June 21, 2013
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN -- Rodney Garner and Auburn had talked about coming home over the years. The timing, said the coach, was never quite right.
But the clock turned late last year, when Auburn hired Gus Malzahn as its new head coach, and the call went out to Garner again. Would he leave Georgia after 15 years? Would he return to Auburn where he had played and coached?
"I didn't know if I was going to take the job or not. I really didn't," Garner said.
But Garner decided after meeting with Malzahn he should return to Auburn, to coach the defensive line, to help as recruiting coordinator, to help as associate head coach. He's all those things now, and a big Auburn supporter, just as he was when he was an All-SEC lineman in the 1980s.
He's in his first summer back and "it's been a whirlwind. It's been awesome."
"Sometimes I have to pinch myself over the fact I'm back. I've been gone so long," Garner said. "It took 17 years to get back here. I've kind of gone full circle. I share with the guys on the staff all the time that this is special, just to have this opportunity. To be with this group of guys, too, makes it feel real special. It's not work. You enjoy being here. My family loves it. We hope to give Auburn back something that it has given to us. That's my goal."
Garner coached at Auburn from 1990-95, went to Tennessee for a couple of years, then was hired at Georgia. By then, he was considered a top-notch recruiter, and nothing has changed.
Auburn and Garner danced around the possibility of coming back at various times, "but it wasn't the right time. I feel like you only get one time to go home. You didn't want to go early knowing you'd have to leave again, knowing you'd never get back. That was a little scary, but meeting with Coach Malzahn, I felt such peace, knowing it was the right time and the right person."
Garner knew Georgia, having been there longer than coach Mark Richt, knowing that four of his six daughters were born there and all had grown up in Athens, knowing that he recruited against Auburn for some of the top talent in the southeast.
"I spent 15 years at Georgia. I felt like I had entrenched myself in the community and that I had done a good job. I thought I was pretty set in the community."
But, like Richt, he liked Malzahn.
"Coming here, there weren't any hidden agendas," Garner said. "It wasn't about 'this' ego or 'that' ego. It was going to be all about Auburn. As long as Auburn stayed at the core, we'd all have a chance.
"When I met with Coach Malzahn, I felt he had the spirit of Coach Richt. I felt he was the same type of person, the same type of man. I felt like he really wanted to be at Auburn for the long run. Auburn was not going to be a steppingstone for him to get to the NFL or to get to another job. He really believed in Auburn, and loved Auburn, and that it was special to him just like it was special to me.
"I don't think there's going to become different agendas. I think it's always going to be about Auburn. Like with Coach Richt, it was always going to be about Georgia, not Mark Richt. Georgia was bigger than Mark Richt. With Gus, Auburn is bigger than Gus Malzahn, and that's the way it should be."
Garner was reintroduced to Auburn football in spring practice when coach and the defensive line got to know each other.
"I have a good nucleus of young men. They're cut from the right cloth," Garner said. "It was a little bit of adjustment for them, just dealing with rough edges part of me. But I think they've made it through. I think they have to understand they have to have tough skin. It just my motto: I really don't think you can live soft and play hard. That wasn't the way I was brought up here.
"You don't have to be a jerk 24/7, but you have to have an edge. I'm thankful that Coach Dye and that staff taught us to have an edge. We're edge guys. An Auburn man is sort of different -- all of them are tough, they'll go to battle with you any time. We're men of character, but we will fight. You have to have an edge, and you have to have an edge to play in the interior on both sides of the line of scrimmage in the SEC. You have to have that."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow Goldberg on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine