What Georgia-Georgia Tech means to Brent Key

Georgia coach Kirby Smart offered his respect to Georgia Tech interim coach Brent Key on Monday. Key paid back in kind Tuesday.

“It goes back a long way,” Key said of their relationship. “He’s a good football coach, and he’s done a heck of a job at his alma mater. Looking forward to going out there and going against him on Saturday.”

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Saturday’s game will be the first in the Tech-Georgia rivalry in almost a century that both teams will be led by alumni of the respective schools. The first – and to this point, only – instance of that happened between 1925-27, when Tech was coached by William Alexander and Georgia by George Cecil “Kid” Woodruff.

Key said the two got to know each other through mutual friends and spent time together over the years in shared time on the recruiting trail, “and then just times over the summer where our families would be together in same areas, same spots, same places.”

Their college careers overlapped by two years (1997 and 1998, a loss and a win for Tech, respectively). Both were captains of their teams as seniors. And then both started their way up the coaching ladder. Before intersecting again at Tech and Georgia – Smart hired to return to his alma mater before the 2016 season, Key returning to assist then-coach Geoff Collins before the 2019 season – they faced off as on-field adversaries three times.

Once in 2002, when Key was a graduate assistant at Tech and Smart was in the same role at Florida State (Smart’s side prevailed 21-13). And twice after Smart had returned to UGA and Key was offensive line coach for Alabama with high stakes on the line – in the 2018 College Football Playoff Championship game (after the 2017 season, won memorably by Alabama 26-23 in overtime at Mercedes-Benz Stadium) and in the 2018 SEC Championship game (another Crimson Tide win).

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Smart praised Key and his team Monday, highlighting the team’s toughness and smart play.

“They’re playing really hard now,” Smart said. “And I think he’s done a tremendous job at getting these guys to compete.”

The moment of Saturday’s meeting in Athens is not lost on Key. He spoke Tuesday of the history of the game, invoking legendary figures who’ve occupied his and Smart’s seats, greats who’ve played in the game just as he and Smart had and the memorable games that have decided state bragging rights over the years. (In the second and final game Smart and Key played against each other, Tech won 21-19 on a 35-yard field goal by Brad Chambers in the final seconds, breaking a seven-game losing streak to the Bulldogs.)

The game is additionally meaningful because so many players are familiar with one another, having played together or against each other in youth leagues and high school and gotten to know each other through recruiting visits. Georgia’s ascension under Smart and the Jackets’ downturn have diminished some of the energy of the rivalry, as the Bulldogs have won the past two games by a combined 97-7. It hasn’t diminished anything to Key.

“There’s a huge sense of pride to be able to go into this game and compete against each other,” Key said. “So it’s a game that it’s easy to say, ‘This is the next game on the schedule,’ but it’s Georgia and we’re Georgia Tech. That’s why you come to this school here, is to play in this football game. It’s an honor. And I’m dadgum really, really excited to get out there and get these guys out there and play on Saturday.”

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