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December 19, 2002

By George, reporter carries on


Irish Sports Report
George O'Leary was all smiles at his introductory press conference at Notre Dame on Dec. 8, 2001, but it all came crashing down a few days later.


At his desk on Friday the 13th, inside the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader sports department, reporter Jim Fennell put the finishing touches on a piece as he filled in for the regular Saturday columnist.

His project on the University of New Hampshire's impact on the National Hockey League remained undone, high school coaches needed to be called, and a basketball game just might have required Fennell's presence.

If the all-purpose writer were this busy a year ago this week, right now head coach George O'Leary might be getting the Notre Dame football program ready for a bowl game. Or, some have speculated, getting a head start in recruiting.

To think the knob that opened the door for Tyrone Willingham's entry into Notre Dame history was turned in a New Hampshire newsroom.

"I guess I didn't have anything else to do that week,'' Fennell said, "or else I may have never ended up on that story.''

But he did. As a result, O'Leary now walks the Minnesota Viking sidelines forever known as the guy who lied his way out of college football and Fennell quietly continues his journalism career forever known as the guy who exposed him.

The way it turned out for Notre Dame, some Domers consider Fennell the modern-day sports writing equivalent of Grantland Rice or Red Smith. He has heard from hundreds of them, as well as old friends and classmates from all over the country. He received only one questionable letter -- an anonymous note his wife wanted checked for anthrax -- but the rest of the responses, even before Notre Dame's memorable football season began, read like thank-you cards.

"At one point when Notre Dame was undefeated,'' Fennell kidded, "the other guy who worked on the story with me (John Hussey) and I joked that they were going to ask us to be there for the coin flip at the Fiesta Bowl or speak at the banquet.''

In case you don't recall, or have repressed any memories from December 2001, the reporter from the Granite State chiseled his name into Irish football lore after a routine local-boy-does-good story suddenly became anything but routine.

Fennell followed up a tip by Hussey and eventually revealed that O'Leary, listed as a former New Hampshire football player in 1966-67, never lettered three times as he claimed. Nobody remembered O'Leary even playing in a game.

A few calls later, Fennell found out O'Leary also misrepresented himself on a 1980 personal information sheet while applying for his first college coaching job at Syracuse University. A few calls after that, Notre Dame officials found out about O'Leary's troubling pattern in the form of a bogus master's degree. Before Fennell's newspaper was delivered the next morning, O'Leary had resigned.

That was exactly one year ago -- on Dec. 14.

O'Leary declined a request from ISR to reflect on those events. Fennell has considered talking to him, too, especially while in Minnesota last spring covering the New Hampshire hockey team's trip to the Frozen Four. But he wasn't sure what he would have said; Hello, I'm the guy who ruined your life. How's it going?

"I've really wrestled with that, should I give the guy a call or not,'' said Fennell, a 15-year veteran who has been at the Union-Leader for almost two years. "To me, it felt like piling on. I didn't know what good would have come out of it.''

For Fennell and his newspaper, plenty of good came out of the episode, professionally speaking. The Associated Press Sports Editors selected the story one of the year's 10 best, a huge accomplishment for a paper that size (circulation 68,000) to be included with the Boston Globes and Chicago Tribunes of the industry. The paper also won several state and regional awards, not to mention immeasurable respect.

"It was nice to be known as the Union-Leader and not the 'ultra-conservative' Union-Leader for a change,'' said Vin Sylvia, the deputy managing editor for sports who helped push the story. "But we've been very conscious of trying not to overdo it. We don't revel in George O'Leary's downfall. We take a lot of satisfaction in doing a job journalistically, but we're not dancing on anyone's grave.''

Sylvia did feel like celebrating, at least selfishly, the fact that Fennell remains on his staff a year after a career-changing story. Turns out sports writing's biggest scoop of 2001 didn't result in a bigger newspaper or magazine scooping him away. "Jim's an outstanding talent, (so) I was stunned that didn't happen,'' Sylvia said.

Stunned that no appreciative big-city sports editors with Notre Dame either in their hearts or on their diplomas called. Stunned that Sports Illustrated or the Boston Globe didn't call.

Local celebrity, however, did.

Fennell was in a pizzeria recently when one of his buddies, a local basketball coach, introduced him as "the guy who wrote the George O'Leary story.'' His family does that all the time.

He laughs recalling those instances, but prefers to wear his journalistic badge of honor discreetly. The O'Leary story, Fennell will tell you, wasn't even the best story he wrote last year. The best one was about a high school athlete, interviewed in a jail cell, responsible for driving drunk and critically injuring his sister and a friend.

"I felt a lot better about that story than the O'Leary story,'' Fennell said.

Partly because the kid, Fennell adds, eventually went to college and is no longer behind bars.

While O'Leary, in ways still inexplicable to so many, remains a prisoner of a different sort.

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