ATLANTA — When Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech, with the coach’s cute little and frequently mocked triple option offense, went to Georgia in 2008 and stunned the superior beasts of the state, 45-42, several Jackets players celebrated by assaulting Sanford Stadium’s famed hedges. They grabbed twigs in bunches. They stuck them in their hair and their helmets and jerseys. They clinched little branches between their teeth like lions after a kill and paraded around the field.
Johnson watched this relative rivalry felony with amusement but he declined to take any foliage for himself. When I asked why, he responded, “I figure I’ll be back.”
Reminded of that this week, Johnson laughed.
“I guess I was pretty cocky back then,” he said.
He was. But he earned it.
The Jackets lost eight of 11 meetings to the Bulldogs during his tenure but he defeated them three times in Athens — more than any Tech head coach since Bobby Dodd. He beat them enough times that he joked to a friend that maybe the visiting locker room would be named after him. Johnson made Tech relevant. Four of the eight losses were one-score games and one came in double overtime. He made this “rivalry” something other than what it has become for Tech — a beatdown by Godzilla to the east.
“When it’s not competitive, I’m not sure how much of a rivalry it is,” Johnson said.
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The Bulldogs have won the last five meetings in this lopsided rivalry by margins of 31, 24, 45, 45 and 23 points. Former coach Geoff Collins lost his last two games against Georgia by a combined score of 97-7. He took a bad situation and turned it into shame.
Nobody knows this more than Brent Key. When he was introduced as Tech’s new head coach, he skillfully referenced Georgia without ever saying, “Georgia.” His opening statement, in part: “There is an opponent in this state we will work 365 days a year to defeat. We will work 365 days a year to dominate.”
It’s clear Key agrees with Johnson because he echoed the former coach’s sentiments as he attempted to prepare his team for Saturday’s meeting with the Bulldogs. This may be difficult for some to believe, or remember, but Key played at Tech in the rarest of times, when the Jackets won three straight meetings (1998-2000) under coach George O’Leary.
This current stretch of infamy hits him hard.
“Damn right it does,” he said when asked about it. “Rivalries aren’t one-sided. Rivalries are when there’s competitive games between two teams. In order for that to be the case outside of our scope, it needs to be competitive. That’s on us.”
He has done an admirable job in his first full season. The Jackets (6-5) are going to a bowl game for the first time since Johnson’s last season in 2018. It means so much to him as an alum that he choked up during a postgame interview after last week’s win over Syracuse. At 10-9, he already has won as many games as Collins did in three-plus seasons (10-28).
It’s not a CFP poll watch, but it’s a start.
But playing Georgia is different. The Bulldogs have become the elite’s elite under Kirby Smart, winning consecutive national titles and contending for another one. Georgia has better players and an embarrassment of resources. They have boosters willing to write checks, an area where Tech has severely lacked.
Johnson on the Dogs’ dominance and Key’s desire to add some modest level of balance to this rivalry again: “They’re going to have to come back to him. He’s not going to catch them.”
Again, he’s just keeping it real. But this seems worthy of one of those the-U.S.-beat-Russia-in-hockey analogies. Key has proven himself to be a pretty good head coach. He has a good staff. If recruiting, financial support and NIL funding follow, there’s nothing preventing him from taking the ugliness out of this series. But those are major ifs.
“Success comes from believing you can have success,” he said.
Nobody had to bring up Key’s introductory press conference comments. He did it himself. He believes this stuff. Georgia is “not just the next game — it’s a big game,” he said. “When you come into the season, there are two goals. There’s a goal to go to a bowl game and there’s a goal to beat Georgia.”
Johnson wasn’t a Georgia Tech alum but he came to the program with the same mindset. Georgia had won seven straight meetings and 14 of 17 when he took over for Chan Gailey. “I took it as a personal challenge. I knew Tech had lost a bunch of games in a row and I just embraced it. I wanted to get it back.”
Now it’s Key’s challenge. He has endeared himself to several alums who had stopped coming to games and practices during the Collins regime. Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson attended the Syracuse game and was at practice Tuesday, helping receivers with their techniques. But Tech’s chances in this game might be significantly better if he was actually in uniform. Georgia hasn’t lost a game at Georgia Tech since 1999.
“Guess what — I’ve beaten them,” said Key, who was on that 1999 team. “I know what it’s (like), and I’m the head coach. They’re going to believe as I believe.”
The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, said, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
Key has begun to turn things around on campus. But to complete with Georgia again means the eyes looking away from the talent gap and history. Because overcoming that is too much for some to comprehend.
(Top photo of Brent Key embracing quarterback Haynes King: Rich von Biberstein /Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)