SI Vault
Gary Smith
April 08, 2002
As George O'Leary climbed the coaching ladder to his dream job at Notre Dame, a dirty secret was lurking in his résumé. But did he pay too high a price for a few lies?
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April 08, 2002

Lying In Wait

As George O'Leary climbed the coaching ladder to his dream job at Notre Dame, a dirty secret was lurking in his résumé. But did he pay too high a price for a few lies?

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"Mom...I made a mistake. But it was never a factor in getting any job."


"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 die 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 die Blessed Mother. Our Lady. Notre Dame.

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