Time to light the fire under Roof, Tech defense

Game day is all but here. The distant drumbeats of an approaching season finally have turned to thunder. It is for this moment that people such as Ted Roof have built lives around football.

In 1981, when Bill Curry went to the Roof family’s Lawrenceville home to recruit a highly sought if slightly undersized linebacker to play at Georgia Tech, this straight-talking teenager had two questions for the Yellow Jackets’ head coach.

1. If I come to Georgia Tech, will we win? “I said we have a chance if we sign you,” Curry remembered.

2. If I come to Georgia Tech, will you help me become a football coach? “I said, ‘If you are dumb enough to get a degree from Georgia Tech and you still want to become a coach, yeah, I’ll help you,” Curry laughed.

Even at an age of uncertainty, Roof was dead set. The one perfectly clear, unshakable image on his horizon was a football.

Tech was 1-10 the season before Roof arrived. It was 9-2 the season he left. Given the combination of his reckless play and a bulky helmet, he always leaked blood from some fresh wound on his forehead or the bridge of his nose. And when the 1985 defense formed a special cadre called the “Black Watch,” it was Roof who ultimately decided which players were worthy of admission.

Oh, and one other detail. “He was a helluva player,” Curry said. They still may be adding up the tackles he made in ’85 at Tennessee — statisticians have thus far paused at 25.

And, yes, Curry, now retired after 25 seasons coaching here and there, did usher Roof into the profession. Curry went to Alabama, and Roof followed as a grad assistant. Curry should have gotten a percentage of the moving fees to come — Roof has had 11 job changes, 11 relocations, in 24 years.

That was a price Roof was willing to pay. All in the past now. A game day is coming Saturday, and he is back at Tech at the age of 49, still coaching fiercely — “On a scale of intensity, one to 10, I’d say he’s about a nine,” linebacker Quayshawn Nealy said.

Also, he is back home in part to repay the family he has towed from Minnesota to Florida, from Amherst, Mass., to Auburn, Ala. His twin sons — freshmen at Buford High, one a linebacker, the other a quarterback — deserved some of the same solid ground he enjoyed growing up in metro Atlanta. Although the setting was a little different (“I think there were five or six high schools in Gwinnett County then, and Jimmy Carter Boulevard was the end of civilization,” Roof said).

“I wanted my boys to be in an environment where it was going to be stable, they could put roots down, and they could have some comfort in knowing, OK, this is the place,” Roof said early this week.

“When you move around a lot you know, where is home? To be in my profession and have a chance to come back and do that and for our family to be involved in my boys’ lives, that’s important (both his parents and his wife’s parents live in the area).”

Coming back meant a third job change in three years. It meant leaving behind a 2012 gig that he found as rewarding as any on his long list. Roof defensively coordinated a Penn State team that was bowed by the Jerry Sandusky mess but not broken. The Nittany Lions, against all dire projections, finished 8-4, including a season-ending overtime victory over a Wisconsin team that had beaten them by 38 the year before.

“(That kind of season) was why you got into coaching,” Roof said. “It was very, very pure. There was no agenda other than the fact the kids wanted to be there. They liked the school, they liked each other, they liked to work and they liked to play. That was a lot of fun.”

The man should write a book. He coached at Penn State after Sandusky. He was head coach at Duke while the lacrosse trial consumed the athletic program. He was George O’Leary’s coordinator at Tech when O’Leary’s move to Notre Dame was voided by an overinflated resume.

But book writing will have to wait. Another season is here and he has important work to do.

Roof is an immensely popular figure, a member of the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, a guy who has won a lot more than he lost at Tech (the record’s 59-33-2 in his years as a player and assistant coach). And like all the jobs before, he will coach it like he played it.

“I tell players I want to treat you like I want my sons treated,” Roof said. “I want my sons pushed, driven, challenged. But at the end of the day I want them cared about as something other than a guy who makes tackles or throws passes.

“One of the worst indictments of me would be if you leave here and say I wish coach Roof had pushed me harder so I could have achieved more. I don’t want that hanging on my head.”

It is Elon on Saturday, not the biggest challenge on the schedule. But it is still game day, and Roof will take his position on the sideline — he is not a press box kind of coach — and treat that afternoon like a life’s mission.

“Of all coaches I’ve had, coach Roof is the most enthused about his kids and about the love of the game,” middle linebacker Jabari Hunt-Days said. “Enthused about everything.”

On this team where so much personality is locked up in Paul Johnson’s option offense, there is a large challenge on the other side of the ball.

“We have to find our identity,” said Hunt-Days speaking for the D.

“We are not there yet, but we are getting closer,” he said, knowing that there is a convenient model nearby.

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