Key to the city: Head coach reigniting Georgia Tech brand of football

Brent Key working to lay foundation for success
Georgia Tech coach Brent Key and the Yellow Jackets will open the 2023 season Sept. 1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Louisville. (Hyosub Shin /


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Georgia Tech coach Brent Key and the Yellow Jackets will open the 2023 season Sept. 1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Louisville. (Hyosub Shin /



Georgia Tech has a long way to go before it even can be in the conversation to be considered the best college football program in the state. Brent Key knows that.

But the former Tech offensive lineman isn’t putting the cart before the horse in his grandiose efforts to return the Yellow Jackets to glory. He understands how much must change off the field before consistent, championship results on the field become more the norm than the outlier.

Key’s first official team is inching closer to making its debut at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 1 against Louisville at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Key’s program as a whole began to take shape nine months ago with an array of changes that has given Tech a new look – and a new attitude.

Regardless of the outcome of Tech’s opener, or its season as a whole for that matter, Key clearly has planted roots for what he hopes translates to a new era of greatness.

“We understand it’s going to take time,” Key said this summer. “Our players understand that. So, let’s alleviate that anxiety. Let’s stop looking six months from now and down the road. ‘Worry about what you’re doing every day, be where your feet are and work on every single day. Don’t worry about what happened behind you.’ You can’t worry about those things. All that is going to do is create all that stress and anxiety.”

Key has said repeatedly that at the end of the day his tenure will be judged by wins and losses. To obtain more of the former than the latter, he has begun to lay a foundation he hopes translates to victories.

Handshakes with high schools

Tim McFarlin estimates he met Key about 21 years ago when Key was a graduate assistant at Tech, Key’s first coaching gig after his playing career had ended in 2001. McFarlin was in the early stages of a 22-year stretch of coaching metro Atlanta high schools that included winning four state championships.

McFarlin left Fellowship Christian School in January to join Key’s staff as the director of high school relations. It’s not an uncommon role on a modern college football staff, but one Tech hasn’t specifically had before.

“My first priority every day is to connect with high school coaches in Georgia when I can, whether it’s by text or phone,” McFarlin said. “I’m speaking with guys daily. And then, of course, when it’s appropriate, we love having those guys on campus. Had a great time this summer with the camps and the 7-on-7 and the lineman camp. We were able to get a lot of the high school teams on campus.

“We just want to open up our program to these high schools in the state.”

Errin Joe said when he met with Nick Saban in 2022 to interview for the role of the assistant director of player personnel, he told the legendary Alabama coach he wanted to be the general manager at his alma mater one day. By December of last year, Joe had made his goal a reality.

Like Key, Joe is a former Tech offensive lineman. Having previously worked with the Jackets as a graduate assistant and associate director of player personnel, Joe jumped at the chance to reunite with Key and Tech for the 2023 season.

Joe, like McFarlin, has high school relations on his radar.

“When we first got here, that was our main goal, to just reestablish, ‘Hey, we’re here,’” Joe said. “We want to recruit Georgia. We know that great players come out of this state. And it starts with that, taking care of home. Those are the guys that are going to help us win and turn this place around.”

Key was a keynote speaker at the Georgia Football Coaches Association spring clinic. He met the Atlanta Touchdown Club in June. His recruiting efforts has landed Tech 26 commitments toward the 2024 signing class, 10 of which are from Georgia.

The expectation is that, over time, Tech’s recruiting classes will be Georgia-heavy.

“The feedback from the coaches around the state is they’re really excited because they consider Brent one of theirs. I think everybody’s glad to see that,” McFarlin said. “They’re really excited to see what’s going to happen here and, again, going back to the staff that he’s hired, high school coaches felt like the hiring of Brent brought a great credibility to the football program. And Brent bringing the guys he’s brought in has done much the same thing.”

A Familiar staff

A closer study of Key’s staff, from coaches to off-the-field personnel, reveals an interesting trend. The thread of connections to Tech and the state of Georgia are woven throughout. There are former Jackets, former Georgia high school stars and former Georgia college playmakers littered on the directory.

Key said that when assembling his staff he was looking for, “great men, great teachers, great recruiters. I also wanted people that could bring value to the organization in their individual roles.”

But it’s clear that if Key could find those qualities in a candidate and that candidate had ties to the state, that was a bonus.

“From here, born and raised here, my whole family is here, my wife’s family is here. Love the state, love the high school coaches in this state,” offensive coordinator Buster Faulkner said. “I think it’s the best state for high school football in America.

“To me, we’re in the best location in the country to play football, in the Southeast right here in Atlanta. What more could you ask for, right? Like I told you guys before, I feel like I’m the luckiest man alive because I’m right where I want to be.”

Faulkner became a household name for football fans in the state at the turn of the century while leading Parkview High to a state championship. His college playing career at Valdosta State included a trip to the Division II national championship game, and his coaching career led him to Athens, where he just helped Georgia win back-to-back national titles as a quality-control coach for the team’s quarterbacks.

Faulkner’s counterpart, defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker, played his high school ball at North Forsyth and Gainesville high schools. His stepfather, Bruce Miller, led Gainesville to a state championship and is the coach at Lanier Christian Academy.

“Georgia is special to me,” Thacker said. “I’ve grown up in the state and in the framework of football and absolutely love it here. As I grew up in Georgia, there’s an appreciation and respect from my family in this place. The more I’ve been here, the more I’ve really grown to love the people. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Georgia Tech. It’s exciting right now.

“(Key) talks about it a lot, but he wants to bring the amount of respect that he has for this place back to perception and then turn that to reality. He’s getting a lot of things down to turn that.”

Faulkner and Thacker aren’t the only coaches with strong connections to the state in the building.

Running backs coach Norval McKenzie is from Powder Springs. Marco Coleman (defensive line) and Travares Tillman (defensive backs) both starred as Jackets during their playing days. Wide receivers coach Josh Crawford graduated from Morehouse.

Offensive analyst A.J. Erdely is from Cumming, offensive analyst Edmund Kugbila is from Lawrenceville and graduate assistant DeAndre Smelter is a Macon native and former All-ACC performer for the Jackets. Director of recruiting Brooks Barrineau graduated from George Walton Academy. Defensive recruiting coordinator Patrick McDonald is a Georgia alum. Director of player development Anthony Parker is a Jonesboro native.

Punt Windham, Glenn Ingram and Devin Ellison all have ties to the state and to Tech as well.

Unlocking the future

In April, the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents authorized an $82 million project to overhaul Tech’s Edge Athletics Center. The 21-year-old facility located at the northeast corner of Bobby Dodd Stadium soon will be demolished to make way for a new, four-story building that will house the athletic department.

A strength-and-conditioning area, players’ lounge and meeting spaces for Tech football are included in the plans for the 115,000 square-foot building.

The plans for the new Edge Center had long been in the works before Key became coach, but his tenure and its construction will go hand-in-hand symbolically over time – especially if the 45-year-old can get the Jackets anywhere close to winning their first national title since 1990. There is a pulsating belief inside the current Edge Center that Key is the man to get that done.

“Brent has had an opportunity to see what it looks like, has been a champion, played here and has a passion for what’s going on here,” Coleman said. “I got full confidence in him and his know-how. He has humbled himself … he’s gathering counsel from those that have done it. Doing that is going to help him, it’s going to help us. Got full confidence in him and his ability to be able to lead us to get what we need done.”

Tech comes into 2023 looking to break a string of four consecutive losing seasons, the first such streak since for the program since 1929-32. Tech has never had five consecutive losing seasons.

To return to their winning ways, Key and the Jackets must navigate a schedule that includes national-championship contenders No. 1 Georgia and No. 9 Clemson, a trip to No. 22 Ole Miss, a visit from No. 21 North Carolina and matchups with tough ACC foes Louisville, Wake Forest and Miami. Tech does have four starters back on the offensive line and a secondary that may prove to be one of the conference’s best, but there are major questions at quarterback, running back and wide receiver.

Tech’s initial turnaround undoubtedly will be tough. Embracing that toughness, however, is what Key is all about.

“Just reestablishing what Tech is,” Joe said about Key’s mission. “Toughness, discipline, commitment, execution – the things that (Key) got when he was a player here. Old-school football. Teams are going to be saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want to play Tech because we know they play hard. And those kids are smart, and they give everything they got.’

“He’s setting the plan in place for this place to be successful with all the components and things these student-athletes need in order to do that.”





Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Jenn Finch

Credit: Jenn Finch

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Phil Skinner / AJC

Credit: Phil Skinner / AJC

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

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