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Georgia Tech football, men's basketball programs look to make most of fresh starts

ATLANTA -- GEORGIA TECH football coach Brent Key's office looks out onto Bobby Dodd Stadium, with part of the Atlanta skyline in view as well. One of the buildings visible is the old Equitable building, now owned and operated by Georgia's Own Credit Union, which has a 174-foot long digital sign around the top.

With that as the backdrop, Key was asked recently if the success of two-time defending national champion Georgia gives him extra motivation to right the ship for the Yellow Jackets.

"Kirby [Smart has] done an unbelievable job," Key said of Georgia's head coach. "He's done a great job. I give him all the credit in the world. But we've known each other since college. And I respect him as a coach, I respect him as a man, and I respect the job he's done. For me to worry about what goes on down there, I got way too much to do here to worry about that."

He continued, "Now, when I walked in this office building [in January] of last year, and it was dark out, Georgia's Own building right there said, 'Congrats, Go Dawgs!' Did that piss me off? Damn right it did.

"Did I call [strength coach] A.J. Artis up on the phone and tell him I want every single kid on our football team, when they're done with workouts to come outside and do stadiums to the very top of the stadium and stare at it? You damn right I did.

"But to worry about what's going on over there? I don't have time to do that."


THIS IS THE job Key has always wanted. When he was bumped up from offensive line coach to interim head coach after Geoff Collins' firing four games into last season, Key told ESPN he wasn't acting like it was a temporary seat at the table. His instincts were correct, and the interim tag was removed after the Yellow Jackets went 4-4 to close the campaign.

While Key, who played at Georgia Tech from 1997 to 2000, might have wanted the job, it clearly has its challenges. Tech hasn't made a bowl game since 2018, its longest drought since 1992-1996. Collins, who was hired to replace Paul Johnson, never won more than three games during his three-plus-year tenure. In trying to attract talent, the school contends with some potential roadblocks, including higher academic standards than many big-time programs and an urban campus.

Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets' in-state rival roughly 80 miles to the east is aiming to become the first team to pull off a national title three-peat in almost 90 years and has won 18 of the past 21 meetings between the teams, including the last three by a combined score of 134-21.

"What pisses me off is to look at lists of the 10 or 20 best rivalries in the country and, not to have [Georgia-Georgia Tech] on there, that's bulls---," Key said in July. "But at the present time, they're probably right. So we've got to do something about that."

After his playing days, Key was a graduate assistant at Tech for two years before a stop at Western Carolina, then a decade at UCF with his old head coach, George O'Leary. He spent 2016 through 2018 at Alabama before he returned to Atlanta as an assistant in 2019. He's fully aware of the perceived complications of the job, and said he doesn't buy into them.

"People say, '[The] school is hard, you have to take calculus.' Look, I graduated but I never took one calc class in my life. So I'm like, what are you talking about? I didn't take calculus.

"Now, I failed the hell out of chemistry.

"Other people talk about being in Atlanta -- look, Atlanta made me who I am. Atlanta is an unbelievable city, the culture, the diversity, the things you learn, it creates a little bit of an edge to you."

One of Key's biggest priorities in trying to turn things around is to make sure his team has an identity. He has a spreadsheet mapping out every hour of every day from the start of camp to the Georgia game on Nov. 25 in Atlanta.

For every day through camp, the top of every sheet had a goal of establishing the identity of the team.

"That's what this camp has been about," he said. "And people talk about playing to a standard and our standard. We have no standard. There's none. We have to create it. Nick Saban didn't have a standard in 2006 at Alabama, he had his personal standard. You have to create those things.

"So what is our identity? We will be disciplined, we're going to be tough as hell. This team is committed to themselves, number one, and they're committed to this football team. And then when the number is called, we've got to execute.

"You got to expect good things to happen as opposed to bad things. It's one thing to say, 'Well, if you believe it, you say it, we're gonna talk it into reality.' Yeah, you got to believe, but you got to work your ass off in between. ... That's what I want our team to be. They say that there's no greater compliment than a football team to take on the identity of the head football coach. That's what I want."


KEY ISN'T THE only new coach trying to restore old glory at Georgia Tech. Damon Stoudamire was hired in March to shape the men's basketball program, and his mission -- and approach -- is similar to his football counterpart's.

Stoudamire played at Arizona under the legendary Lute Olson and went on to play 13 seasons in the NBA, most notably with the Portland Trail Blazers. He came to Atlanta after being an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics. This is his second gig as a college head coach, having been at Pacific from 2016 until 2021.

Georgia Tech had a basketball team for many years, but Bobby Cremins turned it into a program in the 1980s and accumulated 354 wins over 19 seasons in Atlanta. The success continued to some degree under Paul Hewitt, who took the Yellow Jackets to a Final Four in 2004.

But since Hewitt's departure, Tech has made just one NCAA tournament appearance after a surprising ACC tournament championship in 2021.

Like Key, Stoudamire talked about wanting to build a standard, which he said begins with toughness.

"I want to be the physically and mentally tougher team," Stoudamire said. "I just think that wins games. We could talk about X's and O's and all those different things. But those two things there, and then the relationship part of it. I'm big on customer service, that's what I like to call it. I just think that if you don't have relationships with your players, you don't have relationships in the workspace and different things, you can't win.

"I've never really wanted to look at coaching from a coaching standpoint because I'm big on the relationship part of it, and I think if a player feels good, he plays good.

"So what does that mean? If a guy misses three in a row and he looks over, and the bench is like, 'Keep shooting, keep shooting.' I don't react, I try not to at least, because I don't want anybody to play on how they see me react. I want them to understand that Coach is calm, poised and staying in the moment."

As far as reenergizing the fan base, Stoudamire believes in the only solution known to work anywhere and everywhere.

"I just think you got to win," Stoudamire said. "We can get gimmicky, we can do different things, but I think you got to win. And I think people buy in. I just think it's pretty simple."


THE CHANGES AT Georgia Tech aren't limited to the football and men's basketball coaches. On the south end of Bobby Dodd Stadium is the Wardlaw Center, which itself is representative of the athletic department's fresh start.

Georgia Tech's athletic staff is moving into the building, which despite being part of the stadium for decades was occupied by the Institute Development and Institute Communications departments.

Settling into a new office is athletic director J. Batt, himself only about 10 months into the job. He replaced Todd Stansbury, who was AD from 2016 until his firing in 2022.

There are still some frames that need to go up on the walls in Batt's office, which overlooks the field at Bobby Dodd Stadium. His most prized one, given to him by Homer Rice, lists the original qualifications of the award named for Rice, given annually to an athletic director who has made a significant impact on their profession and intercollegiate athletics.

Batt came to Atlanta from Alabama, where he had been since 2017, establishing himself as one of the country's top fundraisers as executive deputy director of athletics, chief operating officer and chief revenue officer. But he's familiar with ACC athletics. He grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, and was a goalie for the North Carolina soccer team, helping win a national title in 2001. He also worked at Maryland as the school transitioned from the ACC to the Big Ten.

Georgia Tech is Batt's first swing as an AD, and returning to the ACC was an immediate draw for him. But Batt saw the potential for success because of institutional alignment, the history of Georgia Tech, "and then a group of alums and fans that care."

"[President Angel Cabrera] stepped forward and said, 'Hey, we're going to make athletics as good as the academics of this institution.' And that was truly a huge part of it for me," Batt said. "This brand, this program -- four national championships, I mean, who else has Coach of the Year Bobby Dodd, Assistant of the Year [Frank] Broyles, AD of the Year [Homer] Rice, Player of the Year [John] Heisman," referencing the namesakes of national awards who have Georgia Tech ties. "There's no other program with that incredible tradition."

But the opportunity boils down to a top-down commitment to athletics, which appears to give Batt -- who has seen college programs run at the highest level in Tuscaloosa -- a sense that he can be the one to fix Georgia Tech.

"This guy's walking the walk," Batt said of Cabrera. "He is literally providing resources, he's providing access. I mean, look at this building. This is a building that's been in the football stadium for 30 years, athletics has never occupied it. Truly taking a step forward, and prioritizing athletics. Moving us forward with our $85 million Student-Athlete Performance Center. That project is on a fast track to get done as soon as we possibly can."

The need for a fresh start, both on his team and in the athletic department as a whole, and the importance of the financial commitment was echoed by Key.

"That's no different than the offensive line room needing an O-line coach that was completely different than I was," he said. "So that the line walked in every day and it was new, it was different.

"Because when the interim has become the head coach, I'm sure there's that fear of, 'Well, what if some of it is the same? What is going to be different?' ... Thankfully, the alignment with J. and Dr. Cabrera has allowed a lot of these things to take place, knowing that those things matter."

One of those things is the revamped football facility.

"People have a vision of what Georgia Tech is," Key said. "They think engineers and architects and numbers and all this nerdy stuff, and old, and the industrial age of all those things. I said, 'Well, guess what?'

"Imagine the old locomotive going through the tunnel and it busts out the other side, and it's one of those bullet trains coming out going the speed of sound. That's my vision of what Georgia Tech was and is. People walk in here, I don't want to think the old things. I want it to look like an Apple store."

Along with the new performance center and increased revenue through business partnerships, Batt had two critical hires to make in his first six months on the job.

"Brent and Damon, no strangers to hard work, right?" Batt said. "These guys are tremendous competitors with tremendous passion to build it back. And so I was looking for a partner and both of those coaching hires, we certainly found it in both."

With the new beginnings, there's a sense around Atlanta that better days are ahead. Rather than worry about what has gone wrong, the focus is on what can be done right given everything Batt, Key and Stoudamire believe Georgia Tech has to offer.

"Since I've been here, we talked about alignment," Stoudamire said. "I've always preached that. I think football, basketball, with the president and AD, I think all that aligns. I've always had a saying when one thing wins, everybody wins. And I think with football and basketball, what a tremendous opportunity that we all have here."

Key has a notebook that he started back in 2009 in which he wrote down everything he wanted as a head coach. "One thing I never would have planned on was having a boss like J. Batt," Key said. "He's amazing.

"To know what that position looks like at the most successful program in the history of college football [Alabama], and they know what the most successful coach looks like, and how he goes about his business, but also to be able to allow those things to occur, and then give the resources and to help those things. And if the resources aren't there, he gets out on the street and gets things done.

"A lot of people come up with a lot of ideas and sayings and all this kind of crap. He gets things done. He works. And when your boss is working that hard, it keeps you rolling now.

"You know everyone's on the same page."