Nov. 12, 2013
Rodney Garner heeded the call from home after 15 seasons at Georgia (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – For Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner, the ties to Georgia are strong and personal. They won’t be undone by a football game, no matter how significant.
Georgia, where Garner spent the past 15 seasons, visits Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday for a game of great importance. The No. 7 Tigers (9-1, 5-1) and the No. 25 Bulldogs (7-3, 4-2) will renew the Deep South’s longest-running rivalry at 2:30 p.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium. CBS will televise it to the nation.
Garner, a former All-Southeastern Conference Auburn offensive lineman, spent the past 13 seasons with Georgia coach Mark Richt. John Eason, Georgia’s director of player development, and his wife, Vanessa, are godparents to Kai, one of Rodney and Kimberly Garner’s five daughters. Garner recruited a substantial number of Georgia’s players.
“Kai said mommy said she could sit with Miss Vanessa at the game,” Garner said. “She loves Auburn, but what she’s excited about is Miss Vanessa is coming to the game.”
When the Tigers hit on hard times last season and Gus Malzahn replaced Gene Chizik as head coach, Garner finally heeded the call from his alma mater. He accepted Malzahn's offer to be Auburn's associate head coach and defensive line coach.
"He's one of the better defensive line coaches in all of college football," Malzahn said. "I believe the last two head coaches at Auburn tried to hire him. He's an excellent recruiter, an excellent coach on the field and an outstanding man.”
For Garner and Kimberly, also an Auburn graduate, the time had finally come to go back home.
“The 15 years I spent at Georgia, there are a lot of great memories,” Garner said. “I have no regrets. I have good friends there on staff. I enjoyed working there. Coach Richt did an outstanding job of making it a great work environment. It’s very family-oriented. My family loved it.”
Garner has been part of the biggest turnaround in college football, helping take the Tigers from bottom-feeder to contender in a matter of 12 months. Taking another step in pursuit of a championship is what will be on his mind at gametime.
“The way I look at it is that it is the next step for us to take this program where we want it to go,” Garner said. “For us to get where we want to be, we have to go through Georgia. We had to go through Tennessee. None of the goals we want to attain are possible without taking this next step.”
Garner finished his Auburn playing career in 1988. He became an Auburn coach and recruiter supreme, but after the 1995 season, head coach Terry Bowden decided to move in another direction. Garner spent two seasons at Tennessee before joining Jim Donnan’s staff at Georgia in 1998. When Richt took over in 2001, he retained Garner.
“Rodney has done so many great things for Georgia over the years,” Richt said. “He was the first coach I retained from the prior staff, because I knew what kind of recruiter he was. Turned out he was a pretty darned good football coach as well.”
When it’s over, there’ll be hugs for friends and for players. It’ll be family again.
“Oh, yeah, it’s going to be awesome,” Garner said. “I pull for Georgia 11 out of the 12 games because of those guys and that staff. I’m a Georgia fan except for this Saturday, when it’s all about Auburn. It’s going to be good to see the players, to see the coaches and see so many familiar faces and friendly faces.”
Garner’s attachment to both places is hardly unique. Shug Jordan was an assistant at Georgia when he was named head coach at Auburn. Joel Eaves was Auburn’s head basketball coach when he was named athletics director at Georgia, and he promptly hired Auburn freshman coach and former Tiger quarterback Vince Dooley as the head football coach. Pat Dye was an All-American at Georgia and became Auburn’s head coach.
Famed Georgia defensive coordinator Erk Russell was a former Auburn player and coach. Gene Lorendo, who coached Auburn offense for a quarter of a century, was a former Georgia player. So was Joe Connally, who was with Jordan every step of the way at Auburn.
Auburn and Georgia were forever linked when they got together for a football game for the first time in 1892. Auburn won 10-0 that day, and since then, only world wars have kept the two teams from meeting on the football field. The series is tied at 54 wins apiece with eight ties.
“The schools are sister schools,” Garner said. "They have so many similarities that they are actually joined together. It’s so important to both programs. For us to be what we want to be from a talent standpoint, we need to be able to recruit the state of Georgia. It gives a little more to the rivalry and the significance of it. And there’s so much history behind it.”
The recent history has not been good for Auburn. The Tigers won 49-31 en route to the national championship in 2010, but they’ve lost six of the last seven. In the last two they’ve been outscored by a combined 83-7.
Garner’s defensive linemen will play key roles in trying to change that and have helped ignite this season’s charge into championship contention. But first they had to accept his demanding ways.
"When we go into the meeting room, we pretty much know what we messed up on in practice,” junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. “We just can't wait to hear it from Coach G. He never misses anything. That's what we need. He brings that toughness and accountability factor to this game."
Garner believed from the start that this Auburn team would improve on last season’s 3-9 debacle. But 9-1? That would have been difficult for anyone to see when the new staff arrived in town.
“I thought we would be significantly improved over what they were last year,” Garner said. “I didn’t know what we would be. The first day I met with my guys I told them I thought we could be a very good football team, but the only chance we had to be that was take it one practice at a time, one day at a time, one game at a time.
“I told them let’s go out here and try to get better every opportunity. I think the kids have bought into that. They’ve tried to get better every day, and they are seeing the fruits of their labor.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: