BY AARON BRENNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
COLUMBUS, Ga. – Rodney Garner’s not about to wipe away 15 years of memories at Georgia. But he always was an Auburn man, and once again he’s got the appropriate windbreaker to prove it.
The featured speaker for the Columbus Phenix City Auburn Club’s spring meeting Monday night, Garner took time out from his never-ending duties as Auburn recruiting coordinator to visit the Green Island Country Club – settled close to the Georgia-Alabama border, and thus the SEC West-SEC East boundary.
Before he shook hands, shared smiles and delivered his remarks to a few hundred guests over dinner, the Tigers’ new defensive line coach and associate head coach reflected on why he made his move to his alma mater – less than a month after Auburn completed a 3-9 season.
“Me as an Auburn man, I didn’t like what they experienced last year, because whether you’re actually going through it or not, if you’re an Auburn person, you do experience it,” Garner said. “Even though I was at a rival school, it still hurt me to watch my school have the struggles that it did last year.”
Make no mistake: Garner’s still got Georgia on his mind. He’s got to, after a continuous stint since 1999 in Athens – an eternity in coaching circles to spend in one place.
Leading up to the NFL Draft April 25-27, Garner spoke to former Bulldogs Alec Ogletree (a first-round pick to the Rams), John Jenkins (third, Saints), Abry Jones and Kwame Geathers. On the recruiting trail last week, Garner caught up with Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend, who’s not considered the enemy.
“I really care about those guys and care about the coaches,” Garner said. “You develop relationships. I was there 15 years, which is a long time.”
Whereas many coaches bounce around from job to job a few years at a time, and can zone in on the present day, Garner’s fine with reflecting on where he spent the last nearly third of his life.
“It’s a good place, a special place. Definitely, I enjoyed my time there, left on really good terms,” Garner said. “It’s no animosity or anguish against them. I’ll definitely pull for them, except when we have to play them. It’s a bunch of good guys on that staff, a bunch of good guys on that team.”
In a separate line of questioning, Garner was quick to point out he’s got a bunch of good guys in his current position group. The rigors of spring football behind them, the Tigers are hoping to make swift and sweeping improvements from 2012.
“By no stretch of the imagination did we feel like we’ve arrived. But I really felt like our kids bought into what we were trying to do, what we were trying to teach,” Garner said. “I think they’ve bought into the culture.”
Senior pass-rusher Dee Ford and other defensive linemen are using their precious few days off to visit Chuck Smith, who played defensive end for the Falcons in the 1990s and is now a personal trainer based in Atlanta.
That’s the Garner-Georgia connection at work; an Athens native, Smith trained Bulldogs under Garner’s watch. Now Auburn players capture the offseason edge.
“The perception is they underperformed, for whatever reason. That’s why change came,” Garner said. “I think they are prideful young men, and I think they want to reach their expectations. I think they have high expectations of themselves.”
Junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright produced a light-hearted moment leading up to spring practices, when he joked Auburn’s got no nice coaches. Garner doesn’t take that personally – not with his no-nonsense style going from one SEC outpost to another.
“It’s not a nice league. I mean, it’s not. That’s why they chose to come to it. It’s a demanding league. I know these guys don’t like what they experienced last year,” Garner said. “So we’re going to do everything in our power to change that. The only way I know how to do it is through hard work, not taking shortcuts, being disciplined, being fundamental, and being tough.”