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Whatever happened to … Pepper Rodgers

ExplorePepper Rodgers, Georgia Tech quarterback and coach, dies at 88

What he did: If football came down to personality, Franklin "Pepper'' Rodgers never would have lost a game.

The former Atlanta high school star, Georgia Tech quarterback and head coach has lived a life of Riley (a carefree, comfortable, and thoroughly enjoyable way of living) that even Riley would have envied, and wherever Pepper goes he is still the life of the party.

It all started at Brown High School as Rodgers lived in a house on Stewart Avenue and was a three-sport high star in football, basketball and baseball. He always has said his best sport was basketball, but along with six other football players that were part of a state championship team in 1949, he went to Tech.

With the Yellow Jackets, Rodgers signed what was called a “city scholarship’’ where he lived at home during his freshman season and then moved on campus. Playing for the great Bobby Dodd and during a time when freshman were not eligible, he was part of Tech’s most glamorous era in football as the three teams he played on went 32-2-2 and won a piece of the national championship in 1952.

During that season, Rodgers was a junior, throwing a touchdown pass and kicking a field goal in a 24-7 Sugar Bowl win over Mississippi that finished a 12-0 season. The next year in the Sugar Bowl, he was named MVP, throwing three touchdown passes in a rout of West Virginia in his last game at Tech.

He was drafted in the 12th round of the 1954 draft by the Baltimore Colts, but instead entered the Air Force where he spent five years as a pilot.

He likes to say, “When you were flying, you were always professional, but when you landed the plane, you headed straight for the officers club. I used to tell reporters after games, ‘Look boys, the four most important things are to have a fast back, a big line during football games and after six a beautiful woman and a cold beer. Well, it’s after six, so I am going to get a cold beer.’’

Rodgers entered coaching as an assistant at Air Force, then went to Florida where he was the position coach for Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier before joining UCLA’s staff. His first head coaching job came in 1967 at Kansas and then three years later back to UCLA as the head man, where he was named Pac 10 Coach of the Year twice.

Many felt Rodgers could have built a dynasty with the Bruins, running the wishbone and leading the nation in offense. But Tech came calling in 1974 and despite being an independent with outdated facilities, Rodgers returned home.

Never the country-club type, Pepper showed up his first day at Tech driving a Harley and sporting a new perm. The results were mixed on the field (34-31-2), but he produced some of the best players that ever came off The Flats, a group including Eddie Lee Ivery, Steve Raible, Lucius Sanford, Reggie Wilkes, Kent Hill and Drew Hill.

Rodgers was let go after the 1979 season at Tech, but always remained a student-favorite, doing cartwheels sometimes as the team ran on to the field.

At Tech, he gave Spurrier his first coaching job and former Falcons coach Norm Van Brocklin his last.

He remained out of football for a few years, finishing his college head coaching career with a record of 73-65-3, until he was head coach of the Memphis Showboats in the USFL. He also had time in ’85 to write the book “Fourth and Long Gone’’, a fictional account based on the character named “Charles Forrest Buck.’’

The USFL was short-lived, but Rodgers was hired by the group trying to bring an NFL team to Memphis and was named the head coach of the Memphis Hound Dogs, which never came to fruition.

His last football job came in 2001 as the vice president of football operations for the Washington Redskins.

Where he lives: Rodgers, now 83, lives in Reston, Va., with his wife, Janet Lake Livingston, a former TV actress. They have been married 40 years. Rodgers has four children from his first marriage: Rick, Terri, Kyle and Kelly. Lake has two daughters from a previous marriage and together they have eight grandchildren and a great granddaughter on the way.

What he does now: Rodgers is finishing an autobiography and still plays golf though he has been on the bench lately because of a pulled hamstring. Said Rodgers, "Have you ever heard of an 83-year-old pulling a hamstring? He also said that he wants to learn how to play the guitar, adding, "I know how to play the ukulele and harmonica and I love to sing.''

On playing at Brown High School: "There were not enough teams in the city and a lot of people don't realize was that we played games in New Orleans, Charlotte and Miami. But really, I was a better basketball player.''

On his favorite moment with Dodd: "On my Facebook page you can see a photo of coach Dodd kissing me. I was a 19-year-old sophomore and kicked the winning field goal in the Orange Bowl. He made an impression on me. My greatest attribute when I played was you could never make me quit. I got out there and did what I had to do.''

On why he thinks Dodd took Tech out of the SEC in 1964: "My personal feeling is that Bobby used to keep every kid on scholarship, where they were hurt or not or whether they were any good. He wasn't going to take away a scholarship. But you could only keep 140 on scholarship and all the other team in the conference were lopping guys off the roster and bringing in 50 new players a year. I don't think it had anything to do with the Chick Graning incident. ''

On Graning, a Tech player who in 1961 had been the target of a deliberate cheap hit in a game against Alabama, resulting in a broken jaw and the end of his playing career: "I remember I was young and selling peanuts at Grant Field and I saw a Tech player run down an Alabama player in the end zone and pick him up and throw him into the north stands. My point is like the Graning situation, it wasn't the school doing it. It was an emotional thing that happens.''

On coaching against Bear Bryant: "I have a picture of Bear whispering in my ear. You know what he is saying? Well, I told him how much of an honor it was coaching against him and he told me 'B.S.'''

On coaching at Tech: "We were not in a conference and the facilities hadn't changed since I had played. I knew how hard it was going to be to win there. But that had nothing to do with taking the job. It was about my love for Tech.''

On Ivery's record-breaking 356-yard rushing day at Air Force in 1978: "You know who their head coach was that day? Bill Parcells. Eddie was such a great player and great American. During the game I knew he was tired because we were playing at a high altitude. Everybody kept telling me he was tired. But I wasn't taking him out.''

On coaching the USFL: "Well, I got to coach Reggie White. We had great fans in Memphis, but we didn't get an NFL team because we didn't build a new stadium.''

On hiring Norm Van Brocklin: "My best story with him was when I visited him in the hospital and he had a tumor taken out and the first thing he said when he came out of surgery was, 'I went to work for who?'''

On coming back to Tech every season for at least one game: "When I was coaching at Kansas, Tech president Bud Peterson was playing at Kansas State. I sit up there with him in his box. And this season was great one to follow. I know a lot of people complain about our offense, but it is the offense you can run and beat teams that have better players than you.''