Sorry for back to back sports posts. I guess sometimes I fancy myself an amateur sports writer. Much like I sometimes fancy myself an amateur music reviewer, amateur photographer, etc., etc.
What to make of the Chan Gailey-era of Georgia Tech football? If anything, it was consistent. Consistent winning seasons. Consistent bowl trips. Consistent surprising upsets over top ranked teams. Consistent inexplicable losses to poor teams. But worst of all, consistent underachieving to UGA. Ultimately, that last fact and fan perception is what led to his demise at Tech.
It’s a shame. I wanted Gailey to win. Gailey is stubborn, staid, and stoic. He’s a hard-nosed, low-key coach. He calls conservative games, and at my core, I’m a conservative football kind of person. I like offenses that run you into the ground and eat up the clock. Gailey doesn’t embarrass your school when talking to the media and he runs a clean program. The only hint of NCAA violations under Gailey occurred thanks to his predecessor, George O’Leary, and Gailey paid for it with a reduced number of scholarships. Gailey won more games than both Bobby Ross and Bill Curry, both heroes to Tech fans. Unlike even the greats, Bobby Dodd and William Alexander, Gailey never had a losing season. And yet none of that was his undoing.
Gailey inherited a mess at Tech when he arrived. No one wants to talk about just how bad things were going to be in 2002. O’Leary is a beloved figure in Tech football annals, but he also knew when was a good time to leave. Gailey kept a bad team afloat in 2002 and despite an embarassing 51-7 loss to UGA and a dismal bowl game against Fresno State, the fact that things didn’t collapse on themselves that year is a testament to his coaching. The next year, through no fault of Gailey’s, the program was gutted due to academic failures, and missing 10 quality players including his starting running back and safety took a freshman quarterback and upset mighty Auburn in the first home game of 2003, but a dreadful collapse to Duke that year erased all the good feelings of the year, which only worsened with a drab performance against Georgia.
The problem is, things got no better from there. In 2004, one of the greatest wide receivers in Tech’s history, Calvin Johnson, arrived on campus. Throughout his tenure at Tech, Johnson’s presence created a Catch-22 for Gailey that he could never win with the fans. Throw too much to the All-America receiver and the offense became predicable. Throw too little and he was criticized for wasting his greatest player. Nonetheless, even with Johnson, the pattern remained the same, winning season, trip to a bowl, gut-punching loss to Georgia. The 2006 season should have been when Gailey would bank some goodwill with his fans by running out to a 9-2 record and a trip to the ACC Championship. All the goodwill faded though when Georgia, again, unraveled Tech in agonizing fashion and the team failed to show up against a solid, but beatable Wake Forest team in the ACC Championship.
So Gailey had none of that goodwill in the tank when this season began. Despite the fact that it was apparent this would be a rebuilding year, on offense particularly, the bar had been raised by the fans on Gailey’s performance. Yet, the results were the same, winning season, bowl trip, underachieving game to Georgia. You have to feel for Gailey when the Georgia game arrived. It’s not his fault that Correy Earls dropped a perfect pass in stride heading for the end zone. It’s not his fault Morgan Burnett picked up a fumble and as he closed in on the endzone, was stripped of the ball. It’s not his fault that Georgia dropped two punts and yet, by cruel luck, the ball bounced back into their hands as Tech players swarmed around the ball in the endzone. Nonetheless, it was clear, something had to change, and you can’t fire the players in college football.
More than the losses, the attitude of the Tech fanbase was turning south. As evidenced in Arkansas, once the fanbase turns on a coach no wins and no records are going to pacify them and something has to change. There’s a reason why so many Georgia fans found their way into the game this past weekend. Many Tech fans, like me, were tired of losing and sick of watching it and simply sold their tickets (hey, don’t look at me, I sold mine to a Tech fan.) Georgia Tech knows full well that keeping Gailey would impact season ticket renewals next year, and regardless of performance on the field, if there is no hope that things are going to change there is no chance at winning the fans. These days that’s as important as winning games.
A lot of people like to put up excuses for why Tech has underachieved lately, talking about strict academic standards, limited alumni in Atlanta, no love from the awful coverage in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. I think all of those things are exactly what they are, excuses. Tech does have tough academic standards, but it’s not impossible to bring in great talent. This year’s team features more All-ACC players, first and second team, than any other ACC team, so the talent is there. If anything, the promise of a Tech degree is a bonus, not a detriment when it comes to recruiting young high school seniors. As far the stadium goes, Bobby Dodd regularly filled a slightly smaller stadium on a regular basis with a student population that was a fourth of what it is now. Arthur Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons, took a moribund Georgia Dome and made it exciting and sold-out by drafting an exciting player, Micheal Vick, and put an exciting product on the field. (It remains to be seen what he will do now without Vick, but that’s another story.) The fact is, people will come to Tech games if the product on the field is exciting, bottom line.
Gailey did many things for Tech, but at the end of the day, he was anything but exciting. It didn’t help either that he stubbornly stuck to predictable offenses and stoic responses when the fanbase agonized over losses. When a change is needed, usually the first thing that happens is a coordinator gets axed. Offensive Coordinator Patrick Nix made that decision easy by bolting for Miami last year. But John Bond arrived this year, and the results were the same, so that means the head coach is next. Gailey should be saluted for his determined stewardship of a program that could have headed down a much more dreadful path (I’m old enough to remember the late 80’s, and I’ll never forget 1994.), but the time has come for change. Here’s hoping the athletic department can find someone that can inherit a team that’s going to have a lot of issues next year and like Gailey, keep it afloat, but more importantly take it further from there and get the fans excited about it.