By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
February 10, 2003 ATLANTA Facing the heat of unrelenting responses from angry fans, Georgia Tech athletic director Dave Braine recently took the unprecedented step (for him) of sending out a vote-of-confidence letter to the faithful. The letter, which quickly circulated throughout the state and (thanks to the internet) among Tech fans world-wide, expressed disappointment with how Tech's football season ended but also defended first-year head coach Chan Gailey. It marked the first time Braine, the AD in Atlanta since June 1997, had sent out a letter after a season with the primary intention of defending one of his coaches.
Some of you have expressed concern over the football team's performance in its final two games, Braine wrote in the largely informal letter, which started Dear Yellow Jacket fan and ended with a signed Dave on Georgia Tech Athletic Association stationery. Let me assure you that everyone within the Athletic Association student-athletes, coaches, administrators lives with those losses every day, and we fully understand your frustrations with the ups and downs of the 2002 season and the final two games in particular.
Tech ended its regular season with a 51-7 shellacking by bitter rival Georgia, after which Gailey openly questioned the effort of some of his players. He suggested in his post-game press conference that some had quit, a claim easily backed up by those in attendance.
If possible, the bowl game made things worse. Against a Fresno State team that was missing six starters because of academic problems, the Yellow Jackets turned the ball over seven times, made numerous bone-headed plays and lost 30-21.
The two losses opened the floodgates to those who had been unhappy with Tech's mediocre play all season and those, in particular, who felt Gailey was not the right hire all along. Braine was flooded with calls and e-mails, and he was harassed daily on internet message boards and local talk-radio shows for not doing anything about the crumbling state of the program. Fans and supporters were looking for something anything to show that those in power on The Flats understood the problems and were trying to solve them.
Before offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien's surprising departure soon after national signing day, the coaching lineup had experienced no changes. In discussing his players, Gailey said that every job would be open come spring practice, but the lack of staff moves of any kind served only to alarm the faithful that another season of mediocrity was on the way.
Into this smoldering fire stepped Braine, himself a former football player and coach. Braine played defensive back and kicker at North Carolina from 1962-64 and was an assistant coach at four colleges, including Tech from 1974-75, before moving into administration. He has since served as the AD at Marshall (1985-87), Virginia Tech (1988-97) and Georgia Tech. Long after the fact, he became famous for his patience in Blacksburg, where he once had the foresight to retain football coach Frank Beamer now regarded as one of the best in the college game despite several ugly seasons.
Braine is a hands-on type of administrator, often visiting football practice, sitting in on basketball post-game press conferences and getting daily recruiting updates. Many Tech fans long ago dubbed him Coach Braine, some mockingly.
With an eye toward football season-ticket sales, which begin in a few months, and growing concerns that an expanded Bobby Dodd Stadium could be half-empty or, worse, full of opposing fans Braine acted. Well aware of the bottom line, which is as difficult to manage as ever in these challenging economic times, he felt he had to do something. Thus the letter, sent to Tech fans in late January, which tried to calm supporters' fears and spark a resurgence of positive interest from the football fan base.
While everyone is disappointed with the way the football season ended, there were positives that point the way to the future, Braine wrote. Despite many injuries and obstacles, we posted a winning record and earned a sixth straight bowl berth. That mark of consistency is noteworthy, not only because it had not been done at Georgia Tech since the 1950s but also because we are one of just 13 schools in the nation to play in a bowl each of the last six years.
Braine also touted the yet-to-be-finalized (at the time) recruiting class and the most attractive (home schedule) in recent memory, as reasons to continue to support the Yellow Jackets.
As usual, Tech opened up its football center on national signing day, trying to be as engaging with supporters as possible. Gailey let his assistants in first and then addressed the fans himself. He said none of the negativity surrounding the program or the letter, which he said he had never seen, affected recruiting in the least.
Some long-time Tech observers said they couldn't help but get the sense that it was all part of a concerted effort to counter what had become a negative tone around the program. Tech fans, who are historically more patient, reasonable and positive than most of the throngs on the internet and in the South, had seemingly reached a boiling point.
Despite the publicity surrounding it, the letter ultimately did seem to help calm the gathering force of negativity a bit. It certainly alleviated the concerns of some fans, who proclaimed in various published reports that they were happy to know that their AD was aware of their anger and unhappiness. (Nobody who knows Braine well could have possibly thought he was oblivious to the going-ons in and around his department.) Others, though, saw it as yet another way in which the program was coming apart.
Many are still reeling from the way former Tech coach George O'Leary left and the success of former offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen at Maryland. Some are still stung by how close Tech was to being a national contender in 2001, the Yellow Jackets were by far the most popular preseason choice to challenge conference champ Florida State and the regression the program suffered through in the last few years. Others worry that, with Maryland, Virginia, N.C. State and possibly North Carolina beginning to reload quickly, Tech could be headed to second-tier status in the conference.
Some supporters have directed their frustrations at the program's academic standards, rumored to be on the rise in recent years, but university representatives have not addressed that issue directly. (In an ACC Sports Journal study of 2002 football signees, Tech's student-athletes had the second-highest SAT/GPA combination in the conference, behind only Duke, and this year's class also appears strong academically. Under O'Leary, Tech usually ranked in the middle third of the conference.) Gailey repeatedly has denied that the school has set an SAT minimum for prospects, but he also has said that his staff places heavy emphasis on recruiting character, and that his student-athletes will graduate from Tech.
Other fans have taken it out on Gailey, claiming all along that he was the wrong choice to lead the program. With O'Brien gone for a non-coordinator position at Maryland, curiously, and certainly for less money than the $175,000 he was making at Tech Gailey will have brought in the entire staff, with the exception of defensive line coach Glenn Spencer. That means it's now truly his ship, more than ever.
Gailey's first full recruiting class contained some gems, including Florida cornerback Kenny Scott and Florida running back Rashaun Grant, but many of the 21 signees flew well under the radar of national recruiting analysts. In some cases, Tech was competing only with lower Division I-A teams and some Division I-AA teams for recruits. That's not always a cause for panic, but it's generally not a positive sign, either.
Gailey emphasized speed and apparently did a good job in that department, but how well Tech does in the future is directly tied to how well he and his staff evaluated some of the lesser-known names in this class and how well they can coach them from here on out.
Without O'Brien, the Tech offense could tilt more toward the conservative side. Gone are the freelancing days of Friedgen and O'Brien. For all of his notoriety with Kordell Slash Stewart during his days in Pittsburgh, Gailey showed far more tendencies toward a grind-it-out offense during his stays in Dallas and Miami. He particularly likes to utilize fullbacks and tight ends, two positions at which Tech appears thin.
Braine, who brought in basketball coach Paul Hewitt with solid success, knows he has a large stake in Gailey's rise or fall. Braine also knows that the Bobby Dodd Stadium enlargement to 55,000 seats rests squarely on his shoulders, even though O'Leary was largely responsible for pushing for the expansion, which increased capacity from 46,000.
The enlargement has some recalling the days when Bobby Dodd sat 58,121 from
1967-1985. In those days, large blocks of seats were routinely empty, or filled with visiting fans. Fears already have arisen that Tech's homefield advantage could turn into a Auburn-east or Georgia-west cheering section for those games.
Meanwhile, the early season schedule in 2003 does Gailey and the Yellow Jackets no favors. Tech opens the season Aug. 28 at BYU, then faces Auburn at home, Florida State on the road and Clemson at home. The Yellow Jackets easily could be 0-4 with Gailey and Braine facing another fierce torrent of anger and venom before their first easy game, at Vanderbilt.
If Tech does get off to such a slow start, there's no letter Braine could write, or words he or Gailey could say, to hold back the fans at that point. It's hard to imagine any second-year coach facing a more difficult set of circumstances.