Prominent Georgia Tech donors revisit their optimistic preseason projections

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November 27, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia TechÕs athletic director Todd Stansbury comforts Georgia Tech's head coach Geoff Collins after Georgia defeated Georgia Tech in an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, November 27, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Before Georgia Tech began its 2021 season, Steve Zelnak and Gregg Garrett shared optimism about the Yellow Jackets’ season ahead. Their perspective was worth listening to for at least a few reasons.

Both are Golden Jackets, the highest honor given to athletic-department donors, supporters whose lifetime cash gifts are $1 million or more. They also have been avid observers of the Jackets. Further, their financial support has granted them access to coach Geoff Collins and insights not readily available to the general fan base. Their history of significant giving also means that they know well Tech’s football hurdles and aren’t given to wild expectations.

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And, as the first kickoff drew near, both men decreed that, in Collins’ third season, after back-to-back three-win seasons, it was time for the Jackets to win. Zelnak said that “we ought to win six or seven.” Garrett likewise set the bar at six wins, recognizing that a lesser record was acceptable if the Jackets played well but were victims of breaks against them.

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Both donors’ standards were set in part from guidance they received from Collins himself.

“It’s time to move forward, and I think Geoff would tell you the same thing,” Garrett said.

Three months and 12 games revealed that all those hoping or expecting for the Jackets to move forward, at least in the win column, were off the mark. Tech’s 45-0 loss to No. 1 Georgia completed a third consecutive three-win season at 3-9. It was one in which the Jackets were prone to critical mistakes, finished last in FBS in defensive passing efficiency, could not better leverage a surpassing season from running back Jahmyr Gibbs and lost its last two games by a combined 100-0.

“I look at the program, and it's in the worst place I've ever seen it."

- Georgia Tech booster

In interviews this week with the AJC to revisit their comments, Garrett and Zelnak were not frothing with anger, but had run out of patience. Given the prominent places they hold in Tech’s inner circles, their opinions matter to decision-makers such as athletic director Todd Stansbury.

“I look at the program, and it’s in the worst place I’ve ever seen it,” said Zelnak, who graduated from Tech in 1969.

Garrett, a Tech fan since the 1970s, called the season disappointing, frustrating and unacceptable.

“We have some good student-athletes,” he said. “Just could not help them from a coaching standpoint reach their potential. And maybe one of the most frustrating parts about it was that, as the season went on, we seemed to get worse, and that’s saying a lot when you start off the year losing to Northern Illinois.”

Zelnak’s preseason outlook stemmed in part from Collins’ own hopes that he shared with high-level donors to the football team. But Zelnak saw the Jackets lose games he believed they could have won because of a lack of on-field discipline. He also was not a fan of offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude, whom Collins dismissed Sunday, along with co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Nathan Burton and cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich.

“We’ve got a lot of good players, in my view,” he said. “Some really talented guys. They need leadership.”

Caption
Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins gestures to his players in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021 at Bobby Dodd Stadium (Daniel Varnado/ For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Caption
Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins gestures to his players in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021 at Bobby Dodd Stadium (Daniel Varnado/ For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Another preseason objective that Zelnak held was for Tech to be more competitive against its strongest opponents after losing to Clemson by a combined 125-21 in Collins’ first two seasons and 52-7 to Georgia in 2019. To the Jackets’ credit, they lost to No. 20 Clemson 14-8, although the Tigers proved decidedly weaker on offense than past seasons. Tech also lost 52-21 to No. 15 Pittsburgh, 55-0 to No. 6 Notre Dame and 45-0 to Georgia.

Zelnak said he was not for or against removing Collins, whose return for a fourth season was confirmed by Stansbury last week.

“(A fourth season) gives him a chance to show if he can get it done,” Zelnak said. “It also reduces the buyout by a year. If he gets it done, terrific. If he doesn’t, we’re going to have to deal with it.”

Zelnak did wonder about one change that Collins did not make.

“My big question mark is why is (defensive coordinator Andrew) Thacker still here?” he said. “My understanding is that Collins commented to a GTAA senior staff-level guy that he wanted to keep Thacker because Thacker knew the defense.”

Zelnak then noted Tech’s defensive ranking near the bottom of FBS. The Jackets rank 117th in total defense after finishing 109th in 2020 and 89th in 2019.

“So my question is, what defense?” he asked.

Part of his disenchantment with Collins, Zelnak said, was his belief that Collins has set expectations but has not lived up to them yet. For example, Collins set the team’s slogan for this season as “WIN 21,” WIN being an acronym standing for “What’s Important Now.” Had the Jackets finished with a winning record, it would have been hailed as brilliant leadership. At 3-9, it looks like something else.

“He’s a good recruiter, and he has had some success with that,” Zelnak said. “But, boy, if you’re going to talk it, you’d better be able to walk it. And three wins a year for three straight years, that’s not walking the talk.”

Zelnak, who chose not to attend the Tech-Georgia game, shared reports he received about the behavior of Bulldogs fans who occupied a large majority of Bobby Dodd Stadium. In past Tech-UGA games there, Zelnak said, Bulldogs fans have been “very raucous” and “less than charming.”

What happened Saturday, Zelnak said he was told, was that UGA fans didn’t even bother to engage Jackets supporters, which to him was even worse.

“It was not a relevant game (to UGA fans),” Zelnak said. “The last three years under (former coach Paul) Johnson, we won 21 games, including in 2016, beating Georgia in Athens. In the last three years of Collins, we’ve won nine. We’ve gone from being relevant to who cares? And that’s sad. It’s sad for the players. It’s sad for the fans.”

“We've gone from being relevant to who cares?"

- Georgia Tech booster

Garrett, a Tech fan since the early 1970s, shared Zelnak’s belief about the historical ebb that the Jackets have reached. He compared it with the start of coach Bill Curry’s tenure, when the Jackets had back-to-back one-win seasons in 1980 and 1981. But, he said, Curry was a first-time head coach, the schedule included the likes of Georgia, Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee, and the talent level wasn’t comparable.

“The thing that’s more frustrating about our current situation is that we have some good football players and we’re playing competition that we should be winning our share of games with,” Garrett said.

Garrett expects far more out of Tech and Collins next season.

“Platitudes and catchphrases are no longer enough,” Garrett said. “It’s time to start winning. I’m of the belief that we need to be at eight or more wins next year.”

While it would be a huge jump from 3-9, especially considering the non-conference schedule includes Georgia (12-0), No. 8 Mississippi (10-2) and Central Florida (8-4), Garrett’s rationale is that a coach will show his worth by the fourth season.

“If you win four, five, six games next year, that’s probably what you are,” he said. “The rebuild’s over. It kind of is what it is now. If we want to compete for the Coastal Division, (if) we want to get this program to the next level, how do you win six games, or even seven games, in your fourth year?”

Garrett took some hope from Stansbury standing behind Collins.

“I think the fact that Todd has linked his career at Georgia Tech to Geoff’s success – and I think that’s really important to know that he did that – is a positive because certainly it indicates that the administration is all in with this working and willing to accept the consequences if it doesn’t,” Garrett said.

Garrett said he did see Stansbury’s further employment at Tech being contingent on the success of Collins’ own tenure.

“That’s certainly the way I see it,” Garrett said. “Didn’t he say, ‘I’ve got my man’? He’s got his man. He’s going to have to ride him.”

Zelnak declined to comment on that possibility, but said that “Gregg is a very well-informed guy. He does his homework, and it’s certainly not an off-the-wall comment.”

Both said they would continue to support the team and hope for the best. But both have their doubts about the season ahead. Garrett described himself as “wait and see.”

“I’m going to have to see it before I believe it,” Zelnak said. “I came into this season believing it. I’m not going to go there again until I see it.”

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