Energetic and passionate as advertised, newly hired Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins met media Friday in his first day as the successor to Paul Johnson. A metro Atlanta native who worked twice previously at Tech, he described his new position as a dream job.
“We’ve gotten calls about other jobs, other positions, but for my wife and I, this was it,” said Collins, who comes to Tech after two years as head coach at Temple, which was his 12th job in 24 years.
Collins was named Tech’s new coach Friday morning after he and athletic director Todd Stansbury came to an agreement late Thursday night.
When he and Stansbury met in New York on Wednesday, Collins spoke Stansbury’s language so well – about the importance of brand and culture – Stansbury wondered if he himself was being recruited. He checked in with other athletic directors at schools where Collins had been to get other opinions.
“What I was told was he’s a leader, kids respond to him, he’s a culture guy, he’s fun, there’s always a good vibe around him,” Stansbury said. “All those things just reinforcing all the things I feel like we need to be doing at Georgia Tech.”
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Stansbury gave Collins a seven-year contract, an unusually long deal, but one that Stansbury wanted to give his new coach in recognition for the transition that he’ll face in changing offensive personnel in a scheme that thrived for 11 years with undersized linemen, no tight ends and quarterbacks valued more for their ability as runners than passers.
Speaking from handwritten notes – he vowed to never again to use red ink, a school color of Temple but, more important, of archrival Georgia – Collins told his story and outlined his vision.
He showed a knack for names and faces, or at least the wisdom to anticipate them. He said that when he met associate AD Marvin Lewis – who was the captain of Tech’s 2004 Final Four team – he greeted him with, “You used to hoop here. I was like, I remember watching you play.”
He paid dutiful homage to Johnson and even noted that Friday was the 11-year anniversary of Johnson’s first day at Tech.
“I think he’s done an amazing job,” Collins said. “He’s an amazing coach.”
He spoke of the importance of brand and culture, the former to draw talent and the latter to keep it.
“Our brand should be as strong as anywhere in the country,” he said. “And it is going to be. I am committed to that. Building a culture, building a brand that attracts the elite players and keeps the ones that you have.”
Recruiting, he said is paramount.
“Some people evaluate talent, other people throw out scholarship offers, other people recruit,” Collins said. “And there is a difference between the three, and we will recruit every single day. We will evaluate talent. There will be no stone unturned. Wherever there’s a new player with the grades and the talent, with the size and speed that we’re looking for, we’re going to actively recruit them.”
Another priority is playing great defense and special teams. For anyone who followed Johnson’s tenure, it likely rang like a bell. A theme throughout Johnson’s largely successful time is that the Jackets often won by overcoming average or below-average defense and special teams with highly efficient offensive play. This season, Temple has blocked five kicks or punts (tied for fifth in FBS) and returned four punts or kickoffs for touchdowns.
“Everybody wants to talk about the offense,” he said. “Paul Johnson’s done a masterful job running his offense. We have to play great defense and we have to play great special teams as we might make some adjustments to the roster management phase of the development of this program.”
He spoke of embracing innovation, a quality that Stansbury specifically said he was looking for in a coach as it was part of Tech’s DNA.
“We will find the best way to do everything,” Collins said. “We will not just try to confine ourselves, (saying) this is how it’s been done for 80 years.”
Collins said he intends to use an NFL-based offense and defense, schemes that will help with recruiting and also prepare players for a chance in the NFL.
He likely won more than a few Tech grads over in saying that the rigor of the Tech education and the value of its degree can be an advantage in recruiting. (Which is what many past Tech coaches have also said.)
“A lot of programs that we’re going to recruit against don’t have the advantage of having the ability to have a meaningful degree,” he said.
Recruiting is a forte. Before this week, Collins may have been best known to Tech fans for his role in pulling together the Jackets’ ballyhooed 2007 signing class that included Derrick Morgan (first-round pick, ACC defensive player of the year), Jonathan Dwyer (ACC player of the year), Joshua Nesbitt (quarterback of the 2009 ACC championship team) and Morgan Burnett (nine-year NFL veteran). As Tech’s director of player personnel, Collins was ahead of his time in using social media and text messaging to connect with recruits. He was there one season before leaving to join Nick Saban at Alabama in a similar role.
“Everybody in the class loved coach Collins,” said Roddy Jones, a member of that class and now an ESPN sideline reporter. “We were all really sad when he left to go to Alabama.”
Collins told a story about how, after Tech coach George O’Leary hired him as a graduate assistant in 1999, he begged O’Leary to let him recruit. O’Leary turned him down, but gave him a chance in his second year. O’Leary told Collins that Tech had six primary states that it recruited from; Collins could recruit from the other 44. With the help of the assistant coaches, Collins said, Tech signed five players from his expansive territory.
With that ability to recruit along with player development, Collins offered a projection sure to excite Tech fans.
“I think we can be elite in college football here,” he said.
It was a long day. Collins was in Atlanta on Thursday, spending part of the day meeting with Tech president G.P. “Bud” Peterson and also continuing to talk by phone with Stansbury, who was still in New York meeting with donors after having traveled there for Tech great Calvin Johnson’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
He returned to Philadelphia late Thursday, woke up at 3 a.m., said good-bye to his team (”it was heart-wrenching,” he said) and then got on a private flight to Atlanta with his wife, Jennifer, and two-year-old daughter, Astrid.
The flight was delayed by weather and then when a plane ahead of got a flat tire. Once in the air, Collins said, the flight faced 40-mph headwinds, requiring the pilot to slow down for safety.
“I’m like, come on, man, let’s go,” Collins said. “But then I sat back and realized, you’ve been waiting 22 years for this. You’ve been waiting to be the head football coach at Georgia Tech for so long. (If) we’ve got to slow down a little bit, that’s OK. Let’s enjoy this process, let’s enjoy this time because it is so special and we are so blessed to be here.”
At Tech, where the wrong shade of gold has often sent fans into a tizzy, a new era has begun, one led by a coach who has been known to drink from something called a “swag chalice,” wear his hat sideways and let players adorn their spring-game jerseys with their Twitter handles.
“People are going to have to realize that this is not your grandfather’s college football,” Jones said. It may make some uncomfortable, “but it’s all for the best for Georgia Tech. This guy knows what it means to be a Yellow Jacket, and he knows how to connect with the young players.”