Former UGA football coach opens up about his addiction, plans for future

After his unexplained departure from the Bulldogs staff earlier this year, former special teams coach Scott Cochran seeks to help others with new addiction recovery group
Former UGA football special teams coordinator Scott Cochran, left, and former Georgia Council for Recovery official Jeff Breedlove pose for a photo at Capitol Hill on their first trip to Washington, D.C. to launch their addiction recovery organization.  Photo courtesy of Jeff Breedlove

Credit: Courtesy

Credit: Courtesy

Former UGA football special teams coordinator Scott Cochran, left, and former Georgia Council for Recovery official Jeff Breedlove pose for a photo at Capitol Hill on their first trip to Washington, D.C. to launch their addiction recovery organization. Photo courtesy of Jeff Breedlove

Former UGA assistant football coach Scott Cochran had kept his yearslong addiction to painkillers a secret. Then one April day in 2020, his wife, Cissy, found him lying unconscious. “She found me dead,” said Cochran.

He was revived, hospitalized and went to rehab. His secret was out, but only to her. He would continue hiding his addiction from others for months. He worked with the Bulldogs’ special teams for another three years. He resigned his $500,000-a-year coaching post in February, and few knew what had led to his departure.

Now, Cochran is ready to talk about his addiction and working to offer help to others.

He has joined fellow addiction survivor and Georgia politics veteran Jeff Breedlove to launch a new recovery advocacy organization. It’s based in Georgia, but with national ambitions.

Cochran and Breedlove spoke exclusively to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as they were on their way early Thursday morning to meet with members of Congress in Washington D.C. to gather support, make contacts and raise funding for their venture. This article is based on their account.

Their organization, dubbed the American Addiction Recovery Association, or AARA, has some initial donor funds and aims to join the voices of addiction survivors and their families — something Breedlove says has not been done before at the national level. The organization will advocate for better addiction recovery programs in the private sector and for addiction recovery funding.

That’s not what Cochran thought he’d be doing in Georgia. In fact, Cochran said the reason he left Alabama after 13 years as Nick Saban’s head strength and conditioning coach was to leave his addiction behind. He arrived in Athens in February 2020.

Pandemic plot twist

Cochran’s addiction was a long time in the making. Even before he took a job with the Alabama Crimson Tide football program in 2007, Cochran took painkillers to deal with crushing migraines. Nothing helped; he pushed for more and better medication, and eventually doctors gave him opiates. And then higher strength ones. In 2015 he started crushing and snorting them to get them into his bloodstream faster. At his level in football, people didn’t seem to question him or see he had a problem. Eventually, he began getting his drugs from the street.

By 2020, Cochran wanted out of his addiction. It was expensive and he was sick of it. So he took an offer from UGA’s Coach Kirby Smart. Alabama reporters wrote that losing Cochran to Georgia “stunned the Alabama fan base.” Forbes wrote it “Could Be The Landmark Event That Places Nick Saban’s Dynasty In Jeopardy.”

To Cochran, though, it was a chance to “leave all that stuff behind.”

But almost immediately after his arrival to Georgia, the pandemic shut everything down.

That spring, he wasn’t recruiting players face-to-face like he thought he’d be, or around teammates in an Athens office. Instead, he found himself back in Tuscaloosa, Alabama trying to sell his house. Back around his old contacts, and using again.

When he collapsed and Cissy learned the truth of an addiction that by then had already spanned more than ten years, they decided he would go to a rehabilitation facility in Massachusetts founded by a friend, former basketball star Chris Herren.

Keeping the secret even from his colleagues, Cochran kept working. He held recruitment meetings with players over FaceTime from his rehab room with the background blurred so they wouldn’t see his surroundings. He wasn’t allowed to lock the door to his room, so he put a do-not-disturb sign on the outside.

The ruse worked because students and staff were all barred from campus due to COVID-19. UGA staff thought he was working virtually from Tuscaloosa.

He did his 28 days inside the facility and came home — still just himself and his wife in the know. Pandemic restrictions were lifted and the family moved to Athens. In September 2020, with the Bulldogs logo on a backdrop behind him, he gave a virtual press conference.

“Recruiting’s been crazy because I was expecting to get on the road,” he told reporters.

“But for me, I think what I bring is what I’ve always brought: I’m going to be real,” he said. “There’s no other way to put it.”

In fact, he was already back using. After release from recovery, “I lasted about two months,” he says now.

Cochran coached through the 2020 football season. Then he told his wife he needed to go back to rehab. He says now he was deceiving himself, thinking he just needed a 10-day refresher. Then he got the results from his drug test at intake: “It’s not Adderall, it’s not Percocet — it’s 100% all fentanyl in my system,” he said. “And they said, ‘Hey, you’re going to die.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, what do I do?’

“They say, ‘Let’s call Kirby and tell him what’s going on so that you can get real help.’”

Breaking down

Cochran says that in his years of conversations with Smart, he’s broken down crying twice. Once, when he first declined Smart’s request for Cochran to come to Georgia, because he knew Smart needed him then. He cried again in that June 30, 2021 phone call to Smart.

“I literally said the words, ‘I am a drug addict.’ And you could just hear the air come out of his voice.”

“And I started getting emotional. I said, ‘I’ve been battling this a long time.’”

Cochran wasn’t going to make it back for the Aug. 1 start of the season. Smart’s response was to ask if his family was OK, to tell him to do what he needed to do. Smart later flew up to the rehab facility in Seekonk, Massachusetts to check on him, Cochran says.

That second time in rehab was different. His absence was public, an official leave. Will Muschamp was there to step in to his duties. UGA and Smart told Bulldog Nation that Cochran was dealing with some “health issues.”

UGA announced his return in October, as a special teams analyst.

That time, recovery held longer; Cochran made it more than two years. He posted his sobriety medal on social media.

Smart has said that supporting Cochran through his battle was the first time he had to do that as the leader of an organization.

A few months later, in the 2023 season, Cochran relapsed. But this time he had safeguards around him. His wife noticed something was off and called it out. He called a rehab in Athens and said, “I need help.” They offered him a spot immediately, but he said he wanted to finish the season. He went to the local rehab in January.

Something had come to a head. The team had missed the College Football Playoffs and a chance for a third straight national championship that year. As UGA was ending its season in Miami at the Orange Bowl in December 2023, “Literally, my wife grabbed me ... and said, ‘I don’t know if you’re using. But I know you’re struggling. It’s OK if this is our last football game.’”

“And a weight was just kind of lifted off of me.”

The conversation with Smart was harder. He felt like a failure. Feelings like that — of shame and stigma — are something he’s working through. He hopes to help others battle the notion of stigma with AARA. For one thing, he doesn’t say “addict” any more; it’s a person, either in recovery or in active addiction. The AJC has reached out to Smart to confirm Cochran’s story, but he did not respond before deadline.

Cochran believes that God was helping him in those moments with his wife, with Smart, with others lifting burdens or making unexpected calls that gave him space to shift.

The news of his resignation became public early this year on Feb. 14, triggering headlines across sports news. Smart issued a brief statement to wish him well. Cochran thought he would go into the recovery space full time somehow.

About a month later, he was one of the featured speakers at a recovery event when he met Breedlove. They talked in a parking lot afterwards. Breedlove didn’t know Cochran had resigned, said he was shocked by the news. And he saw an opportunity.

Breedlove was a well known political campaigner and staff member in Republican circles, working for officials such as former Congressman Bob Barr and former Georgia Governor Nathan Deal. He had started abusing crack cocaine at 20, and secretly kept it up. He was fired from jobs and hired at new jobs. When he was arrested with a crack dealer in 2016, it all spilled out.

Breedlove said he’s been in recovery for the past 7 years. Now a well-known adviser and lobbyist for addiction recovery, he started talking to Cochran about filling a gap he saw in the recovery advocacy world.

Cochran is president of AARA, and Breedlove is CEO. They’ve already raised some seed money, and are in the beginning stages of raising more. Their staff include people in recovery and family members of those with addiction, Democrats and Republicans. They’re registered as a nonprofit and plan a public launch event at the Georgia Capitol on June 26.

The emotions that exist between addiction survivors and their families run deep, says Breedlove. Science may trace addiction back to childhood traumas within families. Families have had to deal with the lies and abuse associated with addiction. Breedlove says he’s seen those divisions play out in legislative discussions, as when family members advocate for mandatory minimum sentences but addiction survivors say that would be counterproductive. Breedlove hopes he and Cochran can help unify members of both camps.

More than that, they hope to change the culture of businesses, houses of worship and other non-government institutions to be open to recovery aids.

Cochran says he can’t wait. He’s famously energetic. And that comes through in his interview about the new venture.

“I'm big on nerves. I'm big on controlling nerves. … “You always get butterflies," he said. “The key is to get them to fly in formation. But if you're not nervous and anxious, I don't think it's important to you."

- UGA football special teams coordinator Scott Cochran in September 2020

He and Breedlove had to end their interview with a reporter to rush off to meetings on Capitol Hill, starting with U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia. Next up would be Sen. Katie Britt, R-Alabama.

“I’m more excited about our mission at the AARA than I was when Coach Saban called me in 2007 to be his strength coach at Alabama,” he said. “We’re going to stand tall instead of crouching down. Instead of living in fear and in manipulation, we’re going to stand tall. And we’re going to wear recovery as a badge of honor.

“We’re coming together as a group across the nation to say, ‘Hey, recovery is real.’”

AJC staff writer Chip Towers contributed to this story.