Ten Things You Should Know About . . .
Just back from vacation. Following is the second installment in a series profiling all of Georgia’s assistant football coaches. The first one was on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and ran in print two weeks ago. I’ve now posted it HERE as a blog so you may comment on it if you wish. They will be published weekly between now and preseason camp.
ATHENS – Asked to reflect on his coaching career, Rodney Garner is taken aback when he starts to count up the years and the stops along the way. Georgia’s assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach, Garner is entering his 15th season with the Bulldogs, 23rd as a full-time coach and 28th as an associate of the Southeastern Conference.
“That within itself is a true blessing,” said Garner, who will turn 46 on June 30th. “I’ve been blessed to work at some really good institutions. I’ve been blessed to work for five really good head coaches. Three of them are currently in the hall of fame and I’m sure Mark [Richt] will be one day. So not many people can say that. I feel blessed. I’m humbled by the blessings God has bestowed on me.”
Garner sat down for an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently as part of a summer series profiling Georgia’s nine assistant football coaches. Here’s 10 things you should know about Garner.
1. He grew up poor ‘but didn’t know it’
Garner, the son of Melva and the late Earl Garner, grew up in Leeds, Ala., about 20 miles east of Birmingham and not far from Interstate 20. Though that’s not that far from a major city, Garner describes his as a “country” upbringing.
“We were poor. But the thing about it, the way we grew up, I really didn’t realize we were poor,” Garner said. “Everybody around us lived the same. It took me going to college to realize we might have been poor.”
Garner said he and his cousins were raised primarily by his grandmother, Kennedy Kirksey, who watched all the grandchildren while their parents worked.
“She’d have 20 grandkids at her house,” Garner said with a smile. “We didn’t have anything. We ate the syrup sandwiches, mayonnaise sandwiches, hot cornbread in buttermilk sprinkled with sugar — you were really doing something then. But everybody around us lived the same. I thought we were rich, as far as food and things. Me and my cousins would pick blackberries, we had plums, we made plum wine and blackberry wine. We made slides out of cardboard and go down hills. A swing was a big vine that hung between two trees. We stayed outside all the time. It was a good lifestyle. “
2. Rarely left Leeds growing up
Garner said he rarely got out of Leeds. In fact, he said he could count on one hand the times he left the city before he became a highly-sought-after recruit as a senior offensive lineman at Leeds High.
“I went to Huntsville once on a field trip to see the space center,” he said. “And I went to Six Flags. I thought that’s all Atlanta was, Six Flags. I’d never been to Montgomery. I knew the capital was there, but that was it. So I was just sort of living in my own world. Then I started getting recruited and I was like, ‘Wow, there’s places outside of Leeds!’”
Garner eventually chose Auburn over Alabama, Florida State, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Iowa and West Virginia. He earned first-team All-SEC and honorable mention All-America honors with the Tigers.
3. Not love at first sight for wife Kim
It was not love at first sight for Garner and his wife of 16 years, the former Kim Lawson.
“We didn’t date at Auburn,” Garner said. “I don’t think Kim liked me at Auburn and I know I didn’t like her. She was studious; that’s a nice way of saying she was a nerd. I was not ever what you’d consider studious. And her father had told her, ‘don’t date athletes,’ so she wasn’t going to have anything to do with any athlete, especially me.”
It was after Garner had graduated and was coaching at Auburn that Kim fell for Garner, and vice-versa. The sparks first appeared at 30,000 feet.
“We were playing Arkansas and she was a flight attendant for Delta and she did our flight on the way back,” Garner said. “I saw her and walked up to a friend and said, ‘Dog, that looks like that nerdy Kim Lawson.’ She was always pretty, but she was a nerd before. We’re on the plane and the players are like, ‘Coach, you see that girl?’ I was like, ‘yeah, I know that girl; I went to school with her.’ So we got to talking and she told me she was living in Atlanta. I told her I was always in Atlanta recruiting, so maybe we could get together.”
A short time later, Kim invited Garner and some of his friends to attend a Delta Christmas party in Atlanta, “and that’s where it started,” Garner said.
4. ‘Manning up’ for Bridgett
Kim wasn’t just getting Garner when they decided to marry. Garner had a child with another woman when he was still in college at Auburn. Garner’s relationship with the child’s mother did not last, but he and little Bridgett remained inseparable. With the help of his mother, Melva Garner, Garner raised Bridgett while still in college.
“You have to be a man; you have to accept your responsibilities, and I did,” Garner said. “I worked ever y summer, every spring break and every Christmas break. I had responsibility. It was just about manning up and accepting your responsibilities when things happen. That’s what I had to do.”
It was not an easy time in Garner’s life. First of all, his mother was not happy with him. Secondly, there were some realities that came with his fatherly responsibilities.
“Believe me, I was in shock for a while,” he said. “My mom was devastated; she was crushed. But I definitely wasn’t raised that way and you have to accept responsibility for your decisions. You have to take care of your babies. I had to bust my butt. So the guys would go on spring break, I would go to work.”
Bridgett, now 25, joined Rodney and Kim in Knoxville and has remained with them ever since.
5. ‘Mr. B’ comes through for ‘Coach G’
Having to work every break led Garner into one of the closest relationships he has had outside of his family. That first spring, he got a job working at Royal Oldsmobile in Birmingham. The owner of that and several other dealerships is a man named Dave Belcher. Not only did Belcher provide Garner with work, but he also became Garner’s closest adviser.
“He’s like my second father,” Garner said. “To this day I don’t do anything without talking to Mr. B first. I truly love him like a father. Mr. B and Ms. Sue, they were godsends for me. I could not have made it without him.”
Garner says that one of the hardest things he’s had to do in his professional life is tell Belcher he wasn’t going to return to Auburn to coach. Learning of their relationship, former Tigers’ coach Tommy Tuberville appealed to Belcher as a middle man to help lure Garner back to The Plains several years ago.
“That was very emotional; very difficult,” he said.
6. Daddy’s little girls
It’s hard to imagine now that Garner and Lawson once had difficulty having children. Today they have six kids – all girls.
Brie, 15, was born in Knoxville while Garner was working at Tennessee. She’s a cheerleader and runs track at Athens Christian. His other four daughters were born in Athens. Jaiden, 10, is into basketball and gymnastics. Kai, 9, loves golf. The twins, Sydney and Milan, 7, are into basketball and tennis.
Garner likes to hunt and fish and occasionally play golf. But with his three-title schedule as a Georgia coach, Garner’s only hobby these days is spending time with his children. This summer, one or the other can usually be found at one of UGA’s many sports camps.
“If we have a little dead period, I’ll run over there and watch them,” he said. “You’ve just got to make it work. It’s important, so you just figure out a way to get there.”
7. Richt provides roots
Garner has had many opportunities to leave Georgia for other jobs. In fact, he said he never intended to remain with the Bulldogs for 10 years, much less 15. But then Richt came to Georgia in 2001 and, trying to balance the responsibilities of coach, husband and father, Garner considers theirs a providential relationship.
“I’m blessed to work for a guy like Coach Richt, who makes it a family environment around here,” Garner said. “That’s the reason I stayed. You hear all the horror stories from coaches who say their biggest regret is they didn’t spend quality time with their children. I don’t know that I’ve spent a quantity of time with my kids, but I think all my kids would say I spend quality time with them. I try to involve them as much as I can in the business just to have them around and to see them.”
Garner works hard to blend work with home. He’s known for putting together some great home-cooked meals for his players, especially the annual Thanksgiving feast at their Oconee County home.
“I want my daughters to be around the players so they don’t grow up resenting my players for being the people that kept Daddy away,“ he said. “For the same reason, I want my players in my home so they can see me in a different light as a father and a husband. I want them out there at the house, I want their girlfriends out there. I want to see who they’re dating. I want them to know what it is to be a man.”
8. His utopia is in Tuskegee
When Garner was still an assistant coach at Auburn, he made his first major purchase – 111 acres in Tuskegee, Ala. Technically it is a farm, but Garner bought it only as a place to hunt and fish and has never plowed an inch of ground there. He leases the hunting rights as a way to help pay the taxes on it.
“My wife is always on me because I probably haven’t been on my property for six or seven years,” Garner said. “It’s got an old house on it, but it’s not worth the match it’d take to burn it down.”
Garner talks of possibly retiring to the property one day.
“Plant a garden, hunt, fish, put some chickens out there, cows. Man, I’d be happy,” he says with a big chuckle. “I could live there, but I don’t know if Kim would. She always bucks it when I talk about retiring there.”
9. Recruiting is his game
Garner is known for sending defensive linemen to the NFL by the droves. He’s produced four first-round draft picks at Georgia and several Pro Bowl starters. But his primary acumen has been for identifying and luring talent to Athens. He has been the recruiting coordinator for the Bulldogs since 1998 and has seen a lot of changes in that time.
“It has become so commercialized,” he said of the business. “So many people are making so much money off of it now. You have all these different websites, people following it, bloggers. It’s just taken on its own identity. In the SEC, there’s football season and there’s recruiting. That’s how much emphasis is placed on it, right, wrong or indifferent. But there’s no exact science to recruiting. That’s the reality of it. It’s hard to be right all the time. There are a lot of variables involved.”
10. 2012 D-line one of Garner’s best
Everybody seems to agree the Bulldogs have gotten all variables right in regard to the 2012 defensive line. Georgia’s front three is expected to be one of the school’s best ever, with 350-pounders John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers manning the noseguard position, Abry Jones and Garrison Smith at the ends and top-notch backups at every spot.
“I’m proud of these guys. I really am,” Garner said. “I’m proud of the type of young men that they are. I’m proud of the things they bring to the table, not just from an athleticism standpoint, but for overall work ethic, for leadership qualities, everything. I’m really honored just to have the opportunity to coach them.”
Garner stops short of labeling the 2012 group as the best he’s had. For him, the 2000 D-line is a slam dunk in that regard. That one featured Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud, Charles Grant and Josh Mallard, with Johnathan Sullivan as the primary backup. Four were first-round draft picks and all have had extensive NFL careers.