Jan. 4, 2002
By Wes Durham – Scripts have been written many times for stage and screen on how a boy grows up in the small town and then leaves for parts unknown only to return to the town and make all proud for his efforts. Typically, it has a strong story line of emotion and hard work. When Georgia Tech named Chan Gailey its 11th head football coach on the last Saturday of 2001, it marked a homecoming for Gailey, who returns to his home state for the first time since departing Americus for the University of Florida in the summer of 1970.
Since leaving his hometown, Gailey has put together one of the most comprehensive worksheets in football. In his 26 seasons of coaching, 14 of them have been at the professional level, while the other dozen came on college campuses. You don’t often find the break even in experience among coaches who have worked at both levels.
Looking through the ACC’s current head coaches with professional experience, only Al Groh of Virginia comes close. The 57-year old Groh has 25 years in the college game, while only serving 13 professional seasons. Groh and Gailey are also just two of nine current major college head coaches who have had tenures as head coaches in the NFL (Pete Carroll, Dennis Erickson, June Jones, Lou Holtz, John Mackovic, John Robinson and Joe Walton).
His pattern of coaching experience shows a two-tier blend of success along the way. Gailey helped lay the early groundwork at Troy State as an assistant, and with the Dan Reeves-led Denver Broncos. His ledger also shows coordinator experience on both sides of the ball.
Now Gailey is given the reins of a Tech football program enjoying its most continued success since the 1950’s. George O’Leary’s seven-year reconstruction job is complete. Chan Gailey gets to put his vast experience on both levels of football to use in not only maintaining the current stretch of success, but also finding the opportunity to move the Yellow Jackets another step closer to consistency.
It was one of the first things he asked athletics director Dave Braine during their first meeting in a Miami hotel some two weeks before Gailey was offered the post.
“How many times does a guy get to come to a school like this. Everyday I get to come to work with people who have character and class. That’s an enjoyable situation,” Gailey said during his introductory press conference.
Twenty times as a player or coach, Gailey has been a part of winning teams. The process of winning is in his personal fabric. He said that it’s why he wanted to know if it was possible to win a national championship in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets have proven that they are worthy of being considered among the top 25 in college football on an annual basis, but rare is the program that maintains a status toward the top ten year in and year out. It appears that from his success at both levels, that Gailey wants that to be the measuring stick of his work in Atlanta.
His style of football has sometimes come under scrutiny because of appearing one dimensional to the running game. Gailey admits that he has opened up new doors in his philosophy.
“When I grew up…it was run the ball, stop the ball, play great special teams. I still have deeply embedded in me that idea. But I’m about to come around to this passing game, ” Gailey laughed.
“I understand that you have to take the best personnel you have and put them in the best position to win the football game. Sometimes that doesn’t mean hitting them in the mouth and driving it three yards and a cloud of dust. There is a lot more to the game today than when I started coaching.”
One of Gailey’s first moves shows how sincere he is about evolving more to the balance of running and passing. Shortly after his first meeting with each of the assistants from Coach O’Leary’s staff, Gailey asked offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien to stay on in the same capacity.
O’Brien, who took over for Ralph Friedgen last fall, kept the Jackets near the top of the four major team offensive statistics during the 2001 season. Tech used the experience and savvy of QB George Godsey, along with the consistent run punch of Joe Burns to help keep opponents off balance this fall. O’Brien showed his game planning and other coaching skills in helping lead Tech to the Seattle Bowl victory over Stanford. The Jackets tallied over 400 yards of total offense in averaging almost 6 yards per play.
Gailey also retained running backs coach Glenn Spencer for his staff, but indicated he would likely move to the defensive side of the ball. Spencer will join Ted Roof, who was added during Gailey’s first week on the job and will be assigned a defensive position to coach.
As the remainder of his staff is filled out in the next week or so, Gailey also will pull double duty as the offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. That makes for some short nights of sleep and tight schedules on Friday and Saturday. Although he admits that the situation is not perfect, he and Tech are making the best of it for the rest of the Dolphins’ campaign.
The stints in Atlanta for Gailey are primarily for recruiting weekends and to meet with the current team collectively to make sure that they don’t miss a beat in their off-season program, resuming the academic load for the spring and check on the recruiting efforts in January.
Braine admitted that Gailey was not on his original list and owes thanks in part to former Tech linebacker George Morris, who had an impromptu conversation with Gailey’s college coach and current Tennessee athletic director Doug Dickey at the College Football Hall of Fame dinner in early December. That’s where the original idea was hatched.
Gailey used to recruit the same areas of south Georgia where he would often run into former Tech assistant and current assistant athletic director Larry New. It was New who originally contacted Gailey about his interest in the vacancy at Tech. The intrigue of coaching at the collegiate level is one that has been there for Gailey, but it shows that Tech carried a special meaning for the native son.
“I thought maybe colleges in general didn’t want to talk with me, because of the length of the NFL season. The time frame for Tech was not ideal because I had a commitment to the Dolphins. When Dave (Braine) still wanted to talk with me knowing that I had that ongoing, it showed me that these were the kind of people I wanted to work with,” Gailey said.
“If you are talking about a long term relationship, what’s an extra two, three or four weeks? If you get the right fit, if you get the right situation.”
So Gailey’s double duty will continue through the remainder of the Dolphins’ season, but from a first impression he is excited about the chance to be a part of the Jackets’ century-plus football tradition. Although he wasn’t heavily recruited by Tech out of Jimmy Hightower’s program at Americus High School, he did watch games in both Atlanta and Athens growing up, before going to college at Florida.
Gailey will also continue an interesting trend in college football that has seen coaches with pro experience return to work in the college game. His viewpoint on the return to this level is unique.
“In everybody’s mind the natural progression is that ‘you come back’ to college, because you start in high school, move to college, then to the pros. If you look at the coaching profession that is not necessarily the case. That scenario is taken for granted. When you get a chance to work for a place like this and deal with the people you deal with, that is not a step back, that is a step forward.”
That kind of statement and philosophy will serve Chan Gailey very well at the start of his homecoming.