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 he dream 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, when he 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 die 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!"