EDEN PRAIRIE -- George O'Leary resigned in disgrace from his dream coaching job at Notre Dame in December 2001, admitting he falsified a few lines on his resume to help jump-start his career two decades earlier.
If O'Leary ever produces an updated version of his employment history, his work in restoring the Minnesota Vikings' defense ought to be prominently noted.
"It's on him, man. He's the one that gets us prepared," said tackle Chris Hovan, one of O'Leary's biggest admirers. In Hovan's first three years, the Vikings had one of the NFL's worst defenses -- finishing 26th out of 32 in total yards allowed in 2002.
This season, O'Leary's first as defensive coordinator, Minnesota is off to a 3-0 start. It's early, but the Vikings are tied for fourth in the league in forced turnovers (nine), sixth in rushing defense (73 yards per game) and seventh with an average of 271.3 total yards allowed.
"He's the one that gets us the information and puts us in the right position to make plays," Hovan said. "It's really an attribute to George and what he's doing. He's a great coach. He was a great coach before he got here, and he's a great coach now."
Of course, good defense is more than just mental. The Vikings finally upgraded their talent on that side of the ball this year, 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 as free agents last season. Hovan and nose tackle Fred Robbins are the only starters who played for the Vikings before 2002.
"We did a great job of going out and getting guys this offseason," Biekert said. "We really addressed the needs of the team. We didn't say, 'Oh, we can't pass up on this guy, just because he's a great athlete.' We went and got guys at the position that we needed."
When Mike Tice was hired to replace Dennis Green as coach of the Vikings in January 2002, he wasted little time shaking things up -- hiring O'Leary as his assistant head coach to work with the defensive line.
Tice, who played for O'Leary at Central Islip High School in New York, in the late 1970s, said then 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 him 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 is old school, his Long Island accent still thick and his gray hair thinning a bit underneath a purple Vikings cap riding high on his head.
His goal is to blitz on 60 percent of the plays, infusing an aggressive-yet-smart style into a defense still short on experience. Get tight coverage from the cornerbacks and let the safeties make the plays. Get sound run defense from the front seven. Create turnovers, avoid the 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."
San Francisco's offense, especially wide receiver Terrell Owens, will provide an important test on Sunday.
"But I see them playing smarter than we played last year, and I see them gaining confidence as we move along here," Tice said.
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