George O'Leary works to restore his own reputation and Vikings defense
By Dave Campbell
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn.
George O'Leary is rebuilding his reputation by rebuilding the Minnesota Vikings' defense.
Both were in need of some serious help about 20 months ago.
O'Leary resigned less than a week after being hired as head coach at Notre Dame in December 2001, admitting he lied on his resume two decades earlier in an effort to jump-start his career.
Minnesota's D, meanwhile, ranked 27th in the NFL in the 2001 season. Last year, it wasn't much better: 26th.
O'Leary, hired shortly after Mike Tice replaced Dennis Green as the Vikings' head coach, has risen from assistant in charge of the defensive line to -- starting this season -- defensive coordinator.
His unit ranks third in the NFC, allowing 271.3 yards per game during a 3-0 start heading into Sunday's game against the visiting San Francisco 49ers.
"He's the one that gets us prepared," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "He's the one that gets us the information and puts us in the right position to make plays."
Sure, it's early to be looking closely at statistics, but the Vikings have made impressive strides. In addition to ranking seventh in the league for average yards allowed, the team is sixth in rushing defense (73 yards per game) and is tied for fourth in forced turnovers (nine).
Some of the credit goes to O'Leary, of whom Hovan said: "He was a great coach before he got here, and he's a great coach now."
Of course, good defense is more than just coaching and attitude.
Free agency shopping
The Vikings finally upgraded their talent on that side of the ball, drafting defensive end Kevin Williams in the first round and signing linebacker Chris Claiborne and cornerback Denard Walker.
Defensive end Kenny Mixon, linebackers Henri Crockett and Greg Biekert and strong safety Corey Chavous came in as free agents last season.
"We did a great job of going out and getting guys this offseason," Biekert said. "We really addressed the needs of the team."
Tice played for O'Leary at Central Islip High School in New York in the 1970s. When he hired O'Leary in 2002, Tice said that the Notre Dame fiasco didn't affect his decision "even a bit."
O'Leary kept a low profile last season, politely trying to avoid talk of his past, and was promoted to replace Willie Shaw as coordinator this year.
Everybody in the organization was too impressed with his coaching wisdom to worry about the falsified credentials that made O'Leary a national story. "I was impressed with him from the day I got here, and that hasn't changed at all," Biekert said. "I respect him very much, and I enjoy playing for him."
O'Leary plans to blitz 60 percent of the time, infusing an aggressive-yet-smart style in players short on experience.
Defense aims high
His basic tenets:
• Get; tight coverage from the cornerbacks and let the safeties make the plays.
• Get; sound run defense from the front seven.
• Create; turnovers.
• Avoid; long gains.
• Know; your assignment ... and everyone else's.
"It starts with accountability and responsibility," O'Leary said. "Those aren't real difficult words, but they're important ones. I think the biggest thing is that when a mistake is made, it's not just the one guy who knows it. The other 10 guys know it, too."
Second-year linebacker Nick Rogers played for O'Leary at Georgia Tech, the school he coached for eight seasons before accepting the job at Notre Dame.
"He likes everything organized," Rogers said. "Accountability is like a real big deal for him -- guys making sure that they know what they're doing."
Still room to improve
There are still problems with the Vikings' defense, the sort of gaps that separate it from, say, the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers' group. Minnesota lacks a dominant pass rush, for example, and doesn't have a ball-hawking cornerback.
San Francisco's offense, especially wide receiver Terrell Owens, will provide an important test.
"But I see them playing smarter than we played last year, and I see them gaining confidence as we move along," Tice said.
If the Vikings keep playing well, speculation will abound about O'Leary's desire to be a head coach again.
For now, he shrugs off such talk with a crooked smile.
"Ah, I've been there and done it," said O'Leary, who's 57. "A lot of people are bugging me about it, but I've got enough to worry about.
"Talk to my wife. She says I should retire."