May 14,2002 ATLANTA Georgia Tech is in the midst of one of the most successful stretches in its storied football program.
Before George O'Leary's world collapsed during that unforgettable five-day stretch last December, the New York-born Irishman had led the Yellow Jackets to five straight bowl berths a feat matched only by the legendary Bobby Dodd, who took Tech to six straight bowl games from 1951-56.
So it would be logical to think that O'Leary's teams would have produced a decent number of NFL players, since Tech's program reached the upper echelon of the ACC beginning around 1997 or '98.
But that's just not the case.
With only a couple of exceptions, Tech has experienced its football renaissance without top-flight, NFL-caliber players. Since O'Leary took over for the overmatched Bill Lewis near the end of the 1994 season, the Jackets have had only five players selected in the first three rounds of the draft and only one first-round selection Falcons starting linebacker Keith Brooking, who went 12th overall in the 1998 draft.
Tech's last two draft classes have been particularly brutal. The Jackets had zero players taken in 2001 and saw just two go in the late rounds this year, when Minnesota picked defensive end Nick Rogers (an outside linebacker in the NFL) in the sixth round and Denver took strong safety Chris Young in the seventh and final round.
Campbell: All-American Stooge
Tech should have had at least three players drafted this year, but Kelly Campbell, the school's all-time leading receiver, proved once again that his good speed and hands are nullified by his lack of common sense. Originally projected to be a third- or fourth-rounder by most draft experts, Campbell showed up at the NFL combine in Indianapolis in February and promptly tested positive for marijuana. Unbelievable.
Any player invited to the combine should know that one of the first if not the first things he'll be asked to do in Indy is to produce a urine sample, undoubtedly while being monitored. Testing agencies say it takes about a month to remove all traces of marijuana for testing purposes, and yet Campbell apparently still had pot in his system when he arrived at the combine. It took a couple of weeks for the results to come back and reach the desks of NFL scouting and personnel directors. But when they did, Campbell's stock plummeted faster than Kmart's. It wasn't until the day before the draft that news of Campbell's positive test became public.
This is not the first time Campbell has had a drug test that raised some eyebrows. In December of his sophomore year, Campbell was arrested for possession of marijuana when a Cobb County police officer found pot in a car Campbell was sitting in along with three other men in the parking lot of a suburban Atlanta mall.
Campbell claimed his innocence at the time, telling O'Leary the pot wasn't his and that he hadn't smoked any of it. The school ordered Campbell to take a drug test, and a couple of days later, O'Leary, Campbell and Campbell's mother held a press conference to announce that the results had come back negative, clearing Campbell to play in the Gator Bowl against Miami. Tech officials never explained who conducted the test or what the actual testing conditions were, and all three parties declined to answer follow-up questions.
The charges against Campbell eventually were dropped, and some Tech insiders believed the situation was made worse by an overzealous law enforcement official. The night of the arrest, many of Atlanta's sports reporters, including a couple of TV personalities, were tipped off about the story by a Cobb County police public information officer who happened to be a Georgia fan.
Nevertheless, Campbell made it through his remaining two years of eligibility without incident, eventually passing Harvey Middleton as the school's leader in every major receiving category. But his lazy practice habits and his unwillingness to take on any kind of leadership role did not make Campbell very popular among his teammates or coaches.
Even before Campbell's positive test in Indy, NFL scouts were concerned about his slight frame. Only 5-10 and 170 pounds, Campbell missed three games because of injuries during his senior season, and there were questions about whether or not Campbell would be able to go across the middle and take hits from NFL linebackers and safeties. He further turned off NFL scouts by posting some poor numbers during the combine's battery of skill tests.
Burns: No Choice In The End
Campbell wasn't the only Tech player to hurt his chances in Indy. Tailback Joe Burns ran some slow 40 times and also was measured at closer to 5-8 after being listed as 5-10 for his entire Tech career. Both Campbell and Burns slipped through both days of the draft without hearing their names called.
Burns was criticized by some Tech fans for entering the draft a year early, after failing out of school in December, but he really had no choice at that point. His academic transcript was in such shoddy shape that his only option would have been to apply to a junior college and hope to re-enroll after sitting out the required two semesters. With only one year of eligibility remaining, that was never a realistic option.
Both players wound up signing as undrafted free agents, Burns going to Buffalo and Campbell getting a second chance from O'Leary. Minnesota's new defensive line coach, welcomed back into the coaching community by one of his former players (Vikings head coach Mike Tice), encouraged the Vikings to draft Rogers and sign Campbell.
O'Leary actually had taken a chance on Campbell when he was a late qualifier coming out of Mays High School in Atlanta. O'Leary landed Campbell about two months after signing day, one of several risks he took on borderline academic players during his last couple of years in order to improve his program's talent base.
Still, O'Leary believes he was asked to work around too many academic restrictions in recruiting. He has shared those thoughts a couple of times since leaving Tech, saying on one occasion that the Jackets "want to be Harvard during the week and Florida State on Saturday."
But O'Leary found a way to win without the future NFL stars that dot the rosters of Florida State, North Carolina and Clemson. Now it will be up to Chan Gailey to prove he can do the same.