AUBURN, Ala. – Lee Marke Sellers could tell the wheels were turning in Rodney Garner’s head.
Four-year teammates under legendary Auburn coach Pat Dye in the late 1980s, Sellers caught up with his former letterman on the field named after Dye, on Nov. 10 when Garner’s Georgia Bulldogs were prepping to take on both men’s Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I said, man, I’d love to see you come back,” Sellers, a Tigers tight end, recalled. “He says, well, if I got the right situation …”
A few hours later, Georgia had polished off Auburn 38-0 – the Bulldogs’ second straight 38-point victory in the series. A few weeks later, the Tigers’ entire coaching staff was fired.
Garner finally felt it was time. The 1990 Auburn grad was formally introduced Friday as Gus Malzahn’s fifth addition to the new coaching staff, appointed assistant head coach, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator in his grand return to the Plains.
“I can tell you this is a very surreal moment for me,” Garner said, “just to have this opportunity to be back here at a place that has meant so much to my life both personally and professionally.”
Sellers was flanked by about two dozen former teammates in Auburn’s football auditorium to welcome Garner back. After a successful playing career as both a nose guard and offensive guard, Garner was on Auburn’s staff from 1990-95 before taking off for two seasons at Tennessee and then settling in at rival Georgia, where he remained for 15 years.
The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry renews Nov. 16, 2013 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I probably wouldn’t leave Georgia if it wasn’t for Auburn,” Garner said. “This place is very special and very dear to me. Just seeing my teammates that are here, I don’t know, it’s a humbling experience.”
Garner was a head coaching candidate at Auburn after the 2008 season, which ultimately went to Gene Chizik. When Malzahn was brought in to replace Chizik earlier this month, he instantly began filling his staff with assistants who either have Auburn ties or heavy coaching experience in the southeast.
Garner fills both requirements, in excess.
“We hired one of the best in the business right here in Rodney Garner. He’s an Auburn man,” Malzahn said. “I think they go together: fundamentals, intangibles and work ethic. That is what coach Garner has.”
Garner admitted to needing “serious counseling” when wrestling with whether to leave Georgia. A conversation with a close friend helped clear his mind.
“I said, ‘You know what? I pull for Auburn 364 days a year. It’s just that one day when we play them that’s the only time I don’t pull for Auburn.’,” said Garner, who is 9-7 lifetime coaching against the Tigers – including 15 matchups with the Bulldogs.
“He said, ‘To be honest Coach G, you pull for Auburn 364 days and 20 hours. It’s just the four hours that y’all are playing that you aren’t.’”
Georgia’s on strong footing, with Mark Richt leading the Bulldogs into yet another New Year’s Day bowl. But Garner, who will not remain with Georgia during its Capital One Bowl preparation, couldn’t stand watching his alma mater fall any further.
“I can’t wait to roll my sleeves up and go to work,” Garner said. “When I talked to Coach Malzahn, I just told him, ‘Hey Coach, if you feel that I can be an asset to you, and I can help you in your mission statement and your vision of where you want to take this great institution, then I would love the opportunity to be a part of it.’ That’s what I want. I’m going to be the most loyal team member that he has.”
“Auburn is an elite institution. It always has been, and it will always be. I know we’ve stumbled a little bit here lately, but we’re going to get this thing back on track.”
Garner, 46, a Leeds, Ala. native, doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon – if ever.
“I’m coming home, and this is not a stopover. My goal is to be here and finish out my career,” Garner said. “I want us to be competing for the Western division championship, competing for the SEC championship, competing for the national championship and doing it on a consistent basis, not just being a one-year wonder.”