While Tech had centered its search on Tulane coach Willie Fritz as late as this weekend, the two sides evidently were unable to reach a deal. Key has received a five-year contract, according to a person familiar with the situation. No other terms were immediately known. While once a customary length, an initial five-year deal is on the shorter side now, perhaps reflecting a more manageable deal that Batt was able to negotiate with Key.
Key emerged as a candidate during his eight-game term as interim head coach in place of Geoff Collins, during which he went 4-4 with a team that had not won more than three games in any of the previous three seasons. Key led the Yellow Jackets to two road wins over Top 25 teams, Pittsburgh and North Carolina, and directed a determined charge at No. 1 Georgia on Saturday in Athens, taking an early lead and staying within one score of the defending national champions through 2 ½ quarters. In the win over North Carolina and the loss to Georgia, the Jackets played with their third- and fourth-string quarterbacks.
“Since I arrived on campus earlier this fall, I have observed first-hand coach Key’s leadership, passion, energy and genuine care for our student-athletes, our football program and the Institute, as well as how his players and staff responded to his leadership and the genuine care that they have for him,” Batt said in the news release. “There was strong interest from across the country to be the next head coach at Georgia Tech, and we conducted an exhaustive national search. At the beginning and end of the search, it was clear that the best choice for Georgia Tech is Brent Key.”
Against then-No. 13 North Carolina, the Jackets held the Tar Heels’ powerful offense to season lows in scoring and yardage (the latter since eclipsed) in the 21-17 upset. Players also clearly responded to his coaching style.
“Him being the head coach here right now, we don’t even see the interim tag because we’re just so behind Key since the moment he became the head coach,” wide receiver Malachi Carter said after the Georgia game. “Just the whole team has been riding behind him. You can see the trust in him; you can see the trust that he has in us. And because of that, we just mesh, and you saw a little bit of a change throughout the season in the team in the way we performed and execute.”
While Key does not have head-coaching experience, the actions that Key took as interim head coach, starting with handing special-teams coordinator duties to linebackers coach Jason Semore, made it clear he had given considerable thought to how he wanted to operate as a head coach. Upon taking command, he ramped up intensity in practice to more closely simulate game conditions for players. Penalties dropped from 6.5 per game in the first four games to 5.4 in the final eight games. After four punts were blocked in the first four games, Tech had one punt deflected in the final eight, though effective punt coverage remained a problem. The two wins over ranked opponents were one more than Collins had achieved in his 38-game tenure.
Key’s old-school approach – playing a physical style and limiting mistakes – brings to mind his mentors, former Tech coach George O’Leary and Alabama’s Nick Saban. Beyond the team’s improvement, Tech fans have delighted in the obvious passion that Key has for his alma mater and coaching its team.
“To get a chance to be the head coach of my alma mater for the last eight games is very special,” Key said after the Georgia game. “It’s very special to coach a group of kids like that. To do what those kids have done and play as hard as they’ve played, even until the clock hit zero out there (Saturday) is such a credit to the kids and the leadership in that locker room and the leadership throughout the week that they give to each other.”
In keeping Key, Batt likely has won considerable goodwill from the many Tech fans and alumni who supported Key’s candidacy, particularly after news broke Saturday that Fritz had become a serious candidate. It also likely will make a far more palatable financial transaction for Tech. Hiring a coach externally would have required a buyout to the new coach’s school and potentially a contract larger than what Key will command while Tech also would have had to swallow the 2023 contracts for several assistant coaches if they weren’t retained.
“With no head coaching experience, he was able to get the team focused after a 1-3 start and go 4-4 for the final 8 games with two wins against ranked teams,” major donor Steve Zelnak wrote in an email to the AJC on Monday evening. “We haven’t done anything that good since (coach) Paul Johnson retired. We finished in the middle of the Coastal (Division) after being picked last. We had a real opportunity to go to a bowl if we had won against Virginia. I think Key has impressed GT folks with the way he has handled press conferences, and the endorsement from players when they were interviewed has been powerful.”
The next steps for Key will include shaping his coaching staff, which could be shaken up, along with closing out the recruiting for the 2023 signing class and keeping the current roster intact. Since the season ended Saturday, no fewer than four players (quarterback Jeff Sims, wide receivers Nate McCollum and Ryan King and kicker Jude Kelley) have announced their decisions to go in the transfer portal. The hire of Key, though, likely will be received well by both recruits and current players.
“The two kids that are there (as part of the recruiting class) love Tech and are excited about it,” North Cobb Christian School coach Matt Jones said. Two of his players, offensive lineman Gabriel Fortson and athlete Jacob Cruz, have committed to Tech. “That’s their plan. They love Brent Key, I’ll say that much.”