ATHENS – In the end, Rodney Garner felt like he could no longer ignore his alma mater’s calls for help.
Garner, Georgia’s assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach for the past 12 years, accepted an offer to handle the same jobs at Auburn, where he played offensive line and started his coaching career. He will also receive a significant salary increase from the $300,000 a year he earned with the Bulldogs.
But as Garner adamantly pointed out in an exclusive interview with the AJC Thursday night, “this is not about the money.”
“It was a very difficult decision,” Garner said. “I’ve been approached many times about this opportunity. But it’s my alma mater. It may be more of a pride thing, just looking at where they are right now and feeling like I really wanted to be a part of getting them back on track. I just felt like God was leading me in this direction. It’s something I prayed about and it was not an easy decision. I would not have left for any other reason than Auburn.”
Garner, 46, has received overtures from Auburn several times over the years, including from Tommy Tuberville and Gene Chizik. Chizik was dismissed after the Tigers went 3-9 this past season. Gus Malzahn, who was Chizik’s offensive coordinator but left to become head coach at Arkansas State, was hired by Auburn on Dec. 4.
Garner has spent the last 12 seasons at Georgia working under head coach Mark Richt. He was hired at UGA by former coach Jim Donnan in 1998. A native of Leeds, Ala., he played for the Tigers under Pat Dye from 1984-88. He also met his wife Kimberly there.
Garner will join the Tigers’ staff immediately.
“It’s just time,” Garner said. “I’ve been at Georgia 15 years. It’s been awesome. Worked for two great head coaches at the University of Georgia. Jim Donnan gave me the opportunity to come here, who I have a tremendous amount of respect and love for. And then Coach Richt who retained me and I worked for him for 12 years. Coach Donnan is already in the Hall of Fame, and I’m sure Coach Richt will be one day. So it was a very difficult decision.”
Garner said he spent a long time Thursday counseling with Georgia’s team chaplain Thomas Settles about his decision, then a long time talking to Richt Thursday night.
“It’s difficult because you’re going to a rival school,” Garner said. “Mark has been very good to me and I want people to know that. People need to recognize the body of work that Mark has done here. Here’s a guy who has been at Georgia 12 years and he’s gone to the (SEC) championship game five times. Prior to him coming there, they’d never been to that game. I look at what he’s done there for 12 years, the way he’s done it, the way he’s won with class and integrity, and he’s just been a great guy to work for. So it’s hard leaving him. I mean it really was. But everything I hear about Coach (Gus) Malzahn is that he’s that same caliber of man, cut from that same cloth, and I think it will be a family-friendly environment, which is important to me, with a wife and six daughters.”
Many preliminary reports about Garner’s interest in joining the Auburn hinted at discord between him and Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“The defensive staff we had at Georgia, Coach Grantham, I just think he’s great; he’s awesome,” Garner said. “I think Todd deserves to be a head coach. I was really thinking he’d get some shots at it this year. I think he’s one of the brightest minds I’ve ever been around. Then Scott (Lakatos) and KO (Kirk Olivadotti), we just had a lot of chemistry on that staff.”
Garner would not discuss the financial terms of his contract with Auburn other than to say, “it’s a good deal.” He was on a yearly contract with Bulldogs.
“I’m sure at some point it will all become public record, but that’s not what this was about,” he reiterated.
Regardless, Garner’s departure comes at a complicated time for Georgia. The Bulldogs are in the midst of recruiting their biggest class of the restricted-scholarship era — around 35 in all — and obviously Garner is the hub of that effort. Best known for attracting great defensive linemen to come play for him, Georgia has been considered a leader for junior college all-star Toby Johnson and 5-star defensive tackle Montravius Adams of Dooly County. Both signings could now be in jeopardy.
“I’m kind of surprised, but it helps Auburn,” Adams told 247Sports. “We have a great relationship. He’s a great guy. I know that he’s a guy that will get defensive linemen to the league. I wouldn’t mind him being a guy that coaches me for three or four years. He’s going to be a guy that I’m going to be with most of the time besides the weight-training guy.”
Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs was the first to announce Garner’s hire via Twitter. Auburn later sent out a news release that quoted Malzahn and Garner.
“We’re excited to announce Rodney Garner as our assistant head coach and defensive line coach,” Malzahn said in the statement. “Rodney is one of the top defensive line coaches in college football who has had great success in the Southeastern Conference. We’re excited to welcome an Auburn man back home.”
Said Garner: “I owe a lot to Auburn and the men who helped mold me to who I am today both professionally and personally. I’m very appreciative to Coach Malzahn for this opportunity and I feel very strongly that I can be an asset to the program. I have a lot of love for Auburn and I felt this was a great chance to help give back to a place that has given me so much. I look forward to helping get Auburn back to where it belongs.”
Richt finally acknowledged Garner’s departure in a statement released at 11 a.m. Friday:
“I want to thank Rodney for 15 years of loyal service to UGA. He was the first assistant I hired when I came to Georgia and it turned out to be a great decision. He’s a tremendous ball coach, recruiter, and mentor and a great example of what a good father and husband should be. He’s been a blessing to my life as well as to UGA. We wish him and Kim all the best.”
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