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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 as he 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 die 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, die 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.