“Why’s this so good?” No. 51: Gary Smith and Coach O’Leary’s lies
We may as well begin the way Gary Smith begins – with a question, and near the end. Why is it that when you finish reading “Lying in Wait,” Smith’s 2002 profile of coach George O’Leary, you feel the impact so strongly? And by feel I mean physically feel. It will be different for everyone, but it hits me somewhere in the throat.
I do know that sensation is why, when asked about my favorite nonfiction writers, I rarely mention Gary Smith. I suspect I’m not alone. Listing Gary Smith comes with the obligation of explaining why Gary Smith. And anyone who’s been affected by his stories in Sports Illustrated – about coaches flattened by cancer, say, or an integrated high school team during segregation – knows that the pieces are hard to describe, that by the time you reach the end you’re emotionally drained but unable to articulate why. So I’ll talk about Tom Wolfe’s explosive sentences or David Grann’s knack for plot twists or John Hersey’s masterful pacing. But I’ll hardly ever refer to the guy at the top of my list, and that, I suppose, is a lie of omission.
My favorite Gary Smith story, as it turns out, is about a liar. On Dec. 13, 2001, George O’Leary lost his dream job as Notre Dame’s head football coach after a reporter discovered lies that had skulked in his resume for decades: a fictitious master’s degree from NYU and a bogus stint as a college football player. O’Leary became an instant national joke, the subject of newspaper cartoons, a punch line on Leno. Five months later, Sports Illustrated published Smith’s chronicle of the coach’s rise and “flaming fall from grace.” I first read the story shortly after it won the National Magazine Award for profile writing and was struck by the way Smith employs questions to both fling the narrative forward and slow it down. There are 64 interrogative sentences in the piece, beginning with, literally, “Where, then, to start the story…?”
Smith knows damn well where the story should begin, but he asks his audience anyway, in order to gun rapid introductions to a handful of characters, starting with O’Leary himself, whom we find in a hotel room, rubbing his face and contemplating suicide. Or do we start with this other guy over here? Smith probes, and drops us into another scene only to yank us out just as quickly – a gambit he pulls off three more times, until we’ve met the characters most crucial to the plot.
And that’s just the first six paragraphs.
The lens finally settles on O’Leary’s former boss, Luke LaPorta, a 77-year-old Italian who’s known about the coach’s penchant for fabrication for more than 20 years. As a high school athletic director, LaPorta chose not to rat out O’Leary, allowing him to steam ahead toward his date with disaster. Smith frames the piece by placing us in LaPorta’s head, as the old Italian considers whether he made the right choice all those years ago. It’s a subject we’ll soon revisit.
The bulk of the remaining story, though, loosely structured like a resume, takes us through the life of George O’Leary in more or less linear fashion, starting with a lie he told at age 7. But Smith isn’t done with the question marks. No, as we root around in O’Leary’s past we hit questions that ping us past less consequential or nonambiguous nodes in the coach’s biography and onto the deeply psychological scenes that Smith is known for.
And that’s where things get interesting. The questions cease to be pistons in Smith’s plot engine, and instead deepen our involvement with the story:
Have you located it yet? Where could a lie, an exaggeration that would make a national disgrace of a man, take root in that house?
We sink further and further in. The coach considers what to tell his team about his college playing career, which he deserted before it even began, and we hear his justification for the con:
A man who made quitting seem so repulsive, so weak, who convinced so many boys that anything was possible if they refused to quit…. Why, he couldn’t have quit, could he?
The thing is, we like George O’Leary, especially after hearing from men whose lives he changed for the better. Unfortunately, O’Leary thought that he could gain their respect only by puffing up his past. But we learn that no one gave a shit about his past:
The lies had been wasted. George O’Leary: the chipmunk trying to pass for a squirrel, when everyone saw him as a lion.
Though Smith has significantly slowed the pace, we are reminded that catastrophe looms. “It was ticking now. So softly that even he couldn’t hear it. So softly that no one could, and nearly every article and anecdote about George hinged on his extraordinary honesty, his painful honesty, and all the perpendicular adjectives – upstanding, upright, up-front, straightforward – echoed again and again.” Our fondness for O’Leary makes Smith’s clock, as we see the day of reckoning ahead – and hear “those last… few… ticks….” – all the more heart-stopping. I always find myself almost yelling at the page: George! Stop!
But here it comes. We wend through the coach’s many jobs and deceptions until we reach his hiring at Notre Dame, the quick discovery of his deceit, his resignation, and near-suicidal ruin. We read five paragraphs about O’Leary’s redemption, or at least the closest he’ll come to redemption in this story: another new job. Then we’re back with LaPorta, who asks himself again if he was right not to derail the fib-prone coach’s career back in the day. He decides he was. But the most important question in “Lying in Wait” is yet to come.
It turns out that the question of whether to cut a liar some slack, after taking the full measure of his life, isn’t for athletic directors or college presidents or O’Leary’s family members to answer. After more than 9,000 words of endless inquiry, it’s not even presented in the form of a question.
No, Smith ends with one staccato line:
“So. That was Luke’s choice. Now it’s your turn.”
James Ross Gardner (@jamesrgardner) is a senior editor at Seattle Met magazine. His writing has also appeared in Esquire and GQ. “The Girl on the Bridge,” his story about the race to stop a suicide, was a finalist for the City and Regional Magazine Association’s 2012 feature writing award.
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