It was November of 2007 when Ted Roof’s inglorious run as Duke’s head coach came to an end, the 6-45 record in four-plus years standing out on his résumé like a scarlet letter, fairly or unfairly branding the former standout coordinator as someone who had gotten his shot to run a program and failed.
But Roof, whose no-nonsense demeanor mirrors the defensive style of football he preaches, refused to sulk, rehabbing his tarnished image in the profession by doing what all good college coaches do — he immediately got back on the field.
“I know what we did and what we accomplished (at Duke), but at the same time the perception is what it is,” said Roof, who Gene Chizik hired in January to coordinate Auburn’s defense. “And when you pour yourself into something and need to get going again, you need to get the dust off of you. You dust off and move on.”
Now, a year and half after his coaching career seemed to be at an impasse, and following a brief stop at Louisville and a one-year sojourn to Minnesota, the 45-year-old Roof is back doing a job right in his wheelhouse, leading a hard-nosed defense for a tradition-rich school not far from his Lawrenceville, Ga., roots.
“To get back in this league, to be at an institution like Auburn and a program like Auburn, with a guy like Gene, it was just an opportunity that was too good to pass up,” Roof said.
Call it the third act in Roof’s coaching career, which has had more than one false start. Roof found an early mentor in coach Bill Curry, for whom he played at Georgia Tech from 1982-85.
“When he was recruiting me I said, ‘I want to know two questions. No. 1, will we win if I come there? And No. 2, will you help me become a football coach,’ ” Roof said. “And he said, ‘Yes, yes.’ ”
Roof was a linchpin in Tech’s “Black Watch” defense, earning All-America and first-team ACC honors his senior season as the Yellow Jackets finished 9-2-1 and beat Michigan State in the All-American Bowl.
Curry gave Roof his start in coaching as a graduate assistant at Alabama in 1987. He held assistant positions at West Georgia, Duke, Massachusetts and Western Carolina before joining on with George O’Leary’s staff at Georgia Tech.
It was at his alma mater that Roof made a name for himself, being promoted to defensive coordinator in 1999. The Yellow Jackets ranked 12th nationally in total defense and allowed 19.0 points per game in 2000, earning Roof a nomination for the Frank Broyles Award, given annually to the nation’s top assistant (Chizik, incidentally, would win the award while with Auburn in 2004).
The future seemed bright when Roof, along with two other Tech assistants, were set to join O’Leary when he was hired by Notre Dame following the 2001 season. But that move got nixed when inaccuracies emerged in O’Leary’s résumé just days after his hiring.
Roof was caught in limbo. Newly hired Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey offered him a job on his staff, albeit a different role from his previous coordinator post. Roof balked, instead joining Carl Franks’ staff at Duke as defensive coordinator.
“Have I (thought about Notre Dame)? Yes. But did I spend more than a blip thinking about it? No,” Roof said. “I really haven’t. … It was a very unfortunate situation that happened to a good man who is a good football coach, and it certainly impacted a lot of people, but you move on, you move forward. And I think that’s football and that’s what coaching teaches you. You don’t sit and belabor the past. You’ve got to play the next play. And you’ve got to coach the next day.”
Franks only lasted another year and a half at Duke before being fired. Roof replaced him on an interim basis, a designation that was removed after he won two of the final five games in 2003. It proved to be a high-point of Roof’s first head coaching gig. He’d win four games in the next four years, struggling to overcome the deficiencies that have plagued the Blue Devils’ football program for the better part of four decades.
“I developed a skill set that nobody can ever take away from me, because like most jobs, there’s a lot more to it than what you think,” he said. “Because every situation, every problem, everything ends up on your desk, and as a result of that, you have to be able to deal with a lot of different issues and understand the level of accountability.”
After Duke, Roof took an assistant gig in Louisville before a better offer came along a month later at Minnesota, where he would be defensive coordinator. He made the Gophers, who were ranked dead last in the nation in total defense in 2007, respectable last season. Despite falling off near the end of the year, Roof’s unit finished in the top-25 nationally in sacks and tackles for loss.
Shortly after the season, Auburn came calling. Chizik had never met Roof, only knowing him through reputation. If there was anyone who could look past the veneer of Roof’s 6-45 record at Duke, it was someone who himself had endured a 5-19 run at an equally untenable position at Iowa State.
Roof’s defensive philosophy — “You’ve still got to stand up and hit somebody in the teeth” — fits in well with Auburn’s M.O., although he’s careful not to overstep his bounds as coordinator, fully aware that this is Chizik’s program.
Does Roof ever want to be a head coach again? Sure. But he’s learned a lesson from his first go-around.
“In the right situation with the right circumstances at the right time,” he said. “Right now, I’m just thrilled about this opportunity and am ready to embrace this thing and am totally appreciative of the opportunity that’s been extended to me here.”