AUBURN, Ala. -- Rodney Garner is best known for his skills as a recruiter, but he admits he’s having difficulty convincing his daughters to get on board with his recent life choices.
Four of Garner’s six daughters were born in Athens -- where he spent the last 15 seasons as Georgia’s defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator -- so uprooting the family to accept a job at his alma mater, Auburn, did not come without opposition.
At his introductory press conference at Auburn on Friday afternoon, Garner recounted a conversation with his 10-year-old daughter Kai from earlier that morning when he reminded her of their trip to watch senior nose guard John Jenkins at a 2010 junior college all-star game in Gulfport, Miss.
“She was crying and I’m sitting there and trying to counsel them and trying to talk to her, saying, ‘Hey baby, it’s going to be all right. You can go recruiting with daddy.’ I said, ‘You remember when you went with me to recruit Big John Jenkins?’ I said, ‘You’re the reason why I got Big John because you went on that trip. Don’t you want to go with me to get another Big John?’
‘No, I don’t want to go.’
‘You don’t want daddy to have another Big John?’
‘No, I don’t want to go.’
“And I said, ‘Oh, come on Kai,’ ” Garner chuckled. “So now I’m trying to recruit my kids along with trying to recruit for Auburn.”
Garner was Georgia’s longest-tenured coach, predating even head coach Mark Richt, as a member of the Bulldogs’ staff since 1998. Although he flirted with other opportunities in previous offseasons, Garner said his affection for Richt and his situation at Georgia had always kept him in Athens until now.
“He was the first assistant I hired when I came to Georgia and it turned out to be a great decision,” said Richt, who retained Garner from Jim Donnan’s staff when he took over as head coach in 2001. “He’s a tremendous ball coach, recruiter, and mentor and great example of what a good father and husband should be. He’s been a blessing to my life as well as to UGA.”
But, Garner said, more than receiving an offer from Auburn that he couldn’t turn down, he saw an opportunity under new Tigers coach Gus Malzahn to rebuild his beloved alma mater’s program that at 3-9 and 0-8 in SEC play just suffered one of its worst seasons in decades.
He explained that to Georgia’s defensive players in the Bulldogs’ team meeting room before leaving for Auburn on Friday morning.
“That was tough because a lot of those kids I recruited and are guys I coached,” Garner said. “It’s never an easy time. But I think they understand that it’s Auburn. I’ve always had a hard time hiding my love for Auburn. I didn’t do a very good job of that. So I think they understood that part.”
That love for Auburn is part of why he was such a compelling target for Malzahn, who contacted Richt last week and asked for permission to speak to Garner.
“He’s an Auburn man. He’s been here, he’s done that,” Malzahn said. “He takes great pride and talking with him got me excited because I know how special this place is. He’s going to be a great fit for our former players who’ve been successful in helping making him into the man he is today. So I think that’s a great example for our players and will be a great asset for us.”
Garner was an All-SEC offensive lineman and honorable mention All-American as a senior on Auburn’s 1988 SEC championship squad. He coached on the Plains under his college coach, Pat Dye, and later under Terry Bowden between 1990 and 1995. But he hadn’t been back in Auburn’s football building in 17 years before Friday.
“They showed me around the building and I don’t even know my way around,” Garner chuckled. “I’ve been 15 years at Georgia and two at Tennessee prior to that.”
Garner will hold the same titles at Auburn -- recruiting coordinator, defensive line coach and assistant head coach -- that he held at Georgia. That would qualify as a lateral move except that it’s a move to the program that launched his career, Garner said.
“I know people say, ‘You’re doing the same job. It’s a lateral move.’ But it’s my alma mater. It’s my school,” Garner said. “I have ownership in this. I feel like I paid a price for this with blood, sweat and tears -- and they got it out of us -- so it’s mine. This is mine. These are my teammates that showed up. I’ve got 10, 12, 15 teammates here today. That’s awesome to sit here and see my guys here. It’s just special, and that really just affirmed to me that I was doing the right thing.”
Garner spoke affectionately of Richt and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham on Friday and said he’d work with them again “in a heartbeat.”
“The chemistry that we had on our staff, it was unreal,” Garner said. “I did an interview on the way out the door and one of the reporters was saying, ‘Well those blogs are saying you’re leaving because there’s a rift with you and Coach Grantham.’ I said, ‘There ain’t no rifts on our staff.’ I’ve got the most respect for Coach Grantham.”
Fifteen years is an eternity in the coaching profession, but as he prepared for his next step, Garner said he hoped that his legacy from his time at Georgia was that his players were better off for having played under him.
“I hope I touched some guys’ lives because they truly touched mine,” Garner said. “Like I’ve said, God never blessed me with biological sons. He gave me all girls, so those were my sons and I tried to treat them like my sons. Hopefully I made a difference with them.”