Influenced by mentors, Georgia Tech’s Brent Key takes command

On Tuesday morning, in his first remarks as Georgia Tech’s interim coach, Brent Key made a declaration about how he wanted his team to play over the final eight games of the regular season.

The Yellow Jackets were guilty of playing to avoid losing as opposed to playing to win.

“That’s a big difference, and as a player, when you’re sitting back, not wanting to lose a game, you’re not free to go out and try to make plays,” said Key, dressed in a gray hoodie with the sleeves trimmed and gray sweatpants. “We’re sitting back waiting for something to happen, and you see it on the sidelines and in games. It’s not just the players; it’s coaches as well. People are waiting for things to happen.”

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Two days later, former Tech coach George O’Leary, a member of the Georgia Tech Sports Hall of Fame, spoke by phone from his oceanfront home in Palm Coast, Fla., south of Jacksonville. The worst of Hurricane Ian had passed through.

He offered an appraisal of the Tech team that he saw in person Saturday, a 27-10 loss to Central Florida in Orlando. It was the last game coached at Tech by Geoff Collins, who was fired Monday and replaced by Key, who was a four-year starter at guard for O’Leary at Tech from 1997-2000.

“Nobody likes to lose, but how bad do they really want to win?” O’Leary asked. “Even today, I watch games all over TV. Kids lose, and they’re laughing and joking after the game. They’ve got to hurt a little bit more than that if you really want to win.”

It was not quite the same idea, but pretty close – the pursuit of winning has to be at the absolute forefront. Key said in his news conference that he had spoken with several former coaches after being appointed interim. And while O’Leary was one of them, he said that he had not planted the “playing to win” idea in Key’s head. It was a brief call, O’Leary said, to congratulate him, wish him luck and offer to be a resource. As of Thursday, the two hadn’t spoken since.

“He’s up to his neck in alligators right now,” O’Leary said.

But perhaps there was no need. The two men’s shared thought process suggests that Key has gone into his first experience as a head coach – which starts with the Jackets’ game at 8 p.m. Saturday at No. 24 Pittsburgh – with coaching wisdom and best practices absorbed over his time as a player and then 21 years as a coach.

“I’m anxious to watch the game Saturday and see how he’s developed,” O’Leary said. “I would expect him to be at the top of his game.”

Like most interims taking over at midseason, Key isn’t in this role because the ship is cruising. He assumes command after Collins’ failed three-plus seasons, moving up from his position coaching the offensive line. Tech is 1-3 and projected by ESPN to finish with fewer than three wins. Mistakes and penalties on offense, defense and special teams have saddled the Jackets. They rank 112th in FBS in total offense and 101st in total defense. They have allowed four blocked punts in four games.

“First thing I said was, ‘You’d better get that special teams straightened out,’” O’Leary said.

To Key, the answer lies at Alexander Rose Bowl Field, Tech’s practice field.

“You’re only as good as you are on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday,” Key said. “The detail that you have in practice, the discipline that you have in practice.”

Not exactly a groundbreaking approach, but Key suggested that Tech coaches not demanding discipline and attention to detail at practice was the root of the repeated mistakes, such as the blocked punts and offside and false-start penalties. It’s not difficult to guess where that philosophy became part of Key’s philosophy.

“You’ve got to get those little mistakes straightened out, and you’ve got to make sure they see these things in practice,” O’Leary said. “That’s the big thing. The kids used to always tell me that they couldn’t wait to play a game because practice was so damn hard.”

After his Tech career ended in 2000, Key was a graduate assistant from 2001-02 (first with O’Leary and then with Chan Gailey), then rejoined O’Leary in 2005 at UCF, where he coached for O’Leary through 2015, the elder’s final season in coaching. As a GA – Collins also was an O’Leary GA at Tech, as were defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker and quality-control specialist and former Tech receiver Will Glover at UCF – one of Key’s responsibilities was preparing what was called the “bible.” It was an in-depth scouting report of the coming opponent based on watching its previous four games. It was intensive work, but also a great way for a young coach to learn the craft.

Another was game management. Watching a two-minute situation on game film, O’Leary liked to ask other coaches when they would call a timeout. In practice, two-minute drills were a daily routine.

“‘All right, you’ve got 20 seconds, the ball’s on the 20-yard line, you’ve got one timeout left, what are you doing?’” O’Leary said, repeating a challenge on the practice field. “‘What are you doing? Are you running the ball, are you throwing the ball? What are you going to do? We need a touchdown to win.’ So you’re always going through those mental gymnastics.”

Key was paying attention.

“With (O’Leary), it wasn’t a choice,” Key said. “It was forced.”

An overarching message was not to beat yourself, a rut that the Jackets fell into during the Collins regime.

“I always used to repeat that to coaches: ‘If we lose a game, it’s because you lost to a better team, it’s not because we beat ourselves,’” O’Leary said. “Commit stupid penalties, or we get down to the red zone, you’ve got to come away with points.”

Key, who is married (Danielle) with a daughter (Harper), had another mentor of note, Alabama coach Nick Saban, from 2016-18. Key coached Saban’s offensive line, which all three seasons was nominated for the Joe Moore Award, given to the top offensive line in college football.

At Alabama, “(clock management) is something that is talked about every single day, worked on every single day,” Key said. “So I have a lot of experience now for the last five years. As the game’s going on, I’m constantly thinking about the clock.”

Other concepts that Key brought up Tuesday, such as keeping things simple and playing fast and breaking up a process into digestible pieces (O’Leary spoke of Tech having eight one-game seasons, not far from Key’s desire to win each day), O’Leary brought up separately (he had not watched Key’s news conference) in his interview with the AJC. Again, they’re hardly unique to O’Leary, but the consistency in the messages was hard to miss. (While perhaps no coach would say that those ideas aren’t valid, there were others, such as playing with effort or developing chemistry, that neither brought up.)

In his first appearance on what is now his weekly radio show with Tech voice Andy Demetra, Key acknowledged the impact that O’Leary has had on Key since he arrived on Tech’s campus in 1996 as a freshman from Trussville, Ala., the first of 17 years that he was with O’Leary as a player or a member of his staff. It hasn’t been only as a coach, Key said, but also as a man, husband and father.

“But the things that stick out about coach O’Leary – the accountability and the responsibility that he demands out of his players, the organization that he always had, the organization and detail that he demanded ouf of the staff and his ability to always have a tough, physical football team,” Key said, “those are the best qualities that I hope – obviously, it’s hard to get those things going in 72 hours, but over the course of time and doing this one day at a time, day by day – those are the traits that I would really hope to instill in the Georgia Tech football team.”

When told that Key in his news conference had hit upon many of the same coaching priorities that had propelled O’Leary to win 61% of his games at Tech, start the team’s 18-year bowl streak, win a share of the 1998 ACC title and later laid the foundation for UCF’s rise to prominence, O’Leary said he wasn’t too surprised that he had absorbed so much.

“They used to all keep notebooks,” O’Leary said. “I’m sure Brent did, too. Some of the things I don’t want to repeat, but I’m sure a lot of stuff is in there.”

What will it all mean? However effective Key’s leadership over the next eight games, can Tech win enough to give him and the staff a chance to be retained? Key’s position coach in 2000, Mac McWhorter, hopes so.

“Oh, gosh, he’s what any parent would love to have as a son,” said McWhorter, retired from coaching and living in Tomball, Texas. “He was a great young man to coach because he worked his butt off and did everything the right way and went above and beyond the call of duty every time, and he’s been that same kind of coach, too. He’s outstanding, he really is.”

When they were starters on the line together, David Schmidgall saw the makings of a coach.

“I think he was always a leader,” said Schmidgall, a consultant in airport design living in Tampa, Fla. “He was one of the most vocal, passionate teammates I’ve ever had.”

In their final season together, in 2000, expectations were lower with the graduation of quarterback Joe Hamilton. Key, a captain that season, held teammates accountable, set an example with his play and practice habits and intensity, Schmidgall said.

“He kind of put it on himself and on the offensive line to say, ‘We can still do this if we prepare to step right in and have another great season,’” Schmidgall said.

Tech outperformed projections, finishing 9-3, beating Georgia for the third year in a row and finishing 17th in the country.

No one is expecting that sort of performance. But the Jackets, the coaching staff and a fan base are counting on Key to deliver more than what they’ve become used to. He has two mentors, O’Leary and McWhorter, who both were interim coaches at Tech. O’Leary turned his three-game stint at the end of the 1994 season into his successful seven-year tenure.

Any more thoughts?

“I always tried to coach with tough love,” O’Leary said. “Probably the kids at this stage at Georgia Tech need that.”

Tech appears to have someone in charge ready to administer it.