ATHENS, Ga. — Rodney Garner addressed Georgia’s defensive players Friday morning for the final time.
Garner is returning to Auburn to coach the defensive line and serve as assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator, just as he did for the Bulldogs for 15 years.
“I struggled with this decision,” Garner said before leaving for his alma mater, where he was formally introduced later in the day as the newest member of Gus Malzahn’s staff. Malzahn was hired two weeks ago to replace Gene Chizik.
“I don’t think I would have left Georgia for anywhere but Auburn. This place has been really tremendous to me.”
Garner isn’t sticking around for the bowl game, except for tying up some loose ends around a football program where he’s worked for since 1998. He was the lone holdover from Jim Donnan’s staff.
Garner worked for six different defensive coordinators at Georgia: Joe Kines, Kevin Ramsey, Gary Gibbs, Brian VanGorder, Willie Martinez and Todd Grantham.
His departure, announced by Auburn late Thursday night, leaves offensive coordinator Mike Bobo as the only remaining assistant from coach Mark Richt’s original staff in 2001.
“I want to thank Rodney for 15 years of loyal service to UGA,” Richt said in a news release.
“He was the first assistant I hired when I came to Georgia and it turned out to be a great decision,” Richt said. “He’s a tremendous ball coach, recruiter and mentor and a great example of what a good father and husband should be.”
“I just feel like this is the right time,” said Garner, who interviewed for Auburn’s head coaching job in 2008. “Right now with Auburn being in, I guess, a position of need, I felt like I could make a positive contribution to the program.”
Garner played on the line for Auburn from 1984-88 and was an assistant coach there from 1990-95.
Garner’s departure leaves Arkansas secondary coach Bobby Allen with the longest continuous stay at a school of any football assistant in the Southeastern Conference. Allen has also been with the Razorbacks for 15 years.
Four of Garner’s daughters were born in Athens and another turned 1 here, but Garner and his wife, Kim, are both Auburn graduates.
He has had several opportunities to leave for other assistant coaching jobs in the past but remained largely because of Richt, he said.
Garner, the third-highest-paid assistant on the Georgia staff at $300,000 a year, got a raise of nearly $37,000 after interviewing with Tennessee in 2009, but he said this move “has nothing to do with money. I’ve turned down more money in the past, so that’s not the issue.”
Garner said this current group of Georgia assistants made up the “best staff I’ve ever been on,” and he said there is no truth to any perceived rift with Grantham. He said he hopes if an opportunity arose, he would “have a chance to work together again” with Grantham.
Grantham gave Garner the opportunity to speak to the defensive players Friday morning before the Bulldogs held their final bowl practice on campus.
“It was tough,” said Garner, who said he felt like he was led to return to Auburn after praying about it. “It’s never an easy time.”
Richt and Garner agreed that he won’t coach through the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl.
Grantham, who coaches the outside linebackers, will also coach the defensive line during bowl practices next week in Orlando, Fla.
As for filling Garner’s position, Grantham has shown he has a wide range of contacts. He turned to the Northeast to hire secondary coach Scott Lakatos from Connecticut and to the NFL for inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti from the Redskins.
Under Garner as recruiting coordinator, Georgia had a string of eight consecutive top-10 recruiting classes from 2001-09. The Bulldogs currently have 30 commitments for the upcoming class.
“I think if you look at Coach G over the years, he’s done a really good job in recruiting,” said former Georgia defensive end David Pollack, who was coached by Garner for a season when he was defensive tackle. “You can’t take that away from him. He’s really done a great job of helping assemble a lot of talent. Coach G’s a fiery guy. He doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense. I was in his room for a year my freshmen year. He scared the bejeebus out of me.”
Pollack said Georgia will have to find a coach who can fill the void on the recruiting trail.
Bobo and running backs coach Bryan McClendon are viewed as top recruiters, too. While Garner recruited Atlanta, Bobo works South Georgia and McClendon helped the Bulldogs land tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. McClendon or tight ends coach John Lilly, a former recruiting coordinator at Florida State, could take over that title at Georgia.