The third installment of interviews with Georgia Tech assistants, following Al Groh and Charles Kelly. I’ve enjoyed doing these. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading them…
The Georgia Tech assistant coach who helped Demaryius Thomas get drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft and Stephen Hill in the second round this past April also fondly remembers his days at the University of Hawaii and his upbringing in Los Angeles and took a roundabout path to college.
Buzz Preston has coached wide receivers at Tech since arriving with coach Paul Johnson before the 2008 season. He shared thoughts on his past and present with the AJC.
You can call him Al
Preston’s given name is Albert Preston Jr., but everyone calls him Buzz or Buzzy. Preston has a sister one year older than him, and the story goes that she couldn’t say “baby brother.” From her mangled pronunciation came Buzzy, which he went by into his 20’s, when the same sister told him that he needed to adopt a more mature-sounding name.
“So I said, ‘Alright,’” Preston said. “I dropped the ‘Y,’ so, Buzz. That’s my more mature name.”
Preston didn’t know about the other Buzz on campus until he arrived to take the job and, thankfully, has avoided any confusing situations with his fellow Buzz.
Does anyone call him Al?
Said Preston, “Bill collectors.”
His dad could play
Preston’s father pitched in the Negro Leagues in the 40’s, but quit because of a knee injury.
“He was a really good pitcher,” Preston said. “Chet Brewer, who was one of the all-time great Negro League players was a good friend of his, tried to talk him into staying, but he didn’t.”
Later on, Preston’s father pitched batting practice for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who nicknamed him “Satch” after Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige. He also was one of the first blacks to own a business on Pacific Coast Highway in California, Preston said, co-owning a junkyard. From his father, Preston developed a skill for working with his hands. He made Preston re-build the engine of his first car by himself.
Value of education
Preston grew up in Los Angeles and is one of seven children, all of whom earned college degrees. Preston remembers his parents stressing education, in particular their sacrifices so he and his siblings could attend Holy Family Grammar School.
“We weren’t necessarily a rich family, but we were blessed with a lot of love and really taught to pursue to be the best and try to be good people,” Preston said.
Preston played college ball at Hawaii, but didn’t get there via the typical route. Preston graduated from high school in Los Angeles in 1975, but wasn’t recruited because of a disappointing senior season and a knee injury. Instead, he went to community college for a semester and worked for three years.
“I was working graveyard shifts for UPS,” he said. “I realized, ‘You know what? No one has a life doing this.’”
That epiphany, plus his desire to play college football, guided him back to school. He planned to first play at a junior college, but got a workout in front of a Hawaii coach, who invited him to walk on. A few days before the team’s camp opened in 1978, he quit his job and left for Hawaii. He played two seasons and stayed as a grad assistant, which gave him time to earn his degree and begin a career. To Preston, it has proven to be a lesson on being willing to take risks and fail.
“If I wouldn’t have ever taken that chance to just quit a job and in three days get on a plane, I wouldn’t have ever met [his wife, Audrey] or be where I’m at,” he said.
If you go to Hawaii…
Having gone to college at Hawaii and then having had two separate coaching stints there, Preston has a deep love for the state. He met his wife Audrey in college and his eldest child was born after he returned there as an assistant coach.
“It’s basically a place where I did some of my greatest growing up as a person and as a father and as a husband and everything else,” he said.
He has a few suggestions for visitors – the volcanoes on the outer islands and Waimea Canyon State Park on Kauai, known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. He also recommends taking either the Likelike or Pali highways from Honolulu to the eastern side of Oahu.
That said, “I would just say, just enjoy the place,” he said. “I think sometimes people try to get there and they try to do so much and so fast and they don’t really enjoy it.”
Likes the tradition
Don’t count Preston among those who likes where college football is headed. There is a lot he would like to change about the game, starting with the frenzy of realignment.
“I think you could still have the conferences, the tradition, and still make more than enough money to keep everybody happy,” he said.
The scheduling, including Tech’s Labor Day night game against Virginia Tech, is symptomatic of television’s control over the game.
“It’s just like, why are we playing on a Monday night and then having to turn around and play on a Saturday when school starts?” Preston said.
The key to success
Preston named two coaches that he respects from afar– Pete Carroll, formerly with Southern California and now with the Seattle Seahawks, and Alabama’s Nick Saban. Both, he said, figured out how to win at their respective schools. (It’s easy to forget that both schools’ teams, while traditional powerhouses, had slid prior to their arrivals.) Another would be his boss at Stanford and Notre Dame – Tyrone Willingham.
“I think that, in this business, the key to success is to figure out what works at that university,” he said. “I’d say [Saban] has figured out what works at Alabama. Whether you agree with it or not is one thing, but he’s figured out what works.”
New hands on deck
Preston will have the least experienced position group on the team this fall and possibly one of the least experienced in the country. With Tyler Melton’s graduation and Hill’s early departure to the NFL, no wide receiver on the roster has a single career catch. Sophomore returnees Jeff Greene and Darren Waller will compete with Chris Jackson and Jeremy Moore for playing time. Incoming freshmen Anthony Autry, Travin Henry and Micheal Summers will be in the mix, also.
Moore, a junior, has not made much of an impact but had a positive spring.
“Hopefully, he’s finally catching his stroke,” he said. “I’m hoping that it means that he’s going to do some real quality things for us. I’m excited.”
Staying the course
Preston said he saw improvement from the returning four in the spring and has high hopes, “but they’ve got a long way to go.”
In camp, Preston said he’ll probably be tighter on details and try to sneak in extra reps when he can, but will mostly try to coach the same as he always does.
“The worst thing you can do as a coach is panic one way or the other or not coach enough one way or another,” he said.
Life on the road
Tech represents the 10th move that Preston and his family have made in his career. The post-Hawaii trail – Washington, Southern Illinois, Hawaii, Washington State, UNLV, Stanford, Notre Dame, Stanford (again),New Mexico, Tech. Going into his fifth season, this will be his longest stop since coaching defensive backs and then wide receivers at Hawaii 1987-1993, when Tech coach Paul Johnson was offensive coordinator.
“No. 1, I’ve been blessed with a great wife who has a great spirit,” he said of Audrey, with whom he has three children. “We just make it a new adventure and we get excited about it and we just make it the best it can be.”
Thanks for reading. I’ll have more stuff up Tuesday.
Ken Sugiura, Georgia Tech blog