Key’s Jackets, not knowing who’d be coaching them beyond 3:30 p.m. Saturday, somehow gave No. 1 Georgia a semblance of a game. The halftime score was 10-7. It was 13-7 with six minutes left in the third quarter. Tech lost 37-14 – not a win, but not an embarrassment. It would have been fitting had Tech promoted Key to non-interim coach in the locker room at Sanford Stadium, but it opted to look around. Three days later, it was done looking.
Willie Fritz is a good coach. His record tells us so. That didn’t make Fritz a Tech fit. He’s 62, the same age Johnson was when he retired. Fritz has been head coach at four schools, none in a Power Five league. Key played in the ACC under George O’Leary. He worked in the SEC under Nick Saban. It’s possible he won’t get the job done – winning at Tech is hard – but at least he knows what winning at the highest level of college football entails.
Sometimes we ask: Does a coach make that much of a difference? Let’s recall how wretched Tech looked in its 42-0 loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 19. It was outgained 547 yards to 214. It had a punt blocked. (There’s our lasting image of the #404Takeover – 404 blocked punts.) Those Jackets didn’t just look like the worst team in the ACC; they appeared the worst team in the history of the world.
Two weeks later, under different management, they won at No. 24 Pitt. On Nov. 18, they spotted No. 13 North Carolina 17 points and won, holding one of the nation’s best offenses to zero second-half points. In Pittsburgh, they won behind No. 1 quarterback Jeff Sims. In Chapel Hill, they won with their Nos. 3 and 4 quarterbacks. By November, the new-coach bounce had worn off and Tech’s best player had a foot in the transfer portal. Didn’t matter. Key’s team kept trying.
Among the first things Key did after Collins’ sacking was to ditch the frivolity – the hashtags and the depth-chart-that-wasn’t-a-depth-chart. He said, “Let’s play football.” Who knew these Jackets could?
Esteemed AJC colleague Ken Sugiura reports that Tech and Fritz “evidently were unable to reach a deal.” Well, you know what they say – some of the best deals are those you’re unable to reach. Key took a team that looked destined to go 1-11 and nearly took it to a dadgum bowl. He gave the program hope in its darkest hour. He gives it hope for the years ahead.
It doesn’t matter if Key was the first choice. What matters is that he’s the right choice.