For 15 seasons, Rodney Garner was the recruiting coordinator and assistant defensive line coach at Georgia. Quite a long tenure in a profession built on shifting sand.
Occasionally during that span he was tempted to return to his old school, Auburn, where he was an All-SEC offensive lineman. He said he had regular chances over a series of coaching changes since 1998, but it never felt quite right.
During the past offseason, when Gus Malzahn took over the Tigers following their corrosive 3-9 season of 2012, Garner made the leap from Athens to his alma mater.
On Saturday, Garner spoke from media day at the BCS Championship game, a venue he never got invited to while at Georgia. Malzahn and his staff orchestrated one of the bigger turnarounds in history, taking Auburn from winless in the SEC to one win from a national title in a few months.
“There was just something different about Gus,” Garner said, explaining his decision to transfer. “When I met with him I felt he was a guy who is very passionate about Auburn, that he wasn’t going to use Auburn as a steppingstone to get to the next job, that he cared about the kids, that he was going to do it the right way. That’s what I wanted to be a part of.
“After my wife and I met with him I just felt he was the guy, and it was time to come home.”
As part of his stunning homecoming, he got to watch Auburn beat Georgia on the famous tipped pass into the grateful arms of Ricardo Louis, one of multiple miracles that paved the way to the title game. There were no mixed emotions.
“I was excited,” he said. “The thing with the Georgia game that people forget is that we played so well for three quarters, and it gets lost. We’re up 20 (early in the fourth quarter) and we self-destruct, and we get ’em back in the game and ended up winning the game the way we did. I wish we had played better and we had dominated throughout so everybody wouldn’t have talked about the one play.”
His dual loyalties were more evident when asked about the restlessness of Bulldogs fans who wait to revisit the glory of 1980 while Auburn has been to two championship games in four years and the SEC has won the past seven.
“What Georgia fans need to do, they need to look at the body of work of Mark Richt and what Mark Richt stands for,” Garner said. “What he has been able to do at the University of Georgia in his tenure, I’ll put that up against anybody. No he has not gotten to the big game, but his body of work speaks for itself. His character, what he means to these young men and what he means to that community, what he stands for.”
On Monday, his players on the defensive line will be sorely tested, trying to contain FSU’s Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston. The defense overall is considered the biggest hole in the Auburn fairy tale.
Do the Tigers have enough defense to win? “That’s what we have to go out and show,” Garner said.
“Hopefully we’ll go out there and limit the mistakes. We’ve shot ourselves in the foot a lot. We got to clean up some things, make Florida State earns everything. We got to play good, solid defense and play it throughout the game. We can’t be situational.”
The march of time: It doesn’t seem that long ago, 2010. But in college years, it’s a lifetime. Only nine players on Auburn’s current roster saw action back when the Tigers were last in the championship game. Defensive tackle Nosa Eguae is the sole player who has started in both championships.
There is one player who hopes not to draw upon personal experience. “Hopefully I’ll last more than one play in this national championship,” defensive back Chris Davis said. The man who won the Alabama game on the shocking return of a missed field-goal attempt injured his ankle on the opening kickoff against Oregon in 2010 and never saw the field again.
No need to cuss to make the point: Malzahn commands that his coaches refrain from employing one of the time-honored tools of the profession: profanity. The fact that he doesn’t resort to cussing doesn’t mean he can’t get his point across. His offensive assistant, Rhett Lashlee, often recalls one episode when he played quarterback for Malzahn at Shiloh Christian High (Arkansas). After a blown play, Malzahn charged Lashlee and suggested he wanted to kill him. Lashlee didn’t ask him if he was serious.
“He has a way of letting you know that you should have done better that sometimes you might have rather been cussed. But that’s what makes him him,” Lashlee said.
Actually, maybe they could: Question to Auburn center Reese Dismukes: Given how well your offensive line has been performing, do you think you can run the ball on anyone?
“I don’t think we can run it on the Green Bay Packers,” he said. The Packers, however, rank 25th in the NFL in run defense.
As for running it on FSU, ranked 13th against the rush in the FBS, Dismukes said, “We’re going to try, but they’re a great defense.”