Bradley’s Buzz: The obstacles facing Brent Key at Georgia Tech

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

The Georgia Tech community seems to have gotten what it wanted. For the first time since January 1987, when Bill Curry left for Tuscaloosa, an alum is Tech’s non-interim football coach. Brent Key took calculus. He knows all the words to “Ramblin’ Wreck,” not just the line that goes, “To hell with Georgia.” He’ll get the references to George P. Burdell.

This non-Techie – I made it through the University of Kentucky without taking math – believes Key was the best available candidate. Willie Fritz has done well at Tulane, but Tulane isn’t the Georgia Institute of Technology. There’s no school quite like this. MIT wins Nobel Prizes, but it doesn’t play Power 5 football.

Dave Braine, then Tech’s athletic director, announced a contract extension for Chan Gailey while telling the world not to expect too much. “Georgia Tech can win nine or 10 games, (but it) will never do that consistently.” That was in 2005. The Yellow Jackets have since had five seasons of nine-plus wins – one under Gailey, four under Paul Johnson. Since 2016, they’ve had one winning season.

Braine wasn’t the smoothest talker, but he knew football. He played at North Carolina. He’d been an assistant coach at Tech under Pepper Rodgers. He’d been AD at Virginia Tech, which for a while was the Jackets’ biggest rival in the ACC Coastal. (One of the Techs won the division every year from 2005 through 2012.) At that same press briefing, Braine said, “With the exception of the service academies, coaching Georgia Tech is the hardest job in the country.”

As the past four seasons made manifest, the wrong coach at Tech has no chance. Even the right one – Bobby Ross went 5-17 his first two seasons – will experience a clunker. Apologies in advance for sounding like the gloomiest Gus, but this hard job is about to get harder. We count the ways.

1. Tech cannot spend its way to football excellence. Clemson can and has. Miami and Florida State have eight national championships between them, all since 1983. North Carolina and Virginia are flagship schools of populous states. Under Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech had eight consecutive 10-win seasons after joining the ACC. Tech’s greatest post-Bobby Dodd moment came in 1990, when it went 11-0-1 and won the UPI national title. Ross left for the NFL a year later.

Georgia Tech isn’t a broad-based university. Its undergrad enrollment is roughly half of Georgia’s. Conventional wisdom holds that Tech grads go off and invent things that change the world; UGA grads stay in state and clog the roads to Athens on autumn Saturdays. That’s not meant as a slap at either set of alums. It is, however, what it is. Tech doesn’t fill its 60,000-seat stadium. Georgia fills a 92,000-seat stadium.

Georgia football mints money, no small consideration in our time of NIL. Bigger means richer, and richer should mean better. (Though not always. Note Texas A&M.) A cold-eyed CPA might see Tech’s hiring of Key a money-saver as it pays Geoff Collins $10.5 million not to coach. That doesn’t make it a bad hire, though.

2. The Coastal is history. The ACC won’t have divisions next season. Tech will have three “primary partners” it plays every year. (It’s an eclectic threesome: Clemson, Louisville and Wake Forest.) Not to put too fine a point on it, but the flimsiness of the Coastal propped up all its members.

Pitt’s 2021 ACC title marked the first – and probably the last – for a Coastal rep since 2010. North Carolina won the division despite losing its final two league games, the first to Tech, the second to N.C. State. The Atlantic Division had at least three teams better than the Tar Heels.

3. The transfer portal mightn’t be a cure-all for a technological institute. The two best players signed by Collins were Jahmyr Gibbs and Jeff Sims. Gibbs left for Alabama after last season; Sims just announced his intent to avail himself of the portal. Yes, the portal runs both ways. But let’s remember the part about calculus.

Those who enter the portal are coming from another school. In many, if not most cases, the decision to transfer doesn’t involve curriculum. It involves playing time. It’s an attempt to find a forum that, the closer a collegian comes to being NFL-eligible, will showcase that collegian’s talent to said NFL. How many pro prospects are seeking a dual career in architecture?

This isn’t to say Key can’t win. He went 4-4 and beat two ranked teams without Sims for most of the final month. A good coach can work wonders. I’m operating under the assumption Key is a good coach.

Many coaches who come to Tech are surprised by the way things work. (Meaning: The talk about academics isn’t just talk.) Key won’t be surprised. He has his diploma. He knows the drill. That’s no small thing.

The above is part of a regular exercise, written and collated by yours truly, available to all who register on AJC.com for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Bradley’s Buzz, which includes more opinions and extras like a weekly poll, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We’d be obliged if you’d give it a try.

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