By DAVID DROSCHAK, AP Sports Writer
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – George O’Leary felt comfortable with his 2000 team entering the season, but remembers being met with skepticism during the Atlantic Coast Conference’s preseason media day.
Many wondered why O’Leary was so upbeat since the Yellow Jackets would be without ACC player of the year Joe Hamilton for the first time in four years. The quarterback rolled up an ACC-record 10,640 yards of offense in leading Georgia Tech to three straight bowl games.
A slip to the middle of the ACC standings was the consensus prediction from most.
But O’Leary knew his talent base was solid. New quarterback George Godsey had a super season as Georgia Teach didn’t miss a beat without Hamilton, compiling a 9-2 record and No. 17 national ranking to earn O’Leary ACC coach of the year honors.
It was the second time in three seasons O’Leary has won The Associated Press award. He received 44 of a possible 70 votes from members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Writers Association to win by a wide margin over Florida State’s Bobby Bowden.
Bowden, whose team is 11-1 and won its ninth straight ACC title, was second in the voting with 12, while N.C. State’s Chuck Amato was third with nine. Clemson’s Tommy Bowden got five votes.
“I said we had a chance to be a pretty good football team and everybody looked at me with big stares because Joe was gone,” O’Leary said, recalling the response from reporters in July.
“But I saw the rest of the program. I knew we were going to be better on defense, and offensively we just had more big-play people we could go to in the program and not rely on just one guy. We had some competition at all the positions, which makes them play harder and practice harder.”
The Yellow Jackets started the season 2-2, but reeled off seven straight wins, including key late-season victories on the road against highly ranked Clemson and arch-rival Georgia to land a berth in the Peach Bowl.
The team’s two losses came in close games. The No. 3 Florida State Seminoles beat the Yellow Jackets 26-21 in the second game of the season, and N.C. State won 30-23 in overtime in Raleigh.
After watching tape on the Wolfpack loss, O’Leary said he and his staff realized they had used only 14 players on each side of the ball. O’Leary ordered his coaches to build more depth.
The move paid off.
“I sat down with the staff at that time and said, ‘Men, this is not working this way,'” he said. “We’ve averaged about 57 players playing a game since then. We’ve played a ton of players and the morale has been there.”
Named Georgia Tech’s 10th head football coach on Nov. 28, 1994, O’Leary is 45-27 overall and 32-18 in ACC play in six years. He has won 27 of his last 34 games.
O’Leary’s team played one of the nation’s toughest schedules that included five bowl teams and seven teams that posted winning records in leading the Yellow Jackets to a fourth-straight bowl appearance for the first time since 1951-56.
“We’ve built the program on good character kids that understand that when you make mistakes you’ve got to pay the price for it,” O’Leary said. “I think that’s what they’ve done.”
O’Leary, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense type of coach, said he has built a bond with his players the past few seasons that has produced results.
“One thing that annoys me more than anything else is lying,” O’Leary said. “I won’t lie to you and I don’t expect you to lie to me. If you make a mistake, let’s admit it and move on. I really think that has been the key.
“When I first got here I thought there were 14 guys on the field because everybody said they blocked their man. Well, who made the tackle? Now they just say, ‘Hey coach, I blew it, I missed my man.’ That helps us. That has carried over in the whole program. We have good morale. If you don’t have good morale you’re not going to win.”