Like most climbs, though, several routes lead to football coaching's summit. VanGorder chose one with unexpected late turns.
And somewhere along the way, he lost interest in the ascent.
Now the Atlanta Falcons' linebackers coach, VanGorder is on his fourth job in three years. He's gone from college to the NFL and back to college only to return to the pros.
He admittedly never foresaw so many hairpins and chicanes ahead three years ago when football's pundits hailed the then-Georgia defensive coordinator as an up-and-coming head coaching talent.
Yet the 52-year-old says the stops and experiences at Jacksonville, Fla., where he was the Jaguars' linebackers coach in 2005, and in Statesboro, Ga., as Georgia Southern's head coach last season, set his priorities straight.
Family, not football, is his new peak.
"I was in the grind for so long trying to get to places like Georgia, and as I've gotten older, and particularly the last few years, I've become much more aware of what that grind does to my family," said VanGorder, who has five children between the ages of 6 and 18 with his wife, Pollie.
"That has really become my focus, to be the best husband and father I can be right now. Whatever happens with football, happens."
When VanGorder took over at Georgia Southern last year, he scrapped the triple-option offense implemented by another former Georgia defensive coordinator, Erk Russell, when Russell started the Eagles football program in the early-1980s.
His greatest sin, though, was going 3-8 last season with a team that made the Division I-AA playoffs the year before.
Fans grumbled, and the backlash hurt in a small town of 25,000 people, most of them Eagles fans.
"I took the Georgia Southern job knowing it was an explosive situation but knowing we could build something extremely great there," VanGorder said. "And I still believe that's what we would have done."
His family was unhappy in Statesboro, though. A January telephone conversation with his college roommate, Falcons' director of college scouting Phil Emery, made VanGorder consider a move to Atlanta.
VanGorder mulled it over and decided to put his family's wishes first. He joined new coach Bobby Petrino's staff in January.
Reach Adam Van Brimmer at (404) 992-9255 or email@example.com.