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Brandon Marshall expected that things would change at Central Florida after George O'Leary took over as coach in January 2004, but he wasn't prepared for how much. Marshall, a senior wideout, found out what was in store for the Golden Knights when he went to the weight room for the team's first scheduled workout under the new regime. Such sessions under O'Leary's predecessor, Mike Kruczek, had been casual affairs. So Marshall was shocked when he entered the room to the sound of retching and the smell of vomit. "All the windows were fogged up and puddles of sweat were all over the floor," he says. "I'd never seen anything like it."
The toughness O'Leary began instilling in his players that day has been instrumental in one of the biggest turnarounds in NCAA history. After going 0--11 in O'Leary's first season, the Golden Knights are 8--3 and headed to the Conference USA title game, on Dec. 3 in Orlando. UCF earned its latest victory in typically gritty fashion, scoring a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 31--28 comeback win at Rice last Saturday. The Golden Knights, who snapped a 17-game losing streak earlier this year, are 7--1 in games decided by 10 points or fewer, and have outscored opponents 108--50 in the fourth quarter. "Our success in the fourth quarter is a direct result of all that work," says senior defensive end Paul Carrington. "Everybody has bought into what coach O'Leary is saying."
In his first college coaching opportunity since he lost his dream job at Notre Dame in 2001 as a result of inaccuracies in his r�sum�, O'Leary joined a program he describes as "sort of in disarray." Among the assistants he hired were three coaches who worked with him during seven successful seasons at Georgia Tech, from 1995 through 2001, and O'Leary wasted no time in laying down the law to his players. "I told them the door swings two ways for a reason," he says. The attrition rate was high, and it was no help when 16 of the team's 62 scholarship players were declared academically ineligible in the spring of 2004. This year's roster is missing 13 players who were due to be juniors or seniors--UCF has only 10 seniors on scholarship, while freshmen and sophomores make up almost two thirds of the team. "Coach is very into discipline, and a lot of guys had trouble adjusting to that," says Carrington.
O'Leary has played nine true freshmen this season, including tailback Kevin Smith, who has rushed for 868 yards and five touchdowns to lead a rushing offense that has improved from 107th in the country last season to 42nd. Cornerback Joe Burnett, another first-year player, returned a punt 58 yards for a score on Saturday and sealed the win when he picked off his fifth pass of the season with 27 seconds left. The inexperience, however, has led to some confusion on defense. The Golden Knights have allowed 15 scoring plays of 20 yards or more.
Toughness was a trademark of O'Leary's teams at Georgia Tech, and the 59-year-old coach exhibits plenty of it himself. Asked whether his success this season has vindicated him after the Notre Dame fiasco, he says simply, "I made a mistake. There's nothing I can do about it but move on."
Says UCF defensive coordinator Lance Thompson, an assistant for O'Leary at Tech who rejoined his old boss last season, "I wanted to help him regain what he had lost."