Chan Gailey picked a perfect day to play golf at Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday. He picked an even better time to mingle with diehards of the Augusta Georgia Tech Club.
Georgia Tech boosters are buzzing after recent Yellow Jacket successes, and the residual effects are making life much easier on Gailey as the coach prepares for his third football season.
Making the booster stumps this spring on the heels of the a better-than-expected football season and a NCAA Championship game basketball appearance, Gailey notices a big change from a year ago.
"Two things: sense of pride and sense of excitement," Gailey said. "It was not the same (in 2003). We're just like everything else. Stock goes up when people get excited about the company and stock goes down when people aren't excited about the company. That's the way it is."
A year ago, Georgia Tech's athletic stock was way down. The football team was reeling from a dreadful finish and a slew of academic suspensions. The basketball team was coping with subpar results and the premature departure of its best player.
Yellow Jackets fans were grumbling about their two highest profile coaches. Now they're raving about basketball's Paul Hewitt and optimistic that Gailey can lead football to similar success.
"It's terribly exciting right now," said the Augusta club's president, Sam Tyson (Georgia Tech '72).
It's enough the make the less-than-social Gailey a bit less apprehensive when confronted by a roomful of Yellow Jackets.
"I don't think coaching is ever comfortable, but I think it is a smoother operation this year," Gailey said. "There's a lot of positive things this spring that we didn't have last year. A lot of things were up in the air last year. Things are a lot more settled this year."
The unsettled nature of last spring led to plenty of unrest. Tech fans were openly wondering whether Gailey was the right man to follow on the relative successes of Bobby Ross and George O'Leary. The environment was hardly conducive to growing a program.
"Any time you have negative things that surround your program, it's not easy," Gailey said. "I don't care who you are. I don't care if it's Georgia basketball or academics at Georgia Tech or what goes on at Georgia Southern, anything that's negative is not easy nor fun. When you have positive things it's great and you're able to build on that. I think we're in the building mode now."
Georgia Tech has been to six consecutive bowl games.
The Jackets crushed Tulsa 52-10 in the Humanitarian Bowl in January. They return one of the Atlanic Coast Conference's most exciting young quarterbacks, sophomore Reggie Ball.
Ball, a true freshman in 2003, helped deliver a 7-6 record from a team that was predicted to finish eighth in the nine-team ACC. His return helps fuel the buzz about Georgia Tech's hopes in the fall, but Gailey doesn't think it's all about Ball.
"There's some stability at that position which always creates a safety net," he said of his quarterback. "But (fans) are excited because they saw the attitude of our players and the fight of our players. That's what gets people stirred up and excited."
Another thing that has fans eagerly anticipating the coming football season is expansion. Gailey said his team and recruits are very excited about the "new ACC" and all of the extra competition and challenges that will come along with the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech this season and Boston College the next.
Miami and Virginia Tech both are in Georgia Tech's new "division" and are on the schedule in 2004.
"If you want to be the best you've got to beat the best, so that's the attitude we have," Gailey said.
The ACC already had the best record (5-1) of any conference in bowl play last year, with the only loss by Florida State to Miami. While the challenges will be even more daunting, Gailey isn't intimidated.
"I have high expectations every time I enter a season," Gailey said. "I expect to win each and every week we walk out there. That never changes for a coach."
Ultimately, that's all the boosters want to hear.
"We want to win some football games; that's all we want to do," said third-generation Yellow Jacket alum and fan Shelly Maner (Class of '89). "I'm tired of Georgia fans having a right to think they're better."
If Gailey can erase that last blemish on the Yellow Jackets' psyche, fans might be so giddy next spring that a membership in Bobby Jones' club might be await his next trip to Augusta.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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