28 years later, Brent Key fills mentor George O’Leary’s job at Georgia Tech

Around 1 p.m. Tuesday, George O’Leary got a call from one of his former players. It was Brent Key reaching out to the former Georgia Tech coach with some personal news.

“He said, ‘Coach, I’m the new head coach at Georgia Tech,’” O’Leary said.

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O’Leary shared his excitement with Key, who was a four-year starter and captain for O’Leary with the Yellow Jackets and then spent 12 years working for him on his staffs at Tech and Central Florida. O’Leary said Key offered his former coach and boss his thanks.

“I said, ‘Nah, you earned that through your work these past eight games,’” O’Leary said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “‘Now just don’t let it go to waste.’”

O’Leary might have been the first former Tech coach or player to have heard the news that Key had been made the Jackets’ new head coach (outside of Key himself, of course). But as news spread within that circle, particularly among those who played with or coached Key while at Tech, the reaction was consistent.

“I’m just elated for him, I really am,” said Mac McWhorter, Key’s line coach while at Tech. “I’ve said it so many times. Every school has a fit. And he is such a great fit for Georgia Tech, being a graduate and a former player, and then he’s got a great coaching résumé to bring back to Georgia Tech.”

McWhorter has remained close with Key over the years – earlier this season, he called Key “what any parent would love to have as a son” – and was in communication with him as he guided the Jackets as the interim coach.

“He said, ‘Well, we’ve talked and talked and they keep telling me, just keep doing my job,’ and that was about it,” McWhorter said. “He was really intent on just working for Tech.”

Before Tech’s final game against Georgia – McWhorter’s alma mater – he got a text from Key, who wanted to know which team McWhorter was going to root for in the game.

“I texted back and said, ‘Brent Key,’” McWhorter said. “And that was the honest truth.”

McWhorter said Key is the first player that he coached in his 40-year career who has gone on to become a head coach at the college level.

“Very, very satisfying,” he said. “I love to see my ex-players do well at whatever they do.”

For former Key teammates, the feeling is similar.

“It’s pretty neat to think the guy you played next to for four years is going to be now leading the whole program,” said David Schmidgall, who as a center was next to Key at right guard. “Pretty exciting. It’s hard to believe.”

Schmidgall, who continues to hold season tickets while living in Tampa, Fla., watched with interest as Key led the Jackets to a 4-4 record in the final eight games of the season, leading to athletic director J Batt removing the interim tag Tuesday.

“I’m really happy for him, and I think it’ll be a great hire and exactly what they need right now,” Schmidgall said. “Just what he showed, proving himself for three-quarters of a season and just what the program needs. I think he’ll be a great fit.”

O’Leary said that, when Key was on his staff – he worked for O’Leary in 2001 at Tech as a graduate assistant, and then from 2005-15, working his way up from GA to offensive coordinator – his attention to detail and work habits told him that he might someday be a head coach.

“I used to always walk in the halls, and I would look at the guys that were on the phone and the guys who were watching film,” O’Leary said. “He was always a guy that was always watching film. That’s how you improve. You don’t improve on the phone.”

O’Leary, who also had former coach Geoff Collins on his staffs at Tech and UCF, observed Tech intently during Key’s interim term and broke down the games with him over phone calls on Sunday mornings. When O’Leary watches teams play, he looks for a few things – Do they play hard? Do they play smart? Do they play together? Do they play with enthusiasm?

“I saw that since Brent took over,” O’Leary said. “I saw that from the first minute to the last minute. They need better players in some areas, obviously, but I think that’s why you hire a coach, to recruit and give him the opportunity to get the program right. I’m happy they made that decision.”

O’Leary himself received the job at Tech after a three-game stint as the interim in 1994 in place of Bill Lewis.

“I think that sometimes people look at all over the place to try to get the right fit, and the fit’s sitting right in the same building as you’re working in,” O’Leary said.

Also like Key, O’Leary had never been a head coach at the college level before then-athletic director Homer Rice awarded him the job, 28 years almost to the day before Key’s promotion. In O’Leary’s seven-plus seasons, Tech was 52-33, shared an ACC title, finished in the Top 25 five times, went to five bowl games and beat Georgia three consecutive seasons for the first time since the Bobby Dodd era.

“There’s a process in how you progress to be a head coach,” O’Leary said. “You pay your dues, and you work your way up the ladder. Other head coaches, they’re not always the right answer. I think Georgia Tech is in a position right now that they’ve got the guy in place that can get them back to where they need to be.”

O’Leary described Key as exhilarated about the job. O’Leary was feeling pretty good, too.

“I’m happy for him because I think he put his whole heart and soul into the job, as far as the passion needed,” O’Leary said. “And it wasn’t a phony passion that you can usually read right away. It was a true passion that this is where he wanted to be.”