Did Georgia Tech and Pepper Rodgers keep Steve Spurrier's career alive?

Most Georgia Tech fans, or at least many Tech fans, know that Steve Spurrier was once a Jackets assistant coach, under Pepper Rodgers in 1979. What you may not know about is Rodgers’ role in apparently keeping Spurrier’s then-fledgling coaching career alive.

Spurrier, who retired Tuesday from South Carolina after a 36-year coaching career, had his first job coaching quarterbacks at Florida, his alma mater, in 1978. But he wasn’t retained when coach Doug Dickey was fired. Rodgers, who coached Spurrier in his freshman and sophomore seasons at Florida, persuaded him to come to Tech to coach quarterbacks. According to a 1979 story in Tech’s alumni magazine, Spurrier’s heart wasn’t set on staying in the game.

“I had some feelers out that I didn’t really inquire into because I didn’t want to stay in coaching unless the opportunity was really right,” Spurrier was quoted as saying. “To be a college coach here (at Tech) was the best opportunity I could think of.”

(However great the opportunity, he still made the apparently timeless plea for improved facilities. Spurrier was also quoted as saying that “we’ve got to have something better to recruit with.”)

Regardless, Tech’s appeal to Spurrier is understandable. Rodgers and Spurrier were close and remain so. Spurrier, in fact, called Rodgers last week, five days before his retirement, to wish him a happy 84th birthday. At his home in Reston, Va., Rodgers still displays a photo of him and Spurrier during their time at Tech. It is from a tennis tournament that they won together at the Capital City Club.

“I love Steve as a person and as a coach,” Rodgers said in an interview Thursday.

His feelings for Spurrier aside, Rodgers also acknowledged his role in helping Spurrier stay in coaching.

“(Coaching) was just something that he thought he might do,” Rodgers said. “I don’t know whether it was his lifelong dream to coach. I don’t know that it wasn’t. But when he got through playing pro ball, you’ve got to do something and so I think he decided that he would coach, and so he coached for me.”

According to the article, part of Rodgers’ pitch to Spurrier was that he planned to develop the passing game with quarterback Mike Kelley. Tech did indeed move heavily to a passing game. Tech played 11 games that season, and Kelley threw 300 passes, which broke the school record for attempts by 59. He completed 149, with 10 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. It was a considerable departure from Rodgers’ wishbone offense that he brought to Tech from UCLA. Just two seasons earlier, quarterback Gary Lanier threw 26 passes all season. (Lanier, who now works in the Tech athletic department's development office, famously led an upset of Notre Dame in 1976 without throwing a pass.)

Kelley’s 2,051 passing yards that season set a school record that stood until Shawn Jones eclipsed it in 1991. But it wasn’t enough. Tech finished 4-6-1 – two of the losses, including one to Notre Dame, were one-possession games – and Rodgers was fired at the end of his fifth season.

Spurrier ended up at Duke, where he served as offensive coordinator and began to lay the groundwork for what would become the Fun ‘n’ Gun offense that changed the SEC and college football more broadly.

“Steve always had a great offensive mind,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers later regretted leaving the wishbone. But from the perspective of Spurrier’s eventual role in helping shape the course of college football, it may have been a small price to pay.

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About the Author

Ken Sugiura
Ken Sugiura
Ken Sugiura covers Georgia Tech sports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.