Where, then, to start the story of the Notre Dame football coach's flaming fall from grace? Upon George O'Leary's hotel bed that night, as his hand keeps rubbing his face and his lips whisper, "Oh, Jesus. . .oh, Jesus. . .what will my mother say?" Or at the Minnesota Vikings office of George's old high school quarterback, who quietly shuts the door so no one will hear him sob?
No. They're both too close.
Perhaps on the laptop screen of the columnist in Chicago as the words "low-rent fraud" flash to life in his third sentence? Or on the sketch pad of The Orange County Register cartoonist as he draws George with a Pinocchio nose at a job interview, saying, "I can fly if I concentrate really hard."
No. They're both too far away.
How about in the kitchen of a white Cape Cod in Liverpool, N.Y.? Yes, that's it, the kitchen where an old Italian has just come to a halt, electrocuted by the radio news of the lieson George O'Leary's résumé and of his resignation on Dec. 14, five days after taking his dream job at Notre Dame. Luke LaPorta sags into a chair. His eyes close, and 23 years collapse: He's sitting in his office as athletic director at Liverpool High in the summer of 1978, asking his young Irish Catholic football coach a question so loaded, so personal, that he can barely squeeze it from his throat: "George. . .are there any inconsistencies in how you've represented yourself?"
Luke knows the answer. The school superintendent, Virgil Tompkins, has called him aside and informed him of inaccuracies in George's claims about his playing career and postgraduate credits, and now the heat's on Luke, who hired George over 84 other applicants the year before. But Luke still hopes against hope that it's all a misunderstanding, because if this man's a liar, then the world's flat and the moon's square and eagles are no better than cockroaches.
George flushes red. "A lot of people do that," he replies.
Maybe some other language has a word for what runs through Luke. It's something close to nausea and not far from deep, deep sorrow. "Yeah," Luca finally says. "I've got a long résumé, but. . .it all checks out." Luca—that's what his father, born in southern Italy, named him—comes from a Long Island neighborhood teeming with ethnic groups. So does George. Both know the dictionary of meanings contained in small gestures and flickers of eyes. George's shoulders shrug, his lips purse, and his eyes cut to one side. The look, Luca calls it. The look means:
That's all I'm going to say.
That's the way of the world.
You and I, we understand each other.
There's no need to do anything.
We'll just let it lie.
Luca swallows. He knows it's true: Everyone lies. He knows that if he chooses compassion, he chooses complicity. His last name, in Italian, means "the door." Now he stands at the portal of George O'Leary's career, holding his fate. LaPorta can open. LaPorta can shut.
Luca sits, guts turning, in his office in June 1978. He sits, guts turning, in his kitchen in December 2001. Again he weighs a life against a lie.
A letter rests in Luca's wrinkled hands. It arrived just a few days after George O'Leary stared out his hotel room's second-story window and decided that 20 feet wasn't enough to do the job.
Dear Coach LaPorta,
I want to thank Coach O'Leary for all he did for my son Rich. . . .Because of Coach O'Leary, my son behaved himself in high school and became one of his class's leaders. He developed respect for his parents (that alone was wonderful), valued his physical body, became one of a team, and stretched himself to produce "110%."... As an adult, my son carried his leadership and teaching skills to other boys and girls and has coached in methods O'Leary instilled in him as a teen. He is both a better parent and a better coach because of Coach O'Leary.
I am saddened to hear of Coach O'Leary's difficulties. My prayer is that they don't stop Coach from doing what he does best—coach! Because somewhere there are other teens and young men who would benefit from it. . . .
I also thank you for your wisdom in hiring O'Leary. . . .
Rich Wiggins's Mom
Luca is 77. He's determined the fates of liars and birth-certificate forgers—passed judgment in the Danny Almonte case just last summer—during his quarter century on the board of Little League Baseball International. As a boy during the Depression, working at his family's gas station, he was astonished when adults volunteered to pump their own gas so they could squeeze out an extra nickel's worth and then plead that their hands had slipped. But then, Luca himself filched dimes from the till, from his own blood, and clamped his lips when his grandfather confronted him.
What should he have done that day, that moment after George gave him the look? Could he have averted the personal catastrophe that lay in silent wait for George for the next 23 years, gathering, girding? What would you have done?
Say nothing. That's all the old man wants of you for now. First you must know George and the soil that grew his lies, maybe your lies, my lies. First you must know the net effect of his 55 years on earth and lay that against the net effect of the sin.
Here. Take one. Read it. It's George's curriculum vitae. Not the bogus one claiming that he lettered in football for three years at the University of New Hampshire and holds a master's degree in education from New York University. Not a bare-bones list of jobs and dates. A man is so much more than that—doesn't vitae mean "of life"? Then you can decide. Then you'll have the right to make Luca's choice.
GEORGE J. O'LEARY
BIRTH DATE: Aug. 17, 1946
STATUS: Married with four children
EXPERIENCE: 1953–60 Altar boy
George was seven when he first played with fire. "Who had the matches?" demanded his mother. George and his four siblings shrugged and shook their heads. A liar? In Peggy O'Leary's house? A liar would kneel in salt or get an earful of God and His mother. There had to be accountability in Peggy O'Leary's house.
She wasn't a cartoon ogre. She was a splendidly spunky sort—still is—a dandy fox-trotter with sparkling blue eyes and no hesitation about laughing at herself. A woman born to raise boys, all four of them: a classic Irish mom. She pointed to the bathtub and the singe marks made by the matches. "The Blessed Mother's watching!" she cried. Our Lady. Notre Dame. The statuette in the living room. "She'll tell me who did it!" Mrs. O'Leary cried.
George swallowed. He was about to become an altar boy. A few days passed, George tiptoeing around his mother and God's mother until the supper dishes were done. That's when the family always knelt under Our Lady's gaze and said the rosary, the boys machine-gunning their 10 Hail Marys apiece so they could get back to playing ball and dying a thousand deaths as their sister, Margaret, stretched each theeeee and thyyyyy from here to kingdom come.
Then it happened. George reached again for the matchbox above the sink. Every kid played with matches, but George had been warned, and now he was going to play with fire a second time. Mrs. O'Leary burst into the kitchen, grabbed him and banished him to his bedroom. "When your father comes home," she shouted, "you'll be taken away to live in the Home for Wayward Children!"
Dusk fell. Dad entered the high-rise projects where the O'Learys lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A wee scrap of a man, just over 5 1/2 feet tall and 140 pounds, but full to the brim with pep and piss and pun was George the Father. He'd drop to the floor in his 50s to bang out push-ups, clapping his hands after each one, and when he blinked the telltale twinkle from his eye and told his kids that the jagged scar across his gut—the result of an ulcer operation that removed three quarters of his stomach—actually stemmed from his belly dive onto a grenade to save a buddy during World War II, they believed him. After all, he'd been a paratrooper, and who on earth was a more loyal soul than he?
Dad headed to George's bedroom, hotfooted by his wife's glower. He shut the door and confronted his son. Dad was renowned for his brutal honesty, but Dad, God rest his soul, was a pushover. The sight of a forlorn child seemed to mine misery from the ninth year of his own life, when his father had vanished. "You can't play with matches, George," he rebuked his son. Job done, he melted. It wasn't really that serious, Son, and give Mom a day or two, she'd lighten up, and maybe he could sneak young George a bite to eat or slip him a nickel for candy.
George's older brother, Peter, had a high IQ and magnificent wrists, was a .500-hitting high schooler whom opponents would defend with four outfielders. Terry, a year younger than George, was a straight-A student with a grade-A jump shot, a future Suffolk County high school tournament MVP. Margaret, three years younger, was sweetness itself, no worries there. George? Well, let's be honest: George was no slickie. Thick and blunt were the adjectives his family hung on him, a mostly B and C student who couldn't dance or carry a tune in a houseful of hams and who was teased for the half inch of elevation he got on his jump shot. But, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, there was no more loyal brother or buddy in a tight spot and no more hard-nosed bundle of will and self-assurance on a ball field. He'd play two-on-two tackle football on pavement, and then when he wrenched his neck in a helmet-to-helmet collision during his sophomore year in high school, the bedside contraption rigged by the family doctor to hold George's neck in traction lasted two days. "This is bull," snapped George, who dismantled the device, practiced the next day and played the following weekend.
By then there were eight children, and the O'Learys had outgrown the Manhattan apartment and moved to a modest Cape Cod in blue-collar Central Islip, Long Island. But a kid still couldn't hide anything in that home, not with the four boys jammed into one bedroom, the four girls into another, a grandma and great uncle in the third bedroom, George's mother and father in the last one and the church waiting outside the door with hellfire unless you confessed. George didn't even try to carve out his own place. Hebunched elbow-to-elbow with all the other males on Saturdays in front of the black-and-white television, hollering the Irish home against the best that the WASPs could throw at them, no one ever saying it, only feeling it: Notre Dame football was everything honest and right, and if that Fighting Irish Catholic 11 could own the American pie, then the dozen crammed in this house could at least have a slice of it.
When the game on TV ended, the boys tumbled outside and lived it all over again, deep into dark. Then came Sunday and even more Irish in the house, grandparents born and bred in the old land, along with aunts and uncles and cousins, gathering in the basement to sing the old songs on birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.
So how could the roast beef just disappear? It couldn't! Out with it, demanded Mrs. O'Leary. Her children blinked at her, all denying knowledge. Well, then, we'll see. For three days she served sad leftovers for supper, waiting for the children to crack, but by then they'd been hardened, known suppers during hard times that were just a plateful of mashed potatoes tinted ominously red by baby-food beets. The Blessed Mother works in mysterious ways, her wonders to perform. Sarge, the family mutt, sauntered in from the backyard with the string from the roast beef dangling from his arse, and the O'Learys at last sat down to some decent grub.
Have you located it yet? Where could a lie, an exaggeration that would make a national disgrace of a man, take root in that house? A home where no one dared preen or puff himself, where Dad dismissed airs or boasts with just three letters—"SPS," for Self-Praise Stinks—and any boy who made himself out to be one inch more than he was risked humiliation. "All right, who is it?" Mrs. O'Leary asked, chortling one day as she finished the laundry. "Who's the big head who thinks he needs an extra-large jock?"
No one owned up. Not George, not Terry, not Peter, and for damn sure not Sarge.
1964–68: Sandbagger, Bartender, Road Paver, Landscaper, Mover, Student
When you're 18, there's no explaining it. Sometimes everything you love is everything you hate. Maybe it was the smell of four boys in a bedroom just after a ball game, maybe it was singing the same song from the Auld Sod for the 32nd time, maybe it was that eternal flame underneath that infernal pot of Mrs. O'Leary's boiling potatoes. Maybe it was the fact that Dubuque was the only college that showed a glimmer of interest in George. Maybe that's why he was suddenly on the road, the first O'Leary to leave the fold, barreling through a cornfield on a 24-hour Greyhound bus ride to Iowa, a boy who'd never been farther from home than the Jersey shore.
A glimmer, mind you. Not a scholarship. Maybe a grand in financial aid, a bit of an insult, really, after George had quarterbacked his high school team—more on grit than on grace—to an undefeated season. At Dubuque he found himself one of five quarterbacks, promptly converted to bottom-of-the-depth-chart fullback, an out-of-place Noo Yawker on a bad Division III team cheered by a few hundred fans, the glory of his senior season and the warmth of his big family fading, fading. . .gone.
He knew more than the damn coach did. He was sure of it. He barely stepped on the football field all fall. No, that's a lie. He cut across it at night to get to the Disabled American Veterans Bar to quaff a half-dozen Hamm's. The future coach of Notre Dame? They'd have howled in the locker room if you'd pointed at him and said that. He scraped by academically, quit football and wouldn't have returned for his sophomore year if he hadn't felt so listless that he couldn't stir himself to apply to another school. There was one highlight that second year: the road trip. To South Bend. He walked the hallowed grounds of Notre Dame and sensed the magic that his grades and football skills wouldn't let him touch.
A third helping of Iowa was out of the question. His dad, who'd worked his way up from school custodian to school board president and postmaster of Central Islip, had come to be known as the Godfather, the townsman with the most connections and the deepest devotion to arranging jobs for any man he deemed a good man. He saw the lost look in his boy's eyes and grew uneasy. He turned to Walt Mirey, an administrator in the C.I. school district who'd played football at New Hampshire. Somehow Dad had to wedge the kid through college. Mirey got him in. Dad exhaled. So long, George!
George? What was he doing back at the front door? A week and a half into August preseason camp, George quit the team, quit before he began and took a bus home. Cripes, what was the point? He'd be ineligible for a year because of the transfer, owed a bundle for student loans and couldn't bear another four-eyed professor slowly squeezing his privates in a midterm vise.
He walked through the door. He couldn't meet his father's stare. He hated letting down the kind of man who, the first time he ever flew in an airplane, jumped out of it, on a paratrooper training mission in Georgia. The kind who always forgave you.
"So... what're you going to do, George?" his father asked.
"I don't know. Go in the service, maybe."
"You need to get back to college, George. You're not a quitter. You're better than that."
Three days of unbearable silence later George returned to New Hampshire. His playing life was over, his pilot light barely aflame, but in the next two years he worked enough as a part-time bartender, landscaper, mover and paver to know what he didn't want, so he hit the books, or at least tapped them, enough to get a B.S. in phys ed.
And he met a girl. Bumped into her at a party and was so taken by her that just before the next bash at his frat house, he concocted a doozy. He talked Sharon Littlefield into coming as a blind date for a nonexistent friend of his, then offered his regrets when she showed up and the buddy didn't—but, hey, now that she was there, why not be his date? She didn't mind, because there was nothing slick about his deception; truth is, he was a little rough around the edges. She liked his blue eyes, his blond hair and his swagger, and she so prized her own privacy and independence that it was O.K. that he was a loner. They married before he graduated. She would look back on that first date, four children later, as such a wonderful little lie.
1969–74: Phys-Ed Teacher, Driver's Ed Teacher, Assistant Football Coach
Surprise! The son of Central Islip's school board president secured his first real job in 1969—as a teacher and assistant football coach at Central Islip High. "It was almost," says George's youngest brother, Tom, "as if he'd become Dad's project."
Take a young man. Place him in front of a group of kids just a few years younger than he is. He must give them direction when he's barely begun to find his own. He must seal off all his own doubts so they'll believe and follow. Make sure they never do what he did: quit. What's a young coach but an elaborate bluff, a careful construction of small lies? What's a successful coach but one so convincing that even he comes to believe the bluff, and turns it into truth?
But this was a good lie, right? A boy becoming a man in a world where everyone lies had to figure that out. This sort of lie his country rewarded, for its coaches played the role that tribal elders—the ones entrusted to take boys and turn them, through rites of passage, into men—played in other lands. George started driving up and down the East Coast, attending football clinics at which these elders held court, in quest of knowledge and a model.
In Washington, D.C., he found one. Here was fire, here was aura, here was Woody Hayes. You have to do it right, the Ohio State coach thundered, and your players have to do it right, every time! Accountability! Integrity! Trust! In four more towns George heard Woody. Woody's slogans became George's slogans. Woody's hero, Patton, became George's. Woody's realization—that raw honesty could be an astonishingly effective motivating tool—became George's eureka. George caught fire. Then breathed it.
He descended the cellar steps of Ralph G. Reed Junior High School, a few blocks from C.I. High. Beneath the low ceiling pipes he painted a wide purple circle on the floor. That's what George began doing, drawing circles. If you weren't in the circle, weren't with him on his mission, as his old high school teammate and coaching partner, Tommy Black, put it, "you might think that he had a stick up his ass." But if you were in the circle, you'd thrash anything that threatened it. George filled the purple circle with weights and bars and benches, raised them on platforms, lit them with track lights to make the circle more sacred, christened it the Pride Area and demanded that his players return to it three days a week, year round. No conversation was permitted there. Only screaming. George and dozens of boys raised an ear-shattering din as they encircled a puff-cheeked offensive lineman straining to surpass his personal-best bench press—You can do it, Billy. It's fourth-and-one. How much do you want it? How much?!
"Wow," thought Billy Neuse, a Long Island guy who used to slam Hamm's with George in Dubuque and caught up with him in Central Islip, "is that the same guy?"
1975–79: High School Head Coach
Watch closely now. George just left the web of family and favors, of connections and loyalty. George just left Dad.
His heels clacked through the cavernous halls of Liverpool High in upstate New York. A man could get lost there: Nearly 4,000 students surged through the corridors, and most couldn't tell George how to find the main office. A man could be found there: Ten miles away stood Syracuse University and something impossible to see from Central Islip—a major-college football program.
It was 1977. He was 31. He looked at the sea of strange faces. They hadn't a clue that he'd labored six years as an assistant, waiting for the C.I. head coach to step aside, then gone 16-1-1 in two seasons as head coach and been named Suffolk County coach of the year. No one knew him in Liverpool, the way no one had known his grandparents 70 years earlier when they had left behind a land where everything was set in stone to come to one where everything was fluid and people kept moving, kept selling themselves to strangers, jockeying for position, an upgrade. Where a man was free to tell anyone anything to prove his worth, or his product's worth, and the line between marketing andlying was so fine that he could find himself right on top of it before he knew he was there, then stumble across it by sheer momentum. As George's brother Tom would ask, "Is anyone trying to tell me that résumés are truthful? In the America we live in, the willingness to lie on a résumé is an indication of how much you want the job."
Something was missing in the persona George had built, some mortar that would better hold the bricks in place, some grout that would make the wall more impenetrable. A man who made quitting seem so repulsive, so weak, who convinced so many boys that anything was possible if they refused to quit. . . .Why, he couldn't have quit, could he? So, sure, he said, there where no one knew him, sure, he'd played college ball at New Hampshire. Somehow the lie contained a deeper truth about George, an updated one. The man he'd become would've gutted it out at New Hampshire, not to mention Dubuque—which he didn't mention.
Funny, the lie didn't really stick in the altar boy's throat. It didn't torture Mrs. O'Leary's son. Hell, how had Dad, virtually blind in his left eye, passed the physical to become a paratrooper? By memorizing the eye chart! By pulling a fast one to get his foot in the door. And if Dad hadn't hit a tree on his last training jump and the doctor who examined him hadn't discovered his disability, he probably would've been killed in Italy like so many of his training partners and that deception would've been hailed in his eulogy as proof of his courage and patriotism.
In truth, the subject of George's past rarely arose. "He was such an awe-inspiring coach, it seemed like he was born that way," says Tim Green, an All-America defensive lineman who played under George in high school and college, then became a lawyer, writer and TV commentator. "People were terrified of him. One time at practice someone said ouch. George said, 'Ouch? Who the hell just said ouch? My goddam wife doesn't say ouch! My goddam little girl doesn't say ouch! Everybody hit the ground! One hundred up-downs!' Sure, some walked away from him bruised, but we all walked away from him better. To have great rewards you must have great effort. George showed me how. He gave me the blueprint."
He inherited a 1–9 squad at Liverpool. He began to change what the players saw when they looked in the mirror. He would yank their face masks and head-slap them with his clipboard when they lost focus. He would station a kid in the center of a ring of players, a circle of fire, and call out names so they'd charge and drill the boy from all angles, one by one. He sent them out of the team bus with the Notre Dame fight song ringing in their ears, full of belief in themselves. They went 3-6 his first year, then went 8-1 and won their conference title.
At a summer camp based in a suffocating converted barn 100 miles from Liverpool, George instituted dawn wake-ups and bunk inspections and three-a-day practices and late-night team meetings. It worked because George demanded even more of himself than of the boys, and because he'd crack them up, in the midst of their misery, with a well-timed one-liner. It worked because George cared so much, because he asked how your mom and dad were doing and if there was anything else he could do to help you get that scholarship, and because come Saturday in autumn, you kicked the crap out of anyone who had the audacity to think he belonged on the same grass as you, after all you'd been through. In George's third year his team went 10-0, surrendered just 33 points all season and was ranked No. 2 in the state as George, for the second straight year, was named Onondaga County coach of the year.
His wife received a phone call. It was their daughter's kindergarten teacher, worried because the family portrait that little Trish had been asked to draw included her mother and three siblings—but no father. Was there trouble at home? No. Sharon tried to explain: The marriage was fine, and Trish did see her dad now and then, but usually when he was on the sideline, and usually all she saw was the back of his head.
George received a letter. "You are the kind of person with whom it is a pleasure to be associated—both professionally and personally," wrote Liverpool High executive principal David Kidd. "Your dedication, ethics and loyalty are recognized by everyone."
1979–94: Asst. Coach, Syracuse
Defensive Coordinator, Georgia Tech
Asst. Coach, San Diego Chargers
It wasn't enough.
George's ballpoint hovered over four blank lines. The heading above them, on the Syracuse University personal information form, read Athletic background (sports played inhigh school, college, professional; letters won, honors, championships etc. Please be specific).
He'd made it. The big leap. The rare jump from high school coach to major-college assistant, bypassing the usual rungs—graduate assistant, Division III coach—that took a man there. Just in time, too, after the coach at Baldwinsville High had sneaked into the woods and snapped pictures of George holding practices out of season and gotten Liverpool's sports teams put on probation for a year. It was April 1980. George had been in his new job for three months, wowing Syracuse coach Frank Maloney as a defensive line coach and a recruiter. It wasn't enough.
George's ballpoint came down. Basketball 3 yrs.—All-League—County Champion. His team, in fact, had lost in the Suffolk County championship game on George's missed shot at the buzzer. It wasn't enough.
College, he wrote. This information would go into his bio in game programs and the media brochure. Other coaches on the staff would read it. They'd all played college ball. Univ. of New Hampshire, he wrote. His players would read it too. He wasn't a quitter. He was better than that: 3 yr lettered, he wrote. More mortar. More grout. How could hedream that a child not yet born would grow up to become a student assistant in the Syracuse sports information department, would fax this very sheet of paper to a reporter 21 years later and demolish George's life?
George spat a stream of brown juice into a Styrofoam cup. A new habit. One more thing, besides the college football letters, he now had in common with the Syracuse defensive coaches. He began filling out a second document, entitled Personal Data Sheet, in which he was asked to spell out his academic credentials. He began to list the graduate schools he'd attended and the credits he'd earned. He had 31. It wasn't enough. Presently have B.S. +48, George wrote, adding 17 credits.
Hell, it was no big deal, just another coach's ploy, wasn't it? Like thrusting his badly scarred left hand with its permanently bent pinkie—the result of a tumble at age five, whenhe landed on a broken bottle at the bottom of a sump—into the face of a player who seemed always to complain of injuries and screaming, "See that? That's college football!" Just a way of creating more authority, more aura, more men who made more victories. Just, like raw honesty, another tool. Right?
George hatched a first-round NFL draft pick on the Syracuse defensive line, Tim Green, and two second-rounders: Mike Charles and Blaise Winter—an abused kid, born with a cleft palate, for whom George became a father figure. George became assistant head coach. George became hot property. Funny: That past he'd puffed up? No one who hired him after that would ask to see his résumé. Bobby Ross didn't ask when he snatched George from Syracuse and made him his defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech in 1987, nor when George's defense refused to allow a touchdown in the first 19 quarters of '90 as Tech began its march to a share of the national championship. Ross sure didn't peruse the résumé before he took George to the Chargers as his defensive line coach in '92 and San Diego's front four promptly led the AFC in sacks on its way to the Chargers' first playoff appearance in a decade. Homer Rice, then athletic director at Georgia Tech, never gave the résumé a glance when he coaxed George back to cure Tech's defense in '94. The man produced, at every level. The man was real.
But, still, something must've been missing. George still didn't have what he lusted for; he remained an assistant. In 1987 a member of Tech's sports information department, preparing coaches' bios for the fall football program, popped into George's office to ask a few questions. When the interview was done, the boy who couldn't stop playing with matches had a master's degree.
1995–2001 Head Coach, Georgia Tech
It was ticking now. So softly that even he couldn't hear it. So softly that no one could, and nearly every article and anecdote about George hinged on his extraordinary honesty, his painful honesty, and all the perpendicular adjectives—upstanding, upright, up-front, straightforward—echoed again and again. How could anyone hear the time bomb ticking as George paced before his team in 1995, his authority threatened for the first time as a college head coach, his face contorted in a snarl, his cheeks red as fire, his tobacco juice spraying his shirt, and he screamed out his paramount rule, his only rule: "Don't lie to Me!"
Someone had sung to George: The training rules he'd put into effect that weekend had been violated. "I want anyone who was drinking," he cried, "to stand up!" Now he'd see if his bedrock values—trust, accountability, integrity—had sunk in. "Now!"
Ryan Stewart, one of George's leaders, a senior strong safety on his way to the NFL, agonized in his seat. He'd had a beer and a half. If he stood, he'd be up at 5:30 running or monkey-rolling or somersaulting, maybe till he vomited. If he stood, he'd force the three teammates who'd split the six-pack with him to stand up too. The silence gathered. George's face was no longer red. It was purple. "Who didn't understand what I said?"
The fear thickened. If George already knew that Ryan had been drinking, and Ryan didn't stand, everything between them would be broken, and his pro career might be jeopardized. Ryan loved playing for George. George made Ryan believe in himself. Ryan was about to cry.
He stood. The three other beer-and-a-halfers stood. Then six were standing. Then 10. Then a dozen. Lies couldn't last under George. His blue eyes bulged. "The whole team will be punished!" he roared.
It was George's world now. It was his field you played on, he'd remind you, his food you ate, his dorm you roomed in, his time when you woke, worked, ate and fell asleep. The first day of August camp he gave each of his players a packet: Every day for the next five months, their lives were scheduled. Every opponent had already been game-planned, every practice mapped out. Practices lasted two hours and seven minutes: 24 five-minute periods, sprinting between stations. He might let you miss one. If you ratted out a teammate.
You didn't dare show up for a meeting or a meal or a team bus exactly when his itinerary told you to. You'd miss it by 15 minutes and get left behind—it happened even to the athletic director. George's meetings ended, literally, before they were scheduled to start. You didn't dare come his way with facial hair, earrings, headphones or a hat on backward. You didn't let a cellphone ring in a team meeting unless you wished to see it bounce off the wall and go to pieces on the floor. You didn't utter a word in a coaches' meeting without assuming he'd chicken-scratch it onto one of the four legal notepads he brought to each session and sail it back at you at a meeting two months later. You didn't move a plant or lift a blind in his office. He'd know. You didn't work or play under him unless you'd learned to walk on all sorts of surfaces—on pins, on needles, on eggshells and through fire.
Ten cups of coffee and 10 fingernails—that's what he went through each day. Four hours' sleep, and he started all over again: 16-hour days, seven days a week, his Irish music blasting on the car ride home to keep him awake, his two dogs waiting frantically by the door for the man whose pockets bulged with pig's ears, cookies, beef jerky and biscuits for them. Once a year he'd take off a half day to drink beer, sing the old songs and zing one-liners at pals. Once a year: St. Patrick's Day. Irish souvenirs and proverbs covered his office desk and walls, but he never had the time to go to Ireland. For years his friends and relatives had kidded him, asking the Fighting Irishman when he'd take over the Fighting Irish, because if ever a man was made for a place, it was George for Notre Dame.
Sure, that was a dream, but who had time for dreaming? The lights went out during a Georgia Tech evening practice in '95, then flashed back on. An electrician, trying to pinpoint the problem, inserted his screwdriver into the fuse box by the field. An explosion sent him tumbling down an embankment, smoke curling from beneath his hat, and brought the football trainers on the run. Players stopped in mid-drill and stared in fear as the electrician rose slowly to his feet. "He's O.K!" screamed George. "Run the damn play!"
Obsession is contagious. Tech won an ACC title and, beginning in 1997, five straight bowl berths. The legions grew, players who'd dive on grenades for George. Off to the side stood casualties such as Dustin Vaitekunas, a 6'7" offensive lineman whose grit left George so unimpressed two years ago that he flipped a ball to the kid and sent four defensive linemen at him so he'd know how it felt to be an unprotected quarterback. Vaitekunas didn't get up for 10 minutes; he quit the team, and his mother threatened to have George arrested for assault. Media and academic types were outraged, scarcely believing George's claim that he hadn't intended for his front four to flatten the boy. But his players—who depended on brotherhood and commitment as they stood on a field where any one of 11 men might attack from any side—rallied around George. As long ashe stayed on a football field, George could be justified. "If he was on fire, I wouldn't walk across the street to piss on him," says Michael Dee, a Tech safety in the mid-'90s, "but I'd want him as my coach."
Maybe now George could chance it. Maybe now that he earned more than a million a year on a multiyear contract, now that he'd won two ACC coach of the year awards and national coach of the year in 2000, he could quietly ask that his two lies be stricken from Tech's publicity material.
His wife had noticed the falsehood about his playing career. "Ah, the guy in the sports information department at Syracuse told me to make it look good," George fibbed. His mom and dad had noticed it too. "Ah, it's not important. I don't know how it got in there," George said. "I gotta get it out." He thought about it. But he couldn't risk it. Fame had removed his control of the lies; they had flown everywhere now, on paper and in cyberspace.
His children believed the lies. His brothers and old pals from C.I. figured they were just part of the hype machine. When George's more recent friends asked about his college career, he'd say, "I could hit you, but I couldn't catch you," then nod toward the scar on his knee and allude to a football injury—but not mention that the blow had actually occurred years after college, when he was coaching. The wave of his hand and his silence discouraged more questions, and who had questions about New Hampshire football anyway?
It was the perfect lie, and George the perfect agent for it: Who would suspect subterfuge from a sledgehammer? Who'd suspect it from a religious man with no tolerance for preening, the same modest man at a million a year as he had been at $14,322? If his secretary hadn't pulled his coach of the year awards out of a box and displayed them in his office, nobody would have laid eyes on them.
The one man George wished to shine for—the one he called minutes after every game—was dying a slow, gasping death from emphysema when Tech named George head coach. Dad never saw the glory. George leaned over his coffin and pinned a Georgia Tech button to his lapel. He was shocked, days later, to find himself sobbing with the team priest, unable to sleep. Shocked at how many mourners had materialized with previously untold tales of Mr. O'Leary's acts of kindness.
More and more George found himself slipping his barber $100 for a haircut to help him through hard times, or tucking a C-note beneath a plate after finding out that his harried waitress had five kids at home, or inviting a custodian home for Thanksgiving dinner and to sleep over. "Don't tell anyone," he'd tell people who witnessed such acts. He wanted no one to know who lived inside the wall he'd built, a wall so thick that he couldn't hear those last. . .few. . .ticks.
Notre Dame called. Its athletic director, Kevin White, who'd grown up just a few miles from Central Islip, had interviewed 50 people who were sure of three things: George's honesty, his character and his ability. Notre Dame offered to buy out George's $1.5 million contract with Georgia Tech. Notre Dame wanted George.
A strange thing happened. George hesitated. It was the quiet uneasiness of a man who owned his reality and wondered if he should let go of it for anything, even his dream. "Imagine if Dad were here to see this," said his brothers and brother-in-law. "It's Notre Dame, George. It's Notre Dame."
Dec. 9–13, 2001 Head Coach, Notre Dame
The moment he set foot on campus, all his doubts vanished—he knew this was right. He entered the grotto where the blue-sashed Virgin Mary stood amid stones blackened by the candle soot of a century of adoration. The day before, he had signed on to begin the crowning chapter of his life, at Our Lady's university. On her day, Dec. 8, the Feast of the Blessed Mother. He looked skyward. The Golden Dome gleamed. It was true, what they said about this place. Everything was magic.
He entered the basilica. The choir, rehearsing, hurled its song at the gilded angels and saints upon the soaring ceiling. He could hear and smell a hundred Sundays at the altar of his childhood, a thousand dusks of saying the rosary surrounded by his kneeling family. The emotion rose in his throat and tightened the knot on his blue-and-gold necktie. He knelt alone to offer thanks. At 55, he'd clawed his way forward to his past. He was home.
He entered the basketball arena. The pep band burst into the fight song he used to play to send his high school troops to battle. The cheerleaders tumbled. The crowd, clad in BY GEORGE, IT'S O'LEARY! T-shirts, rose, and so did the hair on his neck.
He flew back home to Atlanta, packed up his life and his Irish regalia and returned to South Bend two days later. At dusk on his first day on the job, he was interrupted quietly, apologetically, by the Notre Dame sports information director, John Heisler. A call had just come from Jim Fennell, a reporter for the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire. He was tracking down men who'd had the honor of playing college football 33 years ago with Notre Dame's newest coach, but, funny, his old teammates said George had never played.
George blinked. Blindsided. Now he had to lie again. Well, he said, it was true, he hadn't really played, uh. . .there was that knee injury one year, and then the other year he was sick, mononucleosis. Somebody must've made a mistake in the bio. Heisler left. George looked down at his thick, chafed hands. He worked until 2 a.m.
The next day, figuring the worst was over, he left for Alexandria, Va., to recruit running back Tommy Clayton. George still didn't understand. Notre Dame, George. Notre Dame. A phone call came late that afternoon. It was Lou Nanni, the university's vice president of public affairs and communications. Fennell had called back, holding a 21-year-old document that Syracuse had faxed to him. The lie had been written by George. Could he explain?
No, George couldn't, he must've written it, but, but. . . .Lou, this is just a speed bump, right? No, said Nanni. Calls from media outlets everywhere were pouring into the university. Nanni was surprised at what happened next. George offered to resign.
Hold on, said Nanni. They would prepare a statement admitting George's weakness as a young coach. They'd take some terrible blows, but they'd weather them together. George left to meet the recruit's parents, his gut in a knot. Nanni called back, read the statement, then asked, "George, is there anything else in your bio that's not accurate?"
A pause. A lifetime hanging. The master's degree—should he lie? "George, there's going to be incredible scrutiny on this by the media," said Nanni. "If we don't get this all clear now, it will come out anyway."
George's voice cracked, and words began to tumble from his lips—something about credits and a degree—that didn't quite make sense. "George," said Nanni, in a nightmare of his own. "If someone were to look hard at the records concerning the master's degree at NYU, would it be fair to say they're not going to find your name there?"
Another pause. For the first time it occurred to George: He'd wandered off his field. He could survive a lie inside a white-lined rectangle, but now he was playing in someone else's ivory tower. Yes, George finally said, his voice deathly quiet and far away. They wouldn't find it.
Nanni blanched and got off the phone. White, the athletic director, called George moments later to verify.
"I'm sorry," George kept saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
White was reeling. He had to speak to the university president, Father Edward Malloy. He'd call back in a few minutes, he said.
George waited. Forty minutes of forever passed. The phone rang. A trust had been broken, said White. False academic credentials at Notre Dame were a death knell. He accepted George's resignation.
George hung up. That was it. He was done. Just a couple of little matches. . .and everything was up in flames. Sure, he might've had to resign from any other university, but the fact that it had happened at Notre Dame, that was the wind turning this into a conflagration, sending it burning from page 4C in the newspapers to page 1A.
His hand began to work across his face. It was just after midnight. All the consequences, one horror and humiliation after the next, began to spread through him. The joke, the sick joke, was on him. Notre Dame hadn't cared whether he had a master's degree or whether he'd lettered in college football. The lies had been wasted. George O'Leary, the chipmunk trying to pass for a squirrel, when everyone saw him as a lion.
His mind reeled: to the assistants he'd brought from Tech to Notre Dame, suddenly jobless. To the lives of his entire staff at Tech, thrown asunder for nothing. To himself, unemployed, unemployable, holding the bag for the $1.5 million buyout that Notre Dame wouldn't pay now. To his family name—ruined. Oh, Jesus, his mother, his mother. . . .
He stared out the second-floor window. He considered the distance. Eighth floor, maybe, he thought. But not from here. He stood. He had to get out of there, leave, go somewhere, now. No. Not allowed. Aviation regulations. Mandatory rest time. Notre Dame's private pilots couldn't fly till 4 a.m. For four hours he sat there, holding on through the dark, trying to survive.
He flew to South Bend, grabbed a few belongings, hurried back to the plane to return to Georgia in the sickly light of dawn. He got into his car at a private airport near Atlanta and began the hour-and-a-half drive to his lake house. Tears began streaming down his cheeks.
The phone was ringing as he entered the empty house. Oh, God. Mom. Eighty years old. "George. . .what happened?" she cried. She heard him struggling not to break down.
"Mom. . .I made a mistake. But it was never a factor in getting any job."
"But. . . ."
"I really don't want to talk about it, Mom."
He went to the finished basement. His 29-year-old son, Tim—who, like his younger brother, Marty, had played for their father at Tech—came through the front door, fearful for George. He found him on a sofa in the basement, staring into nothingness, notepad in lap, pen in hand, reaching to write a list when there was nothing left to list.
His wife and daughters arrived. They dared not hug him. They couldn't even go near him. He was almost catatonic. The phone rang endlessly. Tim turned away the callers. Sharon was too tearful to speak. George's friends arrived, but he refused to see them.
Friday blurred into Saturday. George hadn't moved from the sofa. He wouldn't eat. Wouldn't change his clothes. Couldn't look in a mirror to shave or wash up or comb his hair. It was frightening to watch a man try to hold in that much grief, that much shame, that much anger. His brothers Peter and Tom arrived from New York, pushed past Tim and went downstairs. His friends showed up again. Everyone was crying. George sat and stared at his own wake.
Days passed. His friends feared that his basement would be his tomb. In bits and pieces he began to hear what the world was saying. It was even worse than he'd dreaded. America seemed more shocked by lying from a football coach than from a politician or a businessman. The country still attached honor to sports. There was glee as well, cackling at the sight of two American institutions going down at once: the crusty old-fashioned football coach and, my God, Notre Dame. Jay Leno called him "George O'Really?" The radio talk shows went wild. The O'Learys in New York shuddered and hurried past front pages blaring LIAR, LIAR and NOTRE SHAME. In 12 months George had gone from national coach of the year to national joke of the year.
Perhaps all the laughter was the nervous release of a deep uneasiness. People with big plans everywhere opened their laptops, called up their résumés and began hitting the delete button. Rick Smith, a newly named Georgia Tech assistant, didn't edit his bio fast enough and went from a 150-grand-a-year defensive coordinator to a 60-buck-a-day substitute teacher.
Two weeks after the horror began, George started to comb his hair and clean up. He went to a different store to get doughnuts in the morning, hoping people wouldn't recognize him, and he slipped out of Sunday Mass early to avoid meeting the eyes of the priest. As he drove, he prayed the rosary on a set of old brown beads worn smooth by his father's hands on his deathbed.
His old players felt as if they'd been kicked in the stomach, but when they caught their breath, most stood up, eyes blazing, for George. His brother Peter, the president of the Suffolk County Detectives Association, on Long Island, said, "It was like me being named FBI director and three days later being fired because I farted in church." Peggy O'Leary lit candles and cried herself to sleep over a son who wouldn't come to the phone when she called on Christmas Day. What she'd told him 50 years ago—funny how it had turned out to be right. Even when no one else has seen you, even when you're sure you've gotten away with a lie, you won't get it past the Blessed Mother. Our Lady. Notre Dame.
And George? He kept waking up at night, raging at the world and at himself: "Two sentences in my bio. Two sentences insignificant to what I was doing. Academic fraud, they're calling it. How could that be, when I never used it to get a job? Nobody ever asked for a résumé before they hired me to coach in college or the pros. I never profited from it. Look, I was stupid, I screwed up. I'm responsible for everything. But where's forgiveness? I keep kicking myself: You did it to yourself. You were set—financially, emotionally. For 30 years you put in 16 hours a day, to end up like this? Now you're nothing. Why? I was just trying to get ahead. To prove something to people who didn't know me. I just didn't believe in myself enough."
2002 Assistant Coach, Minnesota Vikings
A white-haired man moved swiftly through the airport in Atlanta with a cellphone pressed to his ear, pretending to hold a conversation so none of the people staring at him would approach. He stepped onto an airplane to Minneapolis that morning in mid-January and arranged his purgatory. George O'Leary had sown too much loyalty to be abandoned in hell.
Mike Tice, George's old high school quarterback who'd wept when he heard the shocking news, wanted this man at his side as he took over the Vikings, the purple and gold—the same colors to which the two had brought glory at Central Islip High. "I get the benefit of it all," said Tice. "I get to have a better coach than me."
A few weeks later George reported for his first day on the job. The sky was black. The temperature was 15 [degrees]. The time was 6:30 a.m. He hadn't felt the tingle yet but was pretty sure it would come. He pulled into the Vikings' parking lot, first one there, 30 seconds before Tice.
So what do we have here? A man who was tarred and feathered—and is already largely rehabilitated. A man off the hook for the $1.5 million payout, which Georgia Tech let slide, and earning roughly $300,000 a year. A man who's walking into a circle where men will take a step forward to slap him on the back and say, "What a bunch of bull," and "What a raw deal you got over something so small"—while people outside the circle will take a step back and see, from a wider angle, that it's not small, because what becomes of a society if no one's word means a thing?
What no one can know is what will happen on the field, George's old safe place, the first time he snarls and demands complete honesty from a player who knows his sin.
And Luca? Over in Liverpool, N.Y., the old Italian continued to toss and turn at night, thinking of George and all the kids he'd steered to manhood, weighing the decision that he and his superintendent had made a quarter century ago—that the net worth of a man like George was more, much more, than the cost of his weakness. And shaking his head in sad wonder at the fear that whispers the oldest and biggest lie to us all: You're not good enough, you're not good enough, you're not good enough. And deciding that, still, he and his boss had been right to let George get away with playing with matches, even in the face of all that had come to pass, because. . .well, because his grandmother was right.
"'Piglia i buoni,' she always said to me," says Luca. "It means, 'Take the good'—in people. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt. You have to give the rose a chance to bloom, or it's a dark world."
So. That was Luca's choice. Now it's your turn.