In an off-season that has many Georgia Bulldog fans blue in the face, the average barker is once again breathing a sigh of relief.
Georgia assistant head coach and defensive line coach Rodney Garner has announced that he will remain on Coach Mark Richt’s staff despite being courted heavily by Tennessee as their new offensive line coach.
“Certainly I'm flattered and am sincerely appreciative of the interest shown by Tennessee," Garner explained. "But in the final analysis the positives at Georgia were the determining factors.”
The positives Garner spoke of were being able to coach the defensive side of the ball, work with Coach Richt and raise a family in the Athens community. Garner also took the time to mention that he is eager to work with Georgia’s returning linemen and the 2009 recruiting class.
Garner is the lone holdover from Jim Donnan’s staff and has gained a reputation as a solid recruiter and exemplary line coach. His resume includes four NFL first-round draft picks from his defensive line: Marcus Stroud, Richard Seymour, Charles Grant and Jonathan Sullivan.
That alone is reason for all of the interest in Garner, who has also recently interviewed with Auburn for their head coaching position. But a closer look reveals a deeper reason Tennessee’s new regime came after the Georgia coach.
Garner served at Tennessee before joining Donnan’s Georgia staff in 1998. At the time Fulmer and Tennessee were regularly taking recruits from the state of Georgia, specifically the Atlanta area. However, since Garner left Knoxville the only top recruit the Bulldogs have lost to Tennessee has been Eric Berry of Fairburn, Ga.
The common denominator in the equation is Garner. The coach has not only helped develop NFL-worthy prospects, but has helped build the fence around the state of Georgia. Fulmer and staff no longer had an easy drive down I-75 into Atlanta to evaluate talent and talk to mamas.
Since 1998, Fulmer and Tennessee enjoyed seasons of success. But not to the tune of the teams that included Tee Martin and Jamal Lewis. As seasons came and went, the wins became more and more difficult.
Enter Lane Kiffin.
Tennessee’s new head guy is known as a recruiter, but not necessarily in the Southeast. The decision to hire the young Kiffin was not an immediate threat to Georgia, but set in motion a series of other decisions that could have led to a piece being missing in Richt’s staff.
Tennessee also hired the esteemed NFL defensive mind and head coach’s dad, Monte Kiffin, as their new defensive coordinator. The salary agreed upon is a whopping seven figures.
Garner, who very much wants a coordinator and eventually a head position, undoubtedly took notice.
Then late last week, Tennessee also signed Ed Orgeron as their defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator. Many Georgia fans who had already lived through the courtship from Auburn of not just Garner but offensive line coach Stacy Searels, may have felt Richt’s staff was safe from being cherry picked.
But then the University of Tennessee jets started flying across the border. And the occupants of the planes were not in the Peach state just to call upon 18-year-old recruits.
Garner was listening. He was even flying back with them to Knoxville.
Even as the state of Georgia’s top football prospect was announcing on national television that he would play ‘tween the hedges next year, the two schools were vying for Garner’s services.
In a way, Branden Smith is a prime example of how things have changed in the state of Georgia leading up to National Signing Day. He will graduate from Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta and had a stellar game in the Under Armour All-American game.
Historically, Georgia has had difficulty recruiting in Atlanta. Champ Bailey, Garrison Hearst and even Herschel Walker all came from rural areas of the state. It seems Georgia coaches had trouble getting into high school coaches’ offices…and bleachers.
In Mark Richt’s press conference after being hired in late December 2000, he quickly mentioned the importance of recruiting within the state. He firmly acknowledged that he felt championships could be won with the talent being developed within the state.
Within two years he had added an SEC trophy to Butts-Mehre’s collection and his staff was turning in travel receipts that were easier on the recruiting budget. Atlanta had opened its doors to the new Georgia regime and players like DJ Shockley, Thomas Brown and Thomas Davis had traveled down highway 316 towards Athens.
Last week, when Orgeron signed as a position coach in Knoxville he inked a deal that will pay him more than most coordinators. This potentially put Georgia in a hardship to keep their man as they could not match figures with Tennessee.
Willie Martinez, Georgia’s defensive coordinator, had drawn the ire of many fans for the defensive performances in its three losses and a couple of its wins. So the timing was not right to give their own defensive coordinator a lucrative raise given the Bulldog Nation’s discontent. And to give Garner a raise over Martinez’s compensation was inconceivable.
It seemed Tennessee was in a position of power.
But Coach Richt had an audience with his assistant coach last and Garner made a decision he felt he could live with. His family has spent 11 years in Athens.
Georgia fans are glad they will spend at least one more.