UCF President John Hitt knows fans love to speculate about football coach George O'Leary's future.
O'Leary has vocal critics who insist he doesn’t have what it takes to help UCF football compete on the national stage. They dismiss his accomplishments, including fund-raising for a program-changing on campus stadium, winning the first conference title in school history and winning the first bowl victory in school history.
Some UCF observers have speculated the sole reason the school is fighting an NCAA postseason ban, which will likely preserve the Knights’ opportunity to play for a Conference USA title and bowl victory, is to give O’Leary a shot at big wins before he retires at the end of the season.
Hitt knocked down the popular rumor during an interview with the Orlando Sentinel earlier this month, insisting O’Leary’s future had nothing to do with the decision to pursue an expedited postseason ban appeal.
He expects O’Leary to coach the season opener at Akron Thursday -- and a lot more games that follow it.
"There's always talk about a football coach,” Hitt said. “But no, there's no plan that this will be George's last year. Not to say that he couldn't walk in tomorrow and make that decision.
“… I'm always a little amused by all the speculation about George's situation.”
Hitt reiterated UCF decided to appeal the ban because school officials, including O’Leary, felt it was far too harsh a penalty for infractions committed by the football program.
“We owe it to our seniors,” Hitt said, suggesting it would be unfair to block the Knights’ 2012 senior class from a shot at a conference title and bowl victory.
O'Leary signed a 10-year contract extension in 2005, allowing him to coach the Knights through at least the end of the 2014-15 season.
"I have a contract, and I'll honor my contract," O'Leary said shortly after the Knights were introduced as new Big East members in December 2011. "And I'm sure the university will honor their part of it. So I intend on being here through the Big East. ... So 2013, you'll see this old, gray-haired guy on that field."
Whenever he is asked about his future with the program, O’Leary says he will keep coaching until he has two bad days in a row at the office. So far, even in the worst of times, O’Leary insists that hasn’t happened yet.
O’Leary seems to have been reinvigorated by offseason changes he made to his football coaching staff.
He added six new football staff members, who players, coaches and recruits have said helped establish a positive atmosphere within the program.
The Knights also have a strong senior class, with a variety of starters showing signs they could be reliable leaders throughout the 2012 season.
"Chemistry is very important," O'Leary said. “And we've got good chemistry.”
Hitt has been asked just as many times as O'Leary how long he wants to keep leading UCF.
Hitt has already accomplished big goals, including helping UCF become the nation’s second largest university in terms of enrollment and a rapidly developing research institution. Hitt’s latest milestones include the construction of a new medical school and the Knights’ long-awaited move to the Big East Conference.
Hitt, 71, signed a contract extension last year that could keep him at UCF through June 2016
“I’ve got four years left on my contract – a little less than that,” Hitt said. “The fourth year started July 1.”
When asked if he planned to work until his contract expires, Hitt said, “Yeah, if my health permits.”
Hitt has been forced to study NCAA rules and the appeals process extensively during the past year. He was troubled by the Knights’ clear lack of compliance. Hitt said he regrets trusting former UCF athletics director Keith Tribble to help the school comply with NCAA policy.
Tribble was at the center of most of UCF’s major infractions. Hitt asked Tribble when the NCAA trouble first surfaced whether the Knights had violated any rules and might be in trouble. Hitt said Tribble told him UCF did not violate any rules, a statement Hitt later discovered was false.
Tribble has since insisted he didn’t fully understand NCAA rules. He resigned in November and Hitt has been more focused on dealing with NCAA compliance than celebrating the school’s move to the Big East.
“It’s a lot more fun to be president some times than others,” Hitt said. “This is not an especially fun time. The thing you learn over the years is you keep your head down and you keep working and you do what’s right for the institution. And these things usually work out.”
O’Leary and Hitt get to shift their focus back to the game they love when the Knights take the field at Akron Thursday night.
“We’re proud of our team,” Hitt said. “And we’re proud to stand by them. We’re looking forward to a great season.”
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