Long before Georgia assistant coach Dell McGee was in charge of the Bulldogs’ running backs, he was just a kid from Columbus looking for his chance to shine.
In 1993, McGee, who they called “A-1” back at Kendrick High School, was settling in as a running back at Auburn.
McGee had been a force in Muscogee County, rushing for 3,754 yards and 46 touchdowns in his time at Kendrick. But the Southeastern Conference is an entirely different beast, and he found himself down on the depth chart behind more physical backs.
About two weeks before Terry Bowden’s debut as Auburn head coach, disaster struck. Standout cornerback Fred Smith tore every ligament in his knee, forcing defensive backs coach Jack Hines to scour the roster for a replacement.
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After considering the options, Hines told Bowden that McGee was the guy. From there, it was up to McGee to get to work for the approaching season.
“I asked (Dell) if we could give him a shot at corner, and he said yes,” Hines said. “All I had with him was two weeks to get ready for the season. We won 20 games in a row with him at corner.”
McGee’s successful position switch is just one of several examples of the determination he’s displayed throughout his life. It’s a trait that’s led McGee to several personal highlights, none as big as the one he’ll experience Monday, when his Bulldogs battle Alabama in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship.
“I’m proud of him,” said Otis Mounds, who played defensive back alongside McGee at Auburn. “He’s still my brother. I’m not surprised at the amount of success he’s had because of the way he’s always been.”
From corner to coach
McGee looked like a natural at cornerback, holding his own week after week against future NFL receivers such as Mississippi State’s Eric Moulds. He played an important role on Auburn’s 1993 team which went 11-0, making a late-game interception against No. 11 Alabama that sealed the Tigers’ undefeated season.
“He was just a smart football player,” Bowden said. “He took advantage of his football instincts and his great football IQ.”
After a six-year professional career with stops in the NFL, NFL Europe, the Arena Football League and the XFL, McGee turned to coaching. He spent two seasons at Greenville High School in Georgia then prepared to become an assistant at Shaw High School under Charles Flowers.
McGee’s plans changed thanks to a call Flowers made to Chris Lindsey, a former Shaw assistant who was beginning his first year as Carver High School principal. Lindsey was in search of a new football coach after longtime head coach Wallace Davis retired after 29 seasons.
Flowers recommended McGee, and the young coach’s first impression made Lindsey realize he was the man for the job.
“The first thing he told me was his ultimate goal was to become a successful coach at the college level,” Lindsey said. “It told me he’s going to give his all to make sure the program is successful.”
After a 3-7 debut in 2005, McGee took Carver to unprecedented heights. The Tigers went 85-12 over the next seven seasons, making the playoffs each of those years.
No campaign was as special as his 2007 team, which went 15-0 and gave Carver the first state championship in school history.
“He was able to put a group of boys together and show us our ultimate potential,” said safety Latavius Watts, a senior on the 2006 squad. “He was family to us. We wanted to win for each other, and we wanted to win for him.”
While the wins were nice, it was the relationships McGee built with his players that are still talked about today. McGee was a father figure to countless young Tigers players, offering lessons that carried on even after he left Carver.
“Coach McGee taught me a hell of a lot of stuff and kept me out of trouble,” said quarterback DeRon Furr, a senior on the state title team. “He kept a lot of kids out of trouble, actually. When I did do something, he disciplined me. I got hella paddles from him and coach Lindsey, but it helped me in the long run.”
Georgia on his mind
After working as an analyst at Auburn in 2013, McGee became Georgia Southern running backs coach under new head coach Willie Fritz. In December 2015, Fritz took the head coaching job at Tulane, leaving McGee as the interim coach for the GoDaddy Bowl against Bowling Green.
Despite being a seven-and-a-half point underdog with a first-time head coach, Georgia Southern thumped the Falcons 58-27. Once the game ended, the Georgia Southern players triumphantly carried McGee on their shoulders.
McGee’s work as interim coach made the case for him to replace Fritz full-time. Despite recommendations from Fritz and the players, Georgia Southern hired Tyson Summers, who ultimately held the position for just two seasons.
Fritz recognized McGee’s talent and worked to bring him to Tulane. Fritz said McGee was actually on his way to New Orleans when a call popped up on McGee’s phone.
It was new Georgia head coach Kirby Smart.
“He was driving over, and that’s when coach Smart offered him the job,” Fritz said. “I told him, ‘Well, you’re turning that car and going northeast, aren’t ya?’”
Now at the end of his second season at Georgia, there’s no denying how well McGee has done with the Bulldogs.
Not only has he been the position coach for a Georgia backfield filled with talent, but he’s done a remarkable job as the lead recruiter for some of Georgia’s top signees such as five-star quarterback Justin Fields, five-star running back Zamir White and four-star running back James Cook.
McGee may face his toughest test as a coach yet Monday, when the Bulldogs’ backfield faces an Alabama defense that is first in the nation with just under 92 rushing yards allowed per game.
Of course, a challenge is nothing new for McGee. He has faced them time and again as a player and a coach, and more often than not, Columbus’ native son has come out on top.
Jordan D. Hill: 770-894-9818, @lesports