennessee. The Bulldogs beat the Knights 10-3. (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

George O'Leary has a perfect opportunity on Saturday to turn down the temperature on his seat.  The Knights will do battle with the nation's number two team, the Texas Longhorns.

The casual fan, or the fan who only pays attention to the big boys might say "Wait a second. I thought they liked George down there. Didn't they just win their conference?" Yes. That they did. In 2007 UCF rode Kevin Smith to a Conference USA Title. In 2005, UCF also won the Eastern Division. But, it's the rest of the story that has O'Leary in trouble.

UCF started playing FBS football in the mid 90s. They had a QB named Duante Culpepper. You may have heard of him. With Culpepper the Knights routinely went into big time programs' stadiums and played them toe-to-toe. One of those schools the Knights came very close to upsetting twice was Georgia Tech. Tech's head coach? George O'Leary.

The Knights also scared Georgia, losing by one point, Clemson, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Auburn twice, and in 2000 managed to ruin Alabama's homecoming with a 40-38 win. UCF was the up-and-coming program that everybody knew would be the next big thing in the coming years.

Meanwhile, O'Leary parlayed a pretty successful run at GT into a big time job. He landed Notre Dame. But somebody did some digging and found some embellishments on his resume. O'Leary was promptly fired. He ended up as an assistant coach in the NFL.

When the UCF job opened up due to the firing/resignation of Mike Kruczek, George threw his hat in the ring. He landed the job and also convinced the Knights that in order for him to succeed, certain upgrades must be made. His quote was "If we aren't going to be a Top 25 program, I don't want to waste my time."

UCF then made the commitment and built an on-campus stadium. Instead of playing home games in the Citrus Bowl 45 minutes away from campus, the Knights would play in a stadium half the size, with twice the crowd. It would create a real college football atmosphere. Just ask Texas. They were the first team to experience it. And it nearly cost them. They escaped Bright House Stadium by the skin of their teeth. The Knights rode that momentum to the C-USA Title.

However, the overall record of O'Leary at UCF is rather ugly. He has a record of 5-3 this year, but that only brings him up to 31-39 at the school. Not exactly what UCF had in mind when they hired him. It's also not where they thought they'd be by 2009 when ten years ago they were playing all the big boys down to the wire. The problem has been one thing, inconsistency. O'Leary's teams have been good one year and awful the next.

In his first year, 2004, they were 0-11. In '05 they were the darlings of ESPN for their amazing turnaround to the C-USA East title. They ended that year 8-5 and O'Leary won many major Coach of the Year Awards. Foolishly, UCF decide that a contract extension was in order. They ponied up and gave O'Leary a huge buyout.  In '06 it was another down year. The Knights went 4-8. '07 was another good year at 8-5. Then last year it was back to 4-8.

The natives have gotten restless. Calls for his firing have been heard all over Orlando. The fact that USF has blown right past UCF has not helped any either. The Bulls have a 4-0 record against O'Leary's Knights, despite not having a team until 1995.

UCF had a 16 year head start on them. Now the Bulls are beating teams like Florida State and West Virginia.

This past Sunday UCF pulled out a miracle on ESPN against Marshall. They trailed all night and finally pulled ahead at :23 left. This could not have been better timing for Coach O. It put UCF at 5-3 with games still to play against Tulane and UAB. A seven win season now looks very likely.

If the Knights can play a decent game against the Horns on Saturday, O'Leary may be able to breathe a little easier this off season. A bowl win, and he might make it two more years. Let's hope next year he can figure out how to do it two years in a row.