Georgia Tech should give Brent Key the job for good

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Ideally, if Georgia Tech football makes Brent Key the permanent head coach, it will work out for the Yellow Jackets like it did for Clemson with Dabo Swinney. The comparison might seem absurd because Swinney is one of college football’s more successful coaches. But in 2008, Swinney was a position coach who never had been a coordinator when he took over midseason after Clemson fired Tommy Bowden.

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Key had a similar background when he succeeded Geoff Collins, who was dismissed after four games. He’s performed above expectations. Key’s Jackets are 4-3 in the ACC after winning at No. 13 North Carolina on Saturday. Key owns two victories over ranked opponents in two chances. Collins was 1-8 against ranked foes. His predecessor, Paul Johnson, was 1-6 over his final two seasons.

It’s so obvious that Key should be elevated to Tech’s permanent head coach that I’m almost reluctant to say it. It’s hardly ever that simple.

The Numbers Guy in me sees danger in judging Key on a small sample size. It’s hard enough to hire the right coach. Why should a Power Five program take a gamble on a guy who will have done the job for only eight games? Tech athletics is more strapped for revenue than when it hired Collins. The Jackets probably still could afford to hire an up-and-coming head coach.

Key’s relative lack of experience isn’t the only potential pitfall for Tech athletic director J Batt keeping him on as head coach.

Taking over in the interim during the season comes with obvious challenges. Something has gone very wrong, and there’s little time to make fixes. Being the permanent head coach adds many more difficulties, including hiring a staff. Key is a Tech guy, which is important. But he’s been a coordinator for only one season at a Group of Five school, with bad results.

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Those are the potential drawbacks to hiring Key as permanent head coach, with ”permanent” meaning “until further notice” in his profession. I still say Batt should do it. It’s not just that Key’s Jackets have won more games than they’ve lost. They also have developed a resiliency they just didn’t have with Collins.

His tenure ended with nine losses in a row against FBS opponents. There were four consecutive noncompetitive efforts against Power Five foes. The same team that used to give in too often started digging in with Key as leader. So many times the Jackets have appeared down for good, only to get off the mat.

Tech had a bye week after the 2-0 start with Key. There was optimism around the program again. Then the Jackets lost at home to Virginia, the ACC Coastal’s worst team, before getting buried at Florida State. The next week the Jackets overcame an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win at Virginia Tech. Tech returned home thinking about a bowl game, only to collapse in the fourth quarter against mediocre Miami.

No. 2 QB Zach Pyron suffered a season-ending injury during that game. Key soon announced that No. 1 QB Jeff Sims won’t play again this season. The Jackets were beat up physically and taxed from a difficult season. That’s why I figured they’d get blown out at No. 13 North Carolina on Saturday.

My prediction looked good when Tech fell behind 17-0 early. However, the Jackets scored 21 consecutive points to win as three-touchdown underdogs. North Carolina, the ACC’s top scoring team, was shut out over its final six possessions. It was the latest, greatest effort from Key’s plucky Jackets.

Key has demonstrated that he deserves to keep his job. Maybe I’m the wrong person to listen to on this subject because I also thought Collins was the right coach for Tech. My reasoning was sound: Collins has a long track record as a good recruiter, including a stint as a Tech assistant, and he’d coordinated good defenses in the SEC.

Collins did elevate Tech’s recruiting in the post-option era. Coaching is where he fell short. Running defenses in the nation’s best league for five seasons and two years as Temple’s head coach didn’t translate to success as Tech’s head coach. Collins seemed like a good fit for Tech. It just didn’t work. It happens.

Key’s résumé is relatively thin compared with Collins’. He was offensive coordinator for Central Florida in 2015 under former Tech coach George O’Leary. The Knights ranked 126th of 128 FBS teams in points scored. Before that season, O’Leary, who also was interim athletic director, endorsed Key to succeed him. But O’Leary retired after an 0-8 start and the school’s president announced that the next head coach would come from outside of the program.

Key moved on to become offensive line coach at Alabama under Nick Saban. He returned to his alma mater in 2019 for the same position and more money. Batt, a former administrator at Bama, will have to decide if Key should be the permanent head coach without the benefit of seeing him work as a coordinator. It’s a tricky situation.

Saban acknowledged the point last month to AJC Tech beat writer Ken Sugiura. Saban listed what he saw as Key’s positive attributes at Alabama: recruiting, developing relationships, communication and getting the most out of the players in his charge. But he added:

“If you have somebody that’s in a responsibility position like a coordinator, it’s a little bit easier to judge because they’re in a leadership position for a whole group, as to whether they would be able to take the next step and be a head coach. Sometimes that’s a hard judgment to make if a guy’s just an assistant coach. But I think (Key’s) got all the ingredients to develop into being one.”

Swinney did that at Clemson. The athletic director at the time, Terry Don Phillips, had identified Swinney as a head coach during his five-plus years as an offensive assistant. Swinney had never run an offense, but Phillips recognized his leadership qualities. Swinney went on to build Clemson into a national power.

If Tech hires Key as permanent coach, he’s unlikely to win as big as Swinney. Then again, it was unlikely that Key would make the Jackets competitive after taking over for Collins. Batt should give him a shot to do more as Tech’s head coach.