Short stint in real estate turned Georgia Tech’s Brent Key back toward coaching

Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key speaks at the groundbreaking for the Fanning Center. Photo: Georgia Tech Athletics / Eldon Lindsay

Credit: ELDON LINDSAY / Georgia Tech Athletics

Credit: ELDON LINDSAY / Georgia Tech Athletics

Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key speaks at the groundbreaking for the Fanning Center. Photo: Georgia Tech Athletics / Eldon Lindsay

Twenty three years after he graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Brent Key has reached a pinnacle of a two-decades long journey that landed him as the head coach of his alma mater’s football team.

But, Key said Wednesday during a Georgia Tech Alumni Association event at the Scheller School of Business, that coaching wasn’t always in the master plan.

‘It was like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna go get in the real world. I wanna work in commercial real estate.’ And I did,” Key said of how his professional life may have panned out differently.

What led to Key’s momentary shift in career focus was related to a number of circumstances in the early part of his post-playing days as an offensive lineman for the Yellow Jackets. Key made 44 consecutive starts as a right guard for Tech as the program transitioned from the late 1990s into the new century. He was a team captain and all-ACC selection as a senior in 2000.

Because of all that, he figured he had a shot to play professional football. There were three franchises looking to give him a shot as a free agent in the summer of 2001.

“(Former Tech coach George) O’Leary is so abrasively persuasive,” Key said. “He sat me down and he said, ‘Well you can do that and get cut. You might make it. But I have a (graduate assistant) spot open, and if you do that, I’m gonna fill the GA spot with somebody else.’ So I made the decision to forego a free-agent opportunity to be a GA. I graduated on May 5, 2001, took about 3-1/2 weeks off and then started up.”

Key was now a football coach, at least in some capacity as a graduate assistant. But of all the years to start a career in the field, 2001 would turn out to be a hectic one.

The Jackets came into the season expected not only to compete for an ACC title, but a national one. They started 3-0 — then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Tech went three weeks between games that September and wound up going 4-5 over the remainder of the regular season.

It was in December of that year, although, that Key’s professional life truly took a turn.

Key recalled being in the Georgia Dome to watch the SEC Championship game between Tennessee and LSU. He and Bill O’Brien, the offensive coordinator at Tech at the time, came to support Doug Marrone, Key’s offensive line coach during Key’s playing days and Tennessee’s tight ends coach at the time.

Suddenly, O’Brien told Key to go start calling Tech players. There needed to be an emergency team meeting the next day. O’Leary was leaving to coach at Notre Dame.

“I’m driving home that night, I’m calling everybody in the world, ‘I’m going to Notre Dame as a GA!’ Five days later I found out I’m not going to Notre Dame as a GA,” Key said.

O’Leary, of course, would resign from his post at Notre Dame after some discrepancies on his resume came to light. Key, meanwhile, sort of had been waiting on a way out of football all along. He was watching his Tech friends and former classmates make hefty salaries, rent their own apartments and buy townhouses. He wanted to put his Tech degree to good use as well.

So in what he thought was his infinite wisdom he turned toward commercial real estate.

“I called Jim Terry (at the Bobby Dodd Foundation) and said, I need some connections, I need some names. He gave me 25 names in real estate that were either former Georgia Tech football players or Georgia Tech alumni. I just started cold-calling people. I thought I would call one or two people and get a job. ‘I’m a Georgia Tech football player!’ Nooooo.

“I did end up working at a company and am doing what I wanted to do and putting slacks on and nice shoes, have that corner office and my own cubicle. Six weeks later I’m like, ‘Get me out of this suit, get me back into football.’”

In another self-proclaimed foolish endeavor, though, Key said he simply waltzed back into Tech’s spring football practice in 2002, where Chan Gailey was now coach and O’Brien still the offensive coordinator, and asked for his graduate assistant role back: “They said, ‘Well you can’t just do that.’”

It would be two years before Key landed at Western Carolina as a tight ends and running backs coach, the same year that O’Leary headed to Orlando to rebuild Central Florida. Key rejoined his mentor at UCF in 2005 and stayed with the former Tech coach until going to Alabama in 2016 and then returning, finally, to Atlanta in 2019.

Now Key is preparing to go into his second full season as the coach of the Jackets, a long way removed from his days as a graduate assistant — and possibly a future real estate agent.

“That (early) experience was really, really important in my career. It really made me understand what I was meant to be and what my calling was,” Key said. “Fast forward to today, those 20-25 people I cold-called, probably about 18-20 of them I’m still very close to and 15 of ‘em were at the news conference when I was introduced as the head coach.”