AUBURN, Ala. — Rodney and Kim Garner’s five daughters between the ages of 8 and 15 years old have never lived anywhere but Athens, Ga.
They make a point to visit Auburn twice a year, when Rodney and Kim can show their girls where their parents met and attended college.
“When we come through here, we’re doing a drive through: that’s where Mommy used to live, that’s where Daddy used to live,” Kim said. “Now we actually get to walk the campus and see the traditions — they’ve never seen Toomer’s Corner rolled.”
Kim Garner was still struggling to wrap her mind around leaving Georgia after 15 years, moving back to Auburn.
Her husband felt the same way, formally introduced last week as his alma mater’s assistant head coach, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator.
This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill football hire. Most assistant coaches get barely 15 minutes of fame in a brief press release before drifting straight into work.
Not Rodney Garner. A multitude of teammates and former colleagues were invited to watch Garner’s showcased press conference, which rapidly ascended into a sermon of reflection on Auburn memories, his father, his family, his second father, and his family again.
“When he talks about family, it’s the real deal,” Lee Marke Sellers, former Auburn tight end and Garner’s teammate, said after the soliloquy. “One of the finest fellas I know.”
Three and a half years ago, Rodney Garner’s father died. And the Auburn family lost one of its own.
“Mr. Earl, he loved Auburn,” Rodney said. “He’d come down here and tailgate all the time. I know he’s riding around Heaven today in his blue truck with his Auburn flags flowing. He’s tooting his horn yelling ‘War Eagle,’ messing with all the Alabama fans up there and (ticking) them off.
“I know it would be a very proud moment for him to see me get here.”
An honorably discharged Army veteran and man of faith, Earnest Earl Garner Jr. molded his son’s love for Auburn, no doubt.
So did Pat Dye, the head football coach from 1981-92.
“I look to (coach Dye) as a second father,” Garner said. “Sitting in my grandmother’s house, in the middle of pictures of Jesus and Martin Luther King, there was Pat Dye. He was in some heavy company.”
It was Dye who gave Garner his first opportunity both in the fields of college playing and college coaching. After finishing his playing eligibility as an offensive guard in 1988, Garner was brought on staff in 1990 where he served Auburn as a recruiting coordinator, tight ends coach and assistant strength and conditioning coach.
“He has definitely meant a lot to me. I definitely love Coach Dye. I think every one of these young men would tell you that,” Garner said, gesturing to his teammates. “I think he helped make us the men that we are today.”
Band of brothers
Rodney Garner had three sisters. No brothers.
Well, not unless you count his hundreds of Auburn football teammates. Which he does, joyfully and instinctively.
“An Auburn man is a special man. It is an unreal fraternity. It’s a very real fraternity,” Garner said. “All my brothers, whether I saw them last week or 10 years ago, we have the same love for one another as we had when we played here back in the ’80s.”
That’s why more than two dozen Auburn lettermen from 25 years ago were happy to come welcome Garner home to fix this fractured program.
“Being physical, thinking physical in everything you do and how you approach the game; I think that’s what we’ve been lacking the last couple years,” Sellers said. “This is one of the guys that knows how to get it done and bring it back. Hopefully, we’ll get that swagger back that we lost.”
Pack up the family van
Not everybody was thrilled about the Garner family moving from Athens to Auburn.
Kai Garner, one of Rodney’s six daughters, did as 10-year-olds do when they don’t get their way: they whine and stomp their feet.
“This morning, she’s crying. I’m sitting there trying to counsel her and talk her (into it),” Garner said. “I said, ‘Hey baby, it’s going to be all right. You can go recruiting with Daddy. You’re the reason I got Big John (Jenkins, Georgia’s 351-pound nose guard) because you went on that trip. Don’t you want to go with me and get another Big John?'”
Responded Kai, ‘No, I don’t want to go.’
“Now I’m trying to recruit my kids along with trying to recruit for Auburn,” Garner said, adding a chuckle of indication he and Kim will get the job done one way or another.
Heck, Kim’s got her own prerogatives. Her mind’s been swirling from which schools to enroll the girls, to how Rodney will adapt to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme, to her 30th wedding anniversary a few years down the road …
“Oh, honey,” Kim said to her husband, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to renew our vows in the university chapel?”
Rodney smiled and shook his head.
“Kim, I can’t take any more. Stay on one subject for longer than a minute,” he said.
For now, Kim’s job is to manage the transition for a sophomore in high school, a fifth-grader, a fourth-grader and two third-graders. Sooner and later, college decisions will beckon.
Rodney Garner hopes those won’t be complicated.
“We always talked about our goal in life, if we were blessed, was to have our kids go to Auburn,” Garner said. “No matter where I was coaching, I wanted that legacy to continue.”
The girls attended their first game at Jordan-Hare Stadium this year, watching Daddy help the Bulldogs hammer Auburn 38-0.
It was during the course of that rout when Garner began seriously considering whether this was the right time to come home and help restore his alma mater’s program.
“When I left here before,” Garner vowed, “I said I may not coach at Auburn, but I’ll always be an Auburn man. I paid the price to do that, and my blood, sweat and tears are out there in Jordan-Hare Stadium.”
Now he will be too, every week, starting this fall. With his family of all generations rooting him on.