Key returns to Tech as good coach, better recruiter

Photo by Joey Cerone

In hiring Alabama offensive line coach Brent Key to serve in largely the same role in Atlanta, Tech football accomplished last week what seemed wildly improbable: convincing a top recruiter from a powerhouse school to leave perennial championship contention behind in favor of a program in need of revitalization. There are a number of reasons why that might have happened.

Perhaps it was the allure of working with his old colleague Geoff Collins, who put together Tech’s vaunted 2007 recruiting class, that won him over. That class, which brought in Morgan Burnett, Jonathan Dwyer, Derrick Morgan, Josh Nesbitt and Roddy Jones, among others, remains arguably the best in the school’s modern history. 

Perhaps Key had been pining to return to his alma mater, which favored triple-option offensive assistants under Paul Johnson and left little place for the big, burly offensive linemen Key has coached at his latest stop.

Or maybe Key realized that his career would advance no further in Tuscaloosa and figured he would be next in line to assume the mantle of offensive coordinator if Collins hire Dave Patenaude flamed out. 

At any rate, Tech has added a coach whose resume, at least from a layperson’s view, outshines that of any position coach to patrol the home sideline at Bobby Dodd Stadium during the Johnson era.

The Key hire was not without some minor drama. After both the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Rivals.com reported that Key had all but inked his contract to join Collins’ staff, Key denied rumors that he had spoken to Tech about a new job in the run-up to the national championship game. 

“I don’t know where it came from,” Key demurred in reference to the rumors when local media questioned him about his plans.

While it seemed like the sort of boilerplate denial made by a coach whose mind was ostensibly on the game immediately ahead, it also left open the possibility that Nick Saban had convinced Key to stay. But when Key signed his contract in Atlanta a few days later, that doubt was officially quashed.

Key ranked as the No. 5 recruiter in the country for the Class of 2019 by 247Sports — he has secured nine commits and ranks better than any recruiter in the ACC. 

For reference, Andy McCollum, Tech’s best recruiter last year, was good for only No. 11 in the conference. It is fair to expect Key to drop in the rankings this year, perhaps significantly so. After all, Key has gone from recruiting players to a school that has contended for national championships on an annual basis to a school that has not made a New Year’s Six bowl since the 2014 season. 

And as those who follow the program have recognized time and time again, Tech is a difficult school at which to recruit. The academics are rigorous, the culture is far from laid-back and while Atlanta is a bustling city, it is hard to paint a picture of stardom at a school that does not even dominate its own city in terms of fanbase. But if anyone can succeed in this environment, it is the tandem of Collins and Key.

A concern brought forth by some fans is the rumor that while at Central Florida, where Key coached before his stint in Tuscaloosa, Key recruited negatively against Tech, discouraging athletes from attending his alma mater. This evidently did not worry Collins enough to prevent him from hiring his old colleague, and for good reason. Key’s job at Central Florida was to convince athletes to pick his school over Tech, and like it or not, negative recruiting is part and parcel of the job of a college football coach. And those afraid of the hypocrisy that would ensue if Key now espouses the virtues of his Tech degree and experience ought to remember that the 18-year-olds Key is targeting now are not the same 18-year-olds he targeted at UCF. It is highly unlikely that they will make college decisions based on message-board rumors.

Tech football is undergoing a similar transition to that which men’s basketball started nearly three years ago by hiring a young, upstart coach with a great recruiting record. 

On the hardwood, the results have been mixed. Josh Pastner seems to be a better in-game coach than most expected ­— the book on his Memphis tenure was that he was capable of bringing in elite talent but could not do anything with it ­— but the five-star prospects are yet to come knocking. Perhaps Tech will find the same result when it comes to football; maybe Collins, Key and the rest of the coaching staff will have to rely on good halftime adjustments and player development to get wins.

But if the program’s new identity as an aspirant thanks to recruiting powerhouse works out, it will be largely thanks to Brent Key, home at his alma mater at last.