November 1, 2004
ATLANTA Georgia Tech is headed for another mediocre football season, and the team's fan base is beginning to get riled up again.
In this, the third season of the Chan Gailey era, the Yellow Jackets have yet to break out of the inconsistent play that marked the first two. Gailey entered 2004 with a 14-12 record as the top man on The Flats. He finished 7-6 in each of his first two campaigns.
Now another season right around .500 apparently is in store, one with tremendous highs and devastating lows. The Yellow Jackets' ebb and flow has become a nauseating back and forth for many Tech fans.
Those who are unhappy with Gailey and many have been unhappy since the day he was hired are beginning to become more vocal. After each game, they flood Tech-oriented message boards with demands that Gailey must go. On the other hand, there are many who think Gailey is a fine choice to run the program. They point to his unquestioned character, his solid in-roads on the recruiting trail, and his strong coaching roots.
The two factions' often-angry sparring on message boards grew more spirited in recent weeks, particularly after the Yellow Jackets' fourth-quarter collapse against Virginia Tech. But the silent, pro-Gailey majority may be in danger of being overrun by the vocal minority, who have flexed their muscle in the past.
Big-time boosters nearly ousted Tech athletic director Dave Braine after the 2002 season, when 10 football players failed out of school. The pressure was enough for Braine to offer his resignation to school president Wayne Clough, who declined. Braine is a staunch defender of Gailey, who is under contract through the 2006 season. Braine is under contract through 2007.
But those angry boosters surely will resurface this offseason, particularly if the Yellow Jackets fail to make a bowl appearance for the first time in eight years. And their targets this time are likely to include Gailey.
The biggest complaint about the program under Gailey's stead is the inconsistency. The program follows massive upsets with shocking defeats. Losses to Miami or Florida State, the certified ACC superpowers, can be tolerated. Even competitive losses to rival Georgia can be explained away. But falling short against Duke and North Carolina, two teams in the lower echelon of the conference, cannot.
Many Tech fans were spoiled by the success of the George O'Leary era. During O'Leary's stint from 1995-2001, the Yellow Jackets went 52-33 and won at least eight games in each of his last four seasons. That's the situation Gailey inherited.
Other prominent coaches from the Class of 2001 also have found themselves on the hot seat this fall. Florida coach Ron Zook was 16-10 in his first two full seasons and 20-13 at the time of his recent firing. Notre Dame coach Ty Willingham, also hired during the same offseason, went 20-13 in his first 33 games, and he has been feeling the heat.
One building problem could be a lack of interest in the program. With basketball season about to begin (more below), the Yellow Jackets' final home games could be far short of sellouts. Empty seats mean empty pockets, and if big-time boosters begin to hold back their donations, then the problem will become more acute.
With that said, those in decision-making capacities Braine and Clough believe in Gailey and what he has done. Braine, a former football coach, is aware of the recruiting gains. He knows how difficult it is to win consistently at Georgia Tech, given the school's difficult academic standards. (According to ACC Sports Journal research, only Duke among ACC schools signs prospects with higher average GPAs and SAT scores.) He knows Gailey's strong character and football acumen are assets to the program.
But victories must follow. The Yellow Jackets' best remaining hope for this season is another lower-tier bowl appearance, following up on trips to San Jose (Silicon Valley Football Classic) and Boise (Humanitarian Bowl) under Gailey. Of course, a no-bowl scenario also remains a possibility, as Tech took a 4-3 record into a finishing stretch against N.C. State, Connecticut (home), Virginia (home) and Georgia..
That's why next season could be the decisive one for Gailey. The Yellow Jackets' three best offensive weapons all are eligible to return in 2005. Quarterback Reggie Ball will be a junior, entering his third season as the starter. All-ACC tailback P.J. Daniels, whose importance to the team has been magnified this fall by his extended absences in losses to UNC and Virginia Tech, will be a senior. Amazing wide receiver Calvin Johnson will be a sophomore. The offensive line could be a concern, but the defense, which this season has just one senior starter, should again be strong.
In the offseason, Gailey will have to decide whether or not to bring in, or promote, a true offensive coordinator, one who calls the plays. In his first season, Gailey had since-departed Bill O'Brien calling the shots. But in each of the last two seasons, Gailey has made the in-game offensive calls himself. Gailey has handed off the in-week duties of the offensive coordinator to Patrick Nix this season.
But the offense remains near the bottom of the ACC in terms of production. Ball has not shown much growth since midway through his freshman season, as he still frequently takes costly sacks and turns the ball over too much.
Nix, a rising star on the staff, could be the play-caller next year. Meanwhile, some have suggested that if the pressure from angry fans becomes too much, Gailey might be persuaded to go outside the program and bring in a more established offensive coach.
Then again, in the aftermath of the 2002 season, Gailey consolidated power. He wanted to run things his way, for better or for worse, since it was his job that was on the line. It's hard to see Gailey abandoning that philosophy in this offseason. Furthermore, the offensive system is entirely Gailey's. Changing offenses in what could be a make-or-break season for the coach doesn't make much sense.
Hewitt Motto: Last Season Is Over
Excitement and support are not problems for the Georgia Tech basketball team. On the heels of last year's run to the national championship game, the Yellow Jackets already have sold out every ticket for every home game this season.
With seven of their top nine players from last year's team returning, the Jackets are considered a top-five team entering 2004-05. Another impressive performance, in ACC competition and in the NCAA Tournament, is expected by almost everyone.
To deal with the increased expectations, Hewitt has tried to draw a distinct line between last season and this one. In his first meeting with the media after practice began, Hewitt said several times that "last season is over."
The coach has said the same thing, repeatedly, to his players. Fortunately, he should not have to pound that theme for too long. The Yellow Jackets are an experienced group, and they don't seem at all content with last year's run. They want the hardware.
There aren't many difficult issues surrounding the Yellow Jackets, but Hewitt is spending the preseason tinkering with a few interesting ideas. Among them are figuring out how best to use guards Jarrett Jack and Will Bynum in the same backcourt, uncovering players who can give reliable backup minutes at power forward and center, and finding another shooter to complement senior star B.J. Elder.
Those are minor issues, of course, much smaller than the ones confronting Gailey right now.