Who J Batt could be considering in Georgia Tech coaching search

Credit: Ryon Horne

AJC's Sarah K. Spencer sits down with Chip Towers, UGA's beat writer, and Ken Sugiura, Tech's beat writer, to discuss the state rivalry game.

Georgia Tech may be a week away from introducing its next head coach. With the Yellow Jackets’ regular season ending Saturday vs. No. 1 Georgia, athletic director J Batt will want to move quickly to have the 14th full-time coach in school history in place as signing day approaches Dec. 21 and the newly instituted transfer-portal window opens Dec. 5. It wouldn’t be a surprise if an announcement were made next week.

But whom Batt will hire remains uncertain. The AD, who took office Oct. 24, has kept a tight lid on the process.

Best guesses center on Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell and interim coach Brent Key, though other candidates could be possibilities.

Chadwell makes sense for multiple reasons. With a 31-4 record over the past three seasons, Chadwell might be the most sought-after coach among Group of Five schools in this hiring cycle. In four seasons as full-time coach – he was interim for one season in 2017 – he has turned the Chanticleers program into one of the premier G-5 teams in the country.

Moreover, he runs a form of an option offense that has ranked among the more efficient in FBS. There is a school of thought that running an unconventional offensive system such as the option or Air Raid can help Tech make up for the talent gap with the top teams in the ACC, to say nothing of Georgia, as it did with former coach Paul Johnson. He also has extensive experience recruiting in Georgia.

However, Chadwell has never coached at the power-conference level. Also, his successful three-year stretch at Coastal Carolina has coincided with the three-year run at starter of quarterback Grayson McCall. While he won before McCall at lower tiers, how much of Chadwell’s success depended on McCall at Coastal Carolina is a question mark. And, also, where Key has established something of a track record for how he would do as head coach at Tech, how Chadwell (and any other non-Key candidate) is more unknown. While he has proved himself at Coastal Carolina, there’s no shortage of coaches who’ve won at G-5 schools and then struggled at the power-conference level. Two mid-season firings this year, Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Auburn’s Bryan Harsin, are among the latest examples.

As for Key, his performance in his seven-game interim period – a 4-3 record with two road wins over Top 25 teams – is compelling, as is the way that players and staff have clearly responded to him. Under Key’s leadership, the defense’s play has improved dramatically.

The actions that he has taken, starting with handing special-teams coordinator duties to linebackers coach Jason Semore, make it clear he had given considerable thought to how he wanted to operate as a head coach. His old-school approach – playing a physical style and limiting mistakes – brings to mind his mentors, former Tech coach George O’Leary and Alabama’s Nick Saban. Beyond the team’s improvement, Tech fans have delighted in the obvious passion that Key has for his alma mater and coaching its team. Perhaps worth noting about his recruiting ability – quarterback Zach Pyron and safety LaMiles Brooks, two players who have been highly impactful this season, were recruited by Key. For what it’s worth, Batt almost certainly is being barraged with endorsements from Tech alumni and former football letter-winners.

However, Key has no experience as a head coach other than his interim stint. Surely, the product on the field is only part of Batt’s evaluation. Key said Tuesday that he had yet to sit down formally with Batt – “I’m worried about Georgia,” he said – but when that happens, Batt likely will want to hear Key’s vision for the program, his plan for recruiting, what coaches he’d retain and which ones he’d let go, who he’d bring in as a replacement, how big a non-coaching staff he would want and other details.

As an interim, Key also would offer continuity and a coach whose hire returning players would embrace. Also, and this is not a small matter for Tech’s cash-strapped athletic department, Key likely would come as a less expensive option. He might command less in salary than other candidates, and Tech wouldn’t have to pay a buyout fee to hire him as it would to bring in a sitting head coach from elsewhere.

But, it’s also possible that Batt may be predisposed to clearing out the Collins regime and starting anew with a fresh set of coaches.

Chadwell and Key seem to be the most logical choices for Batt. But it doesn’t mean that one or the other will be the hire. Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, a former Penn State and Houston Texans head coach, could be another option. He has a connection with Tech, having served there in a variety of roles, including offensive coordinator, from 1995-2002.

His head-coaching experience is an obvious plus, as are his two seasons on the staff for Saban. It’s not clear if this is a job that he wants. Having been an NFL head coach, he may believe he can do better than Tech, or he may ask for more than what Tech can provide.

Another possibility is Tulane coach Willie Fritz, who has built a winning program at a place where higher academic standards have made that task difficult. Before Fritz took the job ahead of the 2016 season, the three previous coaches achieved a total of three winning seasons, two bowl games and one winning conference record over a 17-year period.

Now in his seventh year, Fritz has overseen three winning seasons, taken his team to three bowl games (with a fourth coming) and earned two winning records in conference play. With a 9-2 record, No. 19 Tulane (going into Tuesday night’s College Football Playoff rankings release) is in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1998.

Fritz knows the state, having coached at Georgia Southern and also is an option disciple. However, like Chadwell, he never has coached at the power-conference level. At 62, there is a question about Fritz’s longevity.

East Carolina coach Mike Houston might have the strongest record as a builder of any candidate. In 2015, he led The Citadel to the Southern Conference championship with a triple-option offense, only the team’s second league title in more than 50 years. The next year, having moved on to James Madison, he led the Dukes to the FCS championship with a spread offense that was among the first to use the run-pass option.

At East Carolina, taking over in 2019 after a regime that was 9-27, Houston led the Pirates to a 7-5 record in his third season and 6-5 this season, including three losses by a combined six points. He probably would be an easier hire for Batt if the Pirates were, in fact, 9-2. Like Fritz and Chadwell, Houston has never coached at a power-conference school. East Carolina, in fact, is the first FBS team that he has coached, as JMU didn’t make the jump to FBS from FCS until this year.

A wild-card candidate whose name has circulated within the industry as a possibility is Los Angeles Rams defensive-line coach Eric Henderson. A former Jacket, Henderson has earned a reputation as one of the top defensive-line coaches in the NFL. He has college coaching experience – at Georgia Military College, Oklahoma State and then Texas-San Antonio. The appeal in recruiting, particularly for defensive linemen, makes sense, but he would seem a long shot.

The days are counting down. The answer will be revealed soon enough.

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