Invited to revisit win over Pittsburgh, Brent Key passes

As he met with media Tuesday morning for what has become part of his duty as Georgia Tech’s interim head coach – the weekly news conference – Brent Key made clear of at least one thing. He would not be fulfilling requests to take victory laps after his team’s upset of then-No. 24 Pittsburgh on Saturday in his interim coaching debut. His focus centered on what lies ahead in the Yellow Jackets’ home game against Duke on Saturday (4 p.m., Bally Sports South).

“At 8:30 (Monday) morning, the previous game was over,” Key said, referring to the time of a team meeting to review the Pitt game. “It was done. That’s why I don’t want to talk about it here. I’ve challenged the kids to put it behind them. As the adults in the room, we can’t do something that we’ve asked the players not to do.”

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Key invoked the idea that “success is the enemy of success,” that soaking in praise and congratulations is a sure path to defeat in the next game.

“Anytime you have success, all it does is draw more attention to you, and it creates distractions for players, for coaches, for fans,” Key said. “There’s so many things that are in these young men’s heads every day, from outside and external sources, whether it be social media, media, family, friends. They’re hearing one thing, but it’s our job as coaches to really put the truth in front of them and get those guys to focus in in a short matter of time to be able to go out and execute every Saturday afternoon.”

It sounded much like the warnings issued by a coach of note that he previously worked for. Alabama’s Nick Saban, for whom Key served as offensive-line coach from 2016-18 before coming to Tech, bemoans the “rat poison” that he thinks media feed players in writing about the successes of the Crimson Tide.

There certainly is logic in the philosophy. It is common for teams to pull off a significant upset one week and then fail to sustain that level of performance the next, perhaps drunk on adulation and unable to replicate the same level of preparation that they had for the previous game.

Asked about the possibility for Tech to win a second consecutive game for the first time since 2018, in former coach Paul Johnson’s final season, Key brought up his philosophy again.

“This week is a season, and that’s all we’re focused on,” he said. “Whether consecutive wins, things like that, success is the enemy of it. More people die going down Mount Everest than actually climbing up Mount Everest. Whenever you start looking at what you’ve done in the past, you’re going to fail.”

Climbing experts might dispute the notion that climbers lose their lives after reaching Mount Everest’s summit because they lose focus. Rather, it’s likely the effect of prolonged exposure to extremely high altitudes. But the point was made.

“Putting things together, stacking games and wins, that’s all kind of bogus to us and our kids in the room,” he said. “Because all we’re focused on is going out and playing the best football we possibly can 4 o’clock on Saturday.”

It was a further insight into Key’s philosophy and vision as an interim coach, a position he accepted Sept. 26 and is a role that he surely would love to turn into a full-time position. To fulfill a contract, former coach Geoff Collins used part of his opening remarks at his Tuesday media session to highlight the team’s players of the week from the previous game. It is a practice that has its merits, but evidently is one that Key will not be continuing. (In general, coaches weekly news conferences are an occasion to look back at the past game and ahead to the next one.)

Key spoke of treating each game as its own season, with nothing behind it or ahead of it to give any thought to. It’s a philosophy espoused by former Tech coach George O’Leary, who coached Key at Tech and then had him on his staff at Tech and later Central Florida for 12 seasons.

“I think if these guys do that, it’ll help to bring the focus that they need to be able to go out and execute the way that they need to execute, to prepare the way that they need to prepare throughout the week of practice, the meetings leading up to practice and be able to give us a chance to play successfully on Saturday,” Key said.

Key was willing to revisit an aspect of the team’s play in the Pitt game that he found unsatisfactory, the pass protection that the offensive line (which he had overseen before his promotion to interim head coach) gave to quarterback Jeff Sims.

“Between the offensive line, the tight ends and the running backs, we’ve got to continue to improve,” he said. “Twelve (quarterback) pressures, three sacks in the first quarter and a half on Jeff. It’s all-encompassing. We’ve got to work. We’ve got to work our tails off this week.”

That answer led into another way that Key’s time as head man will apparently differ from Collins’ – a more challenging practice regimen. Practices in full pads, drills conducted at full speed and starters going against starters were three solutions that Key named to limiting the mental errors that plagued the Jackets during Collins’ tenure.

Key said that lapses in protection were caused in part by miscommunication within the offense, which he believes were the result of practice not being game-like enough that it caused them to “short circuit” in the actual game.

“We’ve got to continue to increase practice so that the difference in between is not so big, so that when you go out on the field on game day, you don’t slide our protection the wrong way or make a wrong call,” Key said “So those are things that we’re addressing right now.”

There’s nothing quite like a road win over a Top 25 opponent to lend credence to an interim coach’s change in course. A second opportunity to demonstrate his plan’s soundness will arrive Saturday, as Key leads the Jackets into their second one-game season.