AUBURN, Ala. — His colors may have changed, but Brian VanGorder’s aura hasn’t.
Well, OK, his hair’s longer.
Other than that, the words “fiery” and “intense” pop up any time players talk about Auburn’s first-year defensive coordinator.
Consider one tribute: “He’s always on fire. There’s never a dull moment. He’s this fiery guy who’s going to stay on you, whatever the scenario.”
That’s attributed to Auburn sophomore defensive tackle Gabe Wright, one of VanGorder’s current works-in-progress.
Now, here’s a separate testimony: “Without a doubt, one of the most fiery, no-nonsense guys you’d ever want to meet. I know 100 percent I wouldn’t have been the player I am without him.”
This comes from Carolina Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, who a decade ago was headed for mid-major college football out of Randolph-Clay High before VanGorder, then Georgia’s defensive coordinator, offered him a last-minute scholarship offer.
Davis grew into a 2004 All-American free safety and first-round NFL draft pick, one of numerous success stories under VanGorder for the Bulldogs.
He was “fiery and no-nonsense” then; he’s “always on fire” now.
Not much difference in the summations, is there?
It’s BVG’s way, or the highway.
That’s how it’s been, that’s how it will be.
His history shows time heals all wounds, and the Tigers are licking a few of those before they face the place that unleashed Brian VanGorder.
Georgia linebacker David Pollack couldn’t see the future. But he sort of did, thanks to a wizardly call by his position coach.
It was Sept. 8, 2002, and No. 10 Georgia was battling No. 22 South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium in both teams’ SEC opener. Down 3-0 in a defensive duel, the Gamecocks faced second-and-7 deep in their territory with 14 minutes remaining.
USC quarterback Corey Jenkins took the shotgun snap and shaded toward his right, into his own end zone.
Pollack, noting South Carolina’s trips right configuration, pushed two blockers backward and made a beeline for Jenkins. As Jenkins loaded up for a deep throw, Jenkins pounced on the quarterback’s right arm, swiping the ball out of the air and collapsing to the ground for a 0-yard pick-six.
“I knew what play was coming,” Pollack recalled, “because coach VanGorder told me in that certain formation, there was a high tendency for a rollout pass.”
Bulldogs 10, Gamecocks 0. Ball game, basically.
Georgia, a 13-7 winner that night, went on to finish 13-1 and were ranked fourth nationally, complete with a Sugar Bowl victory, and Pollack would garner the first of his three All-American accolades.
Not bad for a fullback out of high school. Pollack owed it all to VanGorder, who coaxed him into joining “the dark side” on defense during summer drills before his freshman year.
“One of the true motivators I’ve ever been around,” said Pollack, now an ESPN college football analyst. “If you listen to him, he makes the game extremely simple. He’s a film junkie, and he’s going to give you a bunch of nuggets about what’s going to happen.
“If you pay attention, he can make you look really good.”
Building a culture
It doesn’t happen overnight. Georgia initially struggled in VanGorder’s complex schemes at Georgia in 2001, also the maiden voyage for head coach Mark Richt.
“We had to really change the culture of defense there,” VanGorder said. “It was built around an offensive situation under (previous) coach (Jim) Donnan — no disrespect meant, in regards to that — but they just hadn’t played the same type of defense that maybe the personnel indicated that you could. So we started out, it was rough.”
Richt’s memory indicates the same.
“When you’re trying to install a (new) philosophy, getting everybody to really buy into it and go full-speed on it, it’s very difficult to do in year one or year two,” Richt said. “First spring ball, everybody’s looking at you like, this is brand-new language and technique for me. So it takes a little time.”
By 2003 VanGorder won the Frank Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach. The Bulldogs went 42-10 during VanGorder’s four years at Georgia — ranking fourth, third and ninth in the country in scoring defense from 2002-04.
“It took a little while to understand expectations. His way really works,” Pollack said. “Once you get a couple guys to buy in, we were as good as anybody in the country for a three-year stretch. We absolutely dominated.
“You’ve got to find guys that can absorb your scheme and put it into play on the football field.”
BVG goes to Auburn
“It’s Georgia week.”
Three innocuous words directed at VanGorder, in the company of a few reporters moments after Auburn’s 42-7 victory over New Mexico State.
He wasn’t ready to go there. Not yet.
“Yeah, it’s Georgia week,” VanGorder answered, with a head nod and a smile. “Give me 24 hours, all right? 24-hour rule is in effect.”
The request was accompanied by a belly laugh.
That’s the other side to VanGorder. Look at the rest of what Wright had to say of this “fiery guy.”
“Then there’s this ‘Mr. VanGorder,’ when you’ve got to leave the coach part off,” Wright continued. “He’s probably the nicest guy around. That’s how I believe any player would want it.”
That’s the VanGorder belting out the same Toby Keith lyrics while Georgia players stretched before practice, which Pollack still jokes about — “first of all, he can’t sing. Second at all, that was a terrible song.”
That’s the VanGorder pranking on his players in film study with a laser pointer, or intentionally mispronouncing their last names in teasing fashion.
That’s the VanGorder who, when asked about his service alongside Richt in red and black, reveals his reflective side.
“Aw, it was awesome. Fantastic. Great time, great chemistry,” VanGorder said. ”I came in at a time with the right guys. Mark established a blueprint that was real solid. The guys meshed with my personality really well.”
Then VanGorder paused, remembering his many years cutting his coaching teeth at numerous Florida high schools and bouncing around five different colleges in 12 years throughout the 1990s.
“Mark gave me my break in the profession, in giving me that Georgia job,” said VanGorder, who moved on to NFL jobs in Jacksonville and Atlanta with a one-year stop as a head coach at Georgia Southern. “So I have great memories of that time.”
Georgia’s defense never sunk nearly as low as Auburn’s has this year — granted, it’s an offensive-happy era of college football, but the Tigers are on pace to allow the most yards in school history.
“It’s been difficult to continually push to them the idea of polishing their tools, learning their trade and ultimately executing the way you need to execute to be great,” said VanGorder, who hasn’t bent from his ultimate goal of molding Auburn into a “championship defense.”
“Emotionally, you’re dealing with so many things — losing ball games and moments of bad play, critical plays in a game where we didn’t get the job done.”
Pollack, evaluating VanGorder both as his former pupil and as a man now paid to offer his opinions on Saturdays, believes in a bright future.
“I think Auburn definitely needed a culture change on defense,” he said. “I’d be lying if I sat here and told you that Auburn was on par with every other team defensively as far as personnel in the SEC. … I don’t see a whole lot of talent that you say, wow, they could line up for Alabama or LSU. They need to get better in that avenue, and I know he’ll do a great job of developing talent, just like he did at Georgia.
“As soon as those guys buy in and realize what they have, and recruit and get even more talent there, and develop within the system, I think they’ll be fine.”