Inside Brent Key’s interim tenure as Georgia Tech’s head coach

Georgia Tech interim head coach Brent Key celebrates with fans after the team defeated North Carolina in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia Tech interim head coach Brent Key celebrates with fans after the team defeated North Carolina in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

In November of 2022, Georgia Tech named Brent Key its next full-time football coach.

It was a moment more than 20 years in the making for the former Tech offensive lineman. But it also followed a tumultuous two-month stretch of Key serving as the program’s interim leader.

“You’re preparing to be a head coach, but you’re not preparing for it to happen the way it did,” Key said. “I was prepared as much as I possibly could. But there’s nothing that can prepare you for a knock on your office door on a Monday to come and do that.”

On Wednesday, at a Georgia Tech Alumni Association event at the Scheller College of Business, Key went into detail about the Yellow Jackets 2022 season, a season in which Geoff Collins was fired after first four games in before Key was elevated to interim coach. Tech went 4-4 in the season’s remaining eight games before Key was officially handed the reins to his alma mater.

Key called that 10-week stretch of uncertainly a blur as he recalled how the course of his career — and life — began to change Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

“When I got the call and got ‘called up,’ I’m walking back down the hill back to the office, there was nothing in my head that was, ‘Oh gosh, what am I gonna do? How are we gonna do this? Are they gonna respond?’ " Key said. “It was, ‘Go in there and be myself and, look, we got problems. We got problems we have to fix.’ I didn’t even go back to my office. I went straight up to the second floor and immediately started to fix what was broken.

“I went upstairs and I grabbed somebody and said, ‘Let’s fix our punt team. We have to fix it.’ At that point in the season I think we had four punts blocked. It was just embarrassing. So we went in and tried to put as many mandates and patchwork on that as we could. That was before I even had a staff meeting to talk to the staff to tell them what had happened. I immediately went into fix mode and coach mode.”

From there, Key said, he went back to his office, where he had been serving as Collins’ offensive line coach since 2019, and spent an hour behind a closed door writing scripts and jotting notes for both the coaching staff and the team. He knew, he said, he had a building full of assistant coaches now worried about their careers, futures and families, and a fragile, emotionally charged team.

He met with the Tech coaching staff and told them if any of them didn’t want to be a part of the final eight games of the season, they were free to depart, no questions asked.

“I said, ‘If there’s one day and one minute over the next eight games that someone is not doing their job to the best of their ability, I’m gonna make sure that everyone in the world knows that was the case.’ So I was very blunt, very up front, very honest with the staff,” Key said. “Then I went in with the team and I told them to all sit up in their chairs and pay attention: ‘The first thing I want you to understand is I am you, you are me. I’ve walked in the same shoes you have. I know what you go through every day. I know what it’s like to go to Scheller and take a test in accounting.

“Y’all can sit around and feel sorry for yourselves and that’s what you’re gonna be known as. You’re talking about defining a season? You have a chance to define who you are individually right now. Plain and simple. So you wanna be a bunch of losers or not? But the first thing we have to figure out what to do is to stop losing. Y’all have zero confidence in yourself. There’s no competitive nature to you. I don’t know how to change it. But we’re going to tomorrow at 9 o’clock in the morning.’ "

The 45-year-old Key also asked the team to create a leadership council among themselves and to come to him with suggestions on how turn losses into wins. Linebackers Ayinde Eley and Keion White showed up at Key’s office and asked their new leader if they could quit wearing suits on road trips and to be allowed to wear jewelry again.

“I said, ‘Guys, to win a football game, I’d get my nose pierced, my tongue pierced …,’ " Key laughed.

Key said the Jackets had been practicing, lightly, two times a week before Collins’ dismissal. But on that first Tuesday of Key’s interim tenure, Tech worked out for 2-1/2 hours in full pads. The Jackets would continue to train similarly all week before playing at No. 24 Pittsburgh that Saturday.

Tech won that game 26-21.

“All I cared about is that we had five days to build some physicality and toughness into our football team — and some discipline,” Key said.

Behind the scenes, while Tech won games over Pitt, Duke, Virginia Tech and North Carolina, and lost to Virginia, Florida State, Miami and Georgia, Key was plotting to be put himself into strong consideration to be hired as Collins replacement. He never admitted so publicly, he said, wanting to keep the focus on his team and to diminish any more distractions, but he explained how he would work daily until midnight on the current team, then stay up until 4 a.m. planning how to possibly lead the future Jackets if given the chance.

Key said he lost 50 pounds during the strenuous stretch. But he gained the opportunity of a lifetime.

“I would look at (wife) Danielle and say, ‘I can do anything for six more weeks. I can do anything for five more weeks. I can do anything for four more weeks.’ I love this place that much. I love these kids that much,” Key said. “I was never gonna say it publicly. Not one thing was I gonna do in my day to day to interfere in giving these kids a chance to have success.”