ATHENS - Rodney Garner was the longest-tenured member of the Georgia football coaching staff, surviving one head coaching change, and three defensive coordinator changes, most recently three years ago.
But now Garner, the defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator since 1998, is leaving for Auburn. That school announced the news late Thursday night, naming Garnerits defensive line coach and assistant head coach, the latter the same title Garner had carried at Georgia since 2005.
In a statement, Garner spoke of the pull of going home, having played at Auburn in the 1980s. He was a captain of a Tiger team that won an SEC championship in 1988.
"Auburn has always been a very special place for me and my wife, Kimberly, who is also an Auburn graduate," Garner said in a statement. "I owe a lot to Auburn and the men who helped mold me to who I am today both professionally and personally. I'm very appreciative to Coach Malzahn for this opportunity and I feel very strongly that I can be an asset to the program. I have a lot of love for Auburn and I felt this was a great chance to help give back to a place that has given me so much. I look forward to helping get Auburn back to where it belongs."
Never miss a local story.
See below for a full statement from Garner, released by UGA.
So what does this mean for Georgia? It depends on how quickly Richt and his staff can react.
In terms of recruiting, the impact could be mitigated by the fact Georgia has other strong recruiters on the staff, including a couple who could be named recruiting coordinator as soon as Friday.
But the effect on defensive line recruits, and current defensive linemen, bears close watching.
Garner was coaching Georgia's defensive line in practice as recently as Thursday morning, even as reports persisted that he was a candidate at Auburn. Georgia head coach Mark Richt declined to comment when asked about it after Thursday's practice.
It was unclear immediately what the ramifications of Garner's departure would be: He was the lead recruiter for a number of recruits, especially along the defensive line. The Bulldogs are set to have their biggest class in years, hoping to sign more than 30 players to shore up a roster hit by attrition last offseason.
The decision could also have an impact on a current player: Junior nose tackle Kwame Geathers is debating whether or not to declare for the NFL draft.
Meanwhile, Georgia will need to find a defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator. Richt has a few in-house possibilities for each job:
- Running backs coach Bryan McClendon and tight ends coach John Lilly are two of the staff's best recruiters, and Richt could slap the recruiting coordinator title on one of them (or both of them) in order to have an orderly transition.
- Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who has been coaching the outside linebackers, was a defensive line coach in the NFL before coming to Georgia in 2010. Grantham could move to defensive line, and have inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti take over all the linebackers. Potentially that could allow the team to hire a special teams coordinator. But that is not considered too likely, unless Grantham is willing to only have three defensive coaches, and Richt has changed his mind on having a special teams coach.
As for Garner, he was earning $300,000 in his role at Georgia, one of the highest-paid members of the staff. He was the only holdover from the defensive staff that was otherwise let go after the 2009 season. Grantham and Garner got along publicly and there weren't any major fissures reported behind the scenes. But sources have said the two occasionally butted heads over recruiting, whether that means offering certain recruits, or the timing of doing so.
It also bears noting that Garner will now work for Ellis Johnson, the longtime SEC defensive coordinator, who runs a 4-3 system.
It was clear Garner was ready for a change. And now he has it, and so does Georgia's staff.
The next move belongs to Richt.
Here is a statement UGA released from Garner:
"I want to thank the Bulldog Nation, University of Georgia, and the Athletic Association for 15 of the greatest years of my life. UGA will always hold a special place in my heart. I also want to thank Jim Donnan for hiring me at Georgia in 1998 and Mark Richt for retaining me on the staff when he came in December of 2000. During my career I¹ve been blessed to work for some great head coaches in Coach Donnan, Phil Fulmer (Tennessee), Pat Dye (Auburn) and Coach Richt. I've learned so much from them.
"Georgia will always be a special place. Four of our daughters were born here and another had her first birthday in Athens. The decision was extremely difficult. Kim and I prayed long and hard and asked God to lead us in the right direction.
"I owe a lot to Auburn and the people who helped mold me in the early years. Kim and I are both Auburn graduates and this is an opportunity for us to give something back to a place that meant so much to us."