By: Allan Wolper
What’s black and white and red all over? America’s newspapers and the university officials who read them. Blame it all on George O’Leary, a football coach who began rewriting his resume April Fools’ Day 1980 and got away with it until the University of Notre Dame hired him last month.
Red-faced and humiliated, Notre Dame, the capital of college football, made sure O’Leary left the campus five days after he signed a contract as coach. O’Leary, barely contrite, blamed everybody but himself for what happened to him.
Notre Dame felt confident O’Leary’s resume was accurate since the academic highlights of his career had been listed for many years in the media guides of Syracuse University, the San Diego Chargers of the National Football League, and Georgia Tech.
The Syracuse guide reported O’Leary was a three-year letterman in football at the University of New Hampshire even though he only went there for two years and never was on the team. And the Chargers and Georgia Tech guides claimed O’Leary received a master’s degree in education from New York University even though he only took two courses there.
Why did O’Leary’s fictions become factoids? Because sports media guides — brochures written by team propagandists — were read as scripture and their pronouncements appeared on sports pages everywhere O’Leary was a coach.
If a coach’s mother said in a media guide that she loved him, no one dared check it out. Even in Chicago, where checking on a mother’s love is a cherished newspaper commandment. “We accepted the media guides as the gospel truth,” said Chicago Tribune Associate Managing Editor for Sports Dan McGrath. “This probably taught us to be a bit more diligent.”
The truth be told, O’Leary today would be on a recruiting tour of America’s teen-age football hot spots for Notre Dame if it weren’t for John R. Hussey, a retired high-school Latin teacher who writes a college-sports column for the New Hampshire Sunday News, alter ego of The Union Leader in Manchester, N.H.
Hussey wanted to fill his column with some bon mots about the local boy who made good. There was nothing in The Union Leader files about his playing career at New Hampshire. “I was looking for people who knew him,” Hussey recalled. “So I called up Joe Yukica … who was the coach at New Hampshire. But Joe said George never played for him.”
Jim Fennell, another Sunday News writer, joined the chase, and O’Leary’s make-believe campus life came apart. The University of New Hampshire could not find anything in its clip files about O’Leary’s playing career. He wasn’t in any game programs. “We were shocked,” Fennell recalled. “Everyone had published stuff about his playing career at New Hampshire, including Newsday. We figured they would have checked him out. He coached high-school football on Long Island.”
But Newsday, the Melville, N.Y., paper with one of the best high-school sports sections anywhere, never did — a real stunner because O’Leary was a high-profile presence on Long Island, first as a football coach at Central Islip High School and later as a recruiter for Syracuse University and Georgia Tech.
Notre Dame was ready to forgive O’Leary even after he falsely claimed that his resume was made up by aggressive public-relations people at Syracuse when he was an assistant coach there.
But the school was getting nervous. So Notre Dame Athletic Director Kevin White asked him if there were any more skeletons in his academic closet. There was. O’Leary didn’t have a master’s degree in education, something he told Georgia Tech he had when it hired him in 1994.
“I felt personally betrayed,” said Donna Ditota, a reporter for The Post-Standard in Syracuse who penned a profile of O’Leary last summer. “I wrote this story about this honest guy, and he wasn’t. He lied.”
Ditota and the dozens of other reporters who covered The O’Leary Lies are now looking at college-sports media handouts with the kind of skepticism usually accorded major political appointments.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, feeling victimized by Georgia Tech, recently sent out an investigative team to cull the backgrounds of coaches at colleges throughout Georgia. And what did it find?
Jim Harrick Jr., 35, a University of Georgia assistant basketball coach who claimed in his media-guide bio to have been a two-time member of the West Coast Conference Academic All-Conference Team while at Pepperdine University, had to enroll in a junior college to improve his grades.
Still, journalists expect universities to use their massive research facilities to conduct some basic research. “We assumed that when Georgia Tech hired O’Leary and paid him $1.2 million a year they would have conducted a background check on him,” said John Hollis of the Journal-Constitution. “It would be awfully tedious to check everything on everyone’s resume.”
True. But look what happens when you don’t.