It was only one comment in 15 minutes of prepared remarks, but Key made his objective clear for his tenure. In calling on the fan base for its energy and support, Key said that “we need everybody involved to build this into the best football team in the ACC.”
It might not be an unusual comment for a newly hired coach in the ACC to make, but Key also has said in private conversations that he believes Tech can indeed win the conference title. The Jackets have won or shared the title three times – most recently in 2009 (vacated by the NCAA) – since joining the league for football in 1983.
Key begins his tenure while the league is undergoing a shift. Starting next year, the ACC will eliminate its divisional format after almost two decades of being split into the Atlantic and Coastal. In recent years, that setup gave Coastal teams the advantage of being able to advance to the title game by winning the less competitive division.
On the other hand, the path to a title may be easier for a different reason. Clemson, which will miss the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row after making it six consecutive seasons, could be past its peak, or at least the rest of the league hopes it is. Winning the ACC never will be easy, but it may be a more feasible undertaking than it previously has been.
Brent Key’s plans for Georgia
Perhaps the most eye-opening comment made by Key was about his intent to work 365 days a year to defeat Georgia. It was notable not only because he brought up the subject without being asked, but also because he went further than might have been expected in addressing the topic of the bully in the state.
Key reasonably could have waited to be asked about Georgia, and then stated his respect for the Bulldogs and coach Kirby Smart (a friend of Key’s) and declared that he wouldn’t back down from the hated rivals from Athens. But Key went several steps past that, expounding on the unparalleled feeling of dominating an opponent and how that will be his team’s objective for every opponent every day.
“That is our goal, that is our mindset,” he said. “And we have an opponent in this state that’s included in that. Three-hundred sixty-five days, we will work to dominate that opponent. Understand that.”
It was a statement that Tech fans, tired of blowout losses to Smart’s Bulldogs, surely were thrilled to hear. Seeing their team crater at the same moment that its archrival has reached the sport’s apex is its own kind of misery. It was a message to his own team, to fans and to recruits regarding the standard that he is setting. At a time when fielding a competitive and relevant football team is of vital importance to Tech’s future in college athletics, Key intends to put Tech in that position.
Calling out to future engineers
Key did not go into many specifics in his remarks Monday, but he laid out one interesting comment about his plans for his team’s academic endeavors and repeated it when he spoke to Tech fans at halftime of Tuesday’s Tech-Georgia basketball game at McCamish Pavilion.
He said players will be able to get a degree “in the major that they want, not the major they’re told to get.” Tech is like many FBS programs in that many team members are pursuing the same major, a practice known as clustering. In Tech’s case, it’s business administration.
Within many athletic departments, athletes can be encouraged, or even told, as Key said, to pursue a particular major for different reasons – convenience and comparative ease being two of them.
Tech’s academic rigor is no secret, and studies can demand a lot of time and effort, and classes also can interfere with practice schedules. That’s one reason, though likely not the only one, that business administration (which, to be sure, can be a highly valuable major) is such a popular degree among football players. But that hasn’t prevented football players and other Jackets athletes from earning degrees in engineering and other challenging programs while also competing at a high level on the field. Safety Jaylon King, for instance, is pursuing a civil engineering degree.
In what could be interpreted as an attempt to differentiate Tech with recruits, perhaps especially those who want to study engineering at one of the country’s premier engineering schools, Key called out one aspect of his vision for future Jackets. And if they’re as capable on the field as King, all the better.
Big projects may wait
Neither Key nor Batt went into detail about what next steps need to be taken regarding facilities, recruiting or a plan for putting athletes in position to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness. Key said that “there’s a lot of areas that we will address” and that he wouldn’t have been there with Cabrera and Batt “if there wasn’t a very detailed vision for where we’re going, not only as a football program but an athletics program, by the president and the athletic director, and I think all three of us have the exact same vision of that.”
There is one major facilities project about to get underway, as Tech will build what it’s calling an athlete performance center where the Edge Center now stands.
Key likely isn’t making demands about projects that had to happen, and it’s also likely that, given the athletic department’s financial position, Batt isn’t in a position to fill such demands anyway. Key’s main immediate objectives are filling out his staff, stabilizing the roster and finishing out the recruiting class. Batt’s include fundraising and assessing the state of the athletic department.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Key has an upgrade in mind, but it may take some time before it can be addressed.
Ready to work
Key’s answer to a question about his reaction to being offered the job was telling. Key said he accepted the offer, called his wife, his mother and a couple of coaches “and got to work. A lot of work to be done. There’s no time to sit back and think about this.”
Those who know Key well were not surprised. He is described as laser-focused and not one for empty chatter. They are traits that figure to be of use as he tackles the project of raising the Jackets’ level of competitiveness.
There are factors beyond Key and Tech’s control that could limit the Jackets’ ascent during his tenure. But how hard and effectively Key uses the time he has – whether it’s with the current team, the staff, recruits or donors – is something that he can moderate. That can become an area where Tech and Key have an advantage over their competition, and the Jackets will need every edge they can obtain.
Said Key, “I promise every fiber of my body will go toward making us a champion.”