This article won a $1000 Award of Outstanding Merit from the Amy Foundation in May of 2003.
Next weekend, two ex-Georgia Tech football coaches were supposed to lead their football teams against one another in the Kickoff Classic at Giants’ Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Ralph Friedgen will be there with his Maryland Terrapins. George O’Leary was supposed to have been there too as the new coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. It would have been his second straight Kickoff Classic. Last year O’Leary coached his Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets to a 13-7 win over the Syracuse Orangemen. However, O’ Leary will not be on the sidelines for Notre Dame, having resigned only days after being hired as their head coach last December.
The record books will have to place an asterisk by O’Leary’s name, giving the explanation as to why he never coached a game at the most prestigious football program in the nation. In fact, O’Leary’s entire career, as great as it has been, will be asterisked in the minds of many who will remember him more for falsifying a resume than for his abilities as a coach. This is unfortunate.
O’Leary’s incident is a reminder to us all that we can build a great career and a great reputation only to have it overrun by our own lack of integrity.
“In ancient China, the people desired security from the barbaric hordes to the north, so they built the Great Wall of China. It was so high they knew no one could climb over it and so thick that nothing could break it down. They settled back to enjoy their security. During the first hundred years of the wall’s existence, China was invaded three times. Not once did the barbaric hordes break down the wall or climb over the top. Each time they bribed a gatekeeper and then marched right through the gate. The Chinese were so busy relying on the walls of stone that they forgot to teach integrity to the children who grew up to guard the gates.” (John Irwin, Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Macon, GA)
It’s a great temptation for successful people to rely on great achievements as their security. Regardless of the level of one’s achievement, if people have a lapse of integrity, the gate to their reputation is left unguarded, jeopardizing their opportunity to lead. O’Leary’s incident teaches us that lapses of integrity, even from years ago, can have devastating consequences on one’s future and ability to lead.
“Integrity” comes from a Latin root that carries with it a sense of wholeness. The wall of China has integrity because it is solid. Likewise, a person with integrity is solid in his or her ethics and judgment. A person with integrity discerns right from wrong and acts on it, unafraid to state why a particular position was taken. Integrity takes courage because sometimes being a person of integrity comes with a personal cost.
However, the cost of leaving the gate to the moral code of ethics unguarded is much higher. In the Bible we see many examples of the cost of having a lapse of integrity. The book of 1 Samuel says that “in the spring, at the time when kings go off to war….David remained in Jerusalem.” (NIV) The implication is that David should have been at war with his men but instead he remained at his palace.
I suppose such a decision is a king’s prerogative. But there are standards even for kings. There was no place where David was safer than in the well-fortified surroundings of the palace. Yet it was from the roof of the palace that David saw a beautiful woman bathing and he sent someone to find out about her. The gates to the palace were well guarded, but David left the gate of his moral code of ethics unguarded. One bad decision led to another. When news came that the woman was pregnant, David had her husband brought home from the battlefield, believing he would sleep with his wife, which would later cause him to believe the child was his own. But Uriah was a man of such integrity that he slept at the entrance to the palace with all his master’s servants and did not go down to his house. He refused to have pleasure with his wife because of his loyalty to the men he had left behind camped in the open fields.
Uriah’s integrity cost him his life. King David had him sent to the front lines, where he was killed. God’s prophet Nathan foretold the death of their child. Though David pleaded with God to spare the child, he did not live.
Yet even with these terrible lapses of judgment in David’s life, he is still lifted up as the greatest King of Israel David is an example that a few bad decisions should not sum up the character of one’s life. In fact, in speaking to King Solomon about David, God said, “As for you, if you walk before me in integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.'” 1 Kings 9:4-5 (NIV)
Apparently, God looked at the whole of David’s life in making this judgment of his character. Likewise, I do not believe that the falsifying of his resume years ago sums up the character of George O’Leary. I base this on the way he handled his resignation and by the many positive comments others made of him in the weeks following. He was honest, forthright, gracious, and repentant. He explained how as a young married father he had allowed his pursuit and dream of being a football coach to cloud his judgment in preparing his resume, which in later years was never corrected.
In his resignation remarks, O’Leary said, “I pray that my experiences will simply be yet another coaching lesson to the youth of this country that we are all accountable for our actions and there can be no double standard.” He is right. If we think otherwise, we’ve left the gate to our character unguarded. May integrity and uprightness protect us, because our hope is in God. (Ps 25:21)