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 and lying 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.