October 18, 2004 ATLANTA Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta, the highest-paid assistant coach in the ACC, once again is earning every penny of his $225,000 salary. Tech lost its three starting linebackers after the 2003 season. It lost a starting cornerback to injury early this year. It's still recovering from academic problems that zapped the program of its depth. But nothing has stopped Tenuta from building the Yellow Jackets into one of the league's most formidable units.
Last year, he devised a scheme to take advantage of the talents of senior linebackers Keyaron Fox and Daryl Smith, who are both in the NFL this season. The two combined for 284 tackles (35 for loss) and six forced fumbles for the Jackets last fall, leading a unit that finished second in the conference in total defense.
This season, Tenuta again has found a way to scheme around his imperfect personnel. With All-ACC defensive end Eric Henderson commanding extra attention, Tenuta has freed linebacker Chris Reis, a converted safety, to create mayhem on the side opposite Henderson.
For the most part, it's working. As it has been in years past, Tech still is susceptible to the big play. But moving the ball on the Yellow Jackets for a long, time-consuming drive just doesn't happen very often.
The Jackets consolidated Tenuta's control of the defense in the offseason. He now coaches defensive backs, his long-time specialty, in addition to being the defensive coordinator. The team has just two other defensive assistants, first-year staff members Brian Jean-Mary (linebackers) and Giff Smith (defensive line). In contrast, Tech has six coaches, including head coach Chan Gailey, who work with the offense.
Tenuta was not the No. 1 choice for defensive coordinator when Gailey was hired in December 2001. Gailey first hired Rick Smith, but he was let go for inaccuracies on his rÈsumÈ. Then Tech athletic director Dave Braine, who was Tenuta's position coach at Virginia in 1977, recommended Tenuta, then the defensive coordinator at North Carolina.
Over the last two and a half seasons, Gailey mainly has gotten out of Tenuta's way. Tenuta does all of the defensive game-planning and most of the coaching. He calls all the plays. It is, undoubtedly, Tenuta's defense.
Despite his gruff demeanor during practice and in limited interview sessions with the media Tenuta has spoken with the press just once this season, after Tech shut down Maryland his players seem to be forever loyal to him. They claim that Tenuta, the father of three sons, has a softer side that he displays off the field.
That may be where Tenuta has done his best work this season. He has been able to teach his defense quickly, partly through intense film study, to several young players and players in new positions.
Reis and middle linebacker Gerris Wilkinson are in entirely different roles than they played last fall. Cornerback Kenny Scott and linebacker KaMichael Hall are first-year starters. Along the defensive line, where for the first time in Gailey's tenure the Yellow Jackets have some decent depth, Tenuta has been able to incorporate youngsters Darryl Richard, Adamm Oliver, Joe Anoai and Mansfield Wrotto alongside veterans Henderson and Travis Parker.
Tenuta does it mainly by consistently putting his players into positions to do things they know they can do and have shown they can do. Reis, an undersized linebacker, is not asked to fill gaps and take on fullbacks. He drops into pass coverage or comes off the edge.
A 47-year-old coach who has looked into some pro jobs over the years, Tenuta always has developed talent. At Ohio State, he coached first-round NFL defensive backs Shawn Springs, Antoine Winfield, Ahmed Plummer and Nate Clements. At North Carolina, it was linemen Julius Peppers and Ryan Sims. At Tech, linebackers Smith and Fox were selected in the first three rounds of this year's draft. Henderson, a junior, and senior safety James Butler, another All-ACC performer, are likely to be high selections when they leave.
Tenuta, who has a strong interest in becoming a Division I-A head coach, has never shown much interest in recruiting. And he is not eager to leave a respected, well-paying coordinator position for a difficult rebuilding job at a small school, where the job stability might be far less than what he enjoys now. Wyoming, a member of the Mountain West Conference, was one of the schools that expressed interest in Tenuta two years ago.
Obviously, the Yellow Jackets are more than happy to have Tenuta on their sidelines for as long as he'd like to stay.
King Embodied Tech Athletics
The Yellow Jackets will wear black No. 18 stickers on their helmets for the rest of the season, in memory of Tech legend Kim King, who died Oct. 12 after a battle with leukemia.
King, who played quarterback for Tech in the mid-1960s, was, for many, the embodiment of the Institute. He became a highly successful real estate developer in Atlanta after graduation, while working as an analyst on the Yellow Jackets' radio broadcasts. The 2004 season was going to be his 31st consecutive year of calling Tech's games, but his illness prevented him from working.
King, 59, also helped save the Yellow Jackets' sagging program in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Those were lean years for the Jackets, who left the SEC in 1963 and did not join the ACC until 1983. Tech went 2-19-1 in 1980-81. Attendance rarely rose above 30,000, unless the opponent packed Grant Field.
An Atlanta native, King worked tirelessly for the completion of the Arthur B. Edge Center, which now is home to the school's athletic offices. He performed the initial feasibility study on the project, then worked to convince Tech legend Bobby Dodd (who coached King) to be involved with fund-raising. King was unable to coax Dodd himself, so he enlisted the help of President Jimmy Carter to get Dodd on board. The Edge Center was completed in 1982 and represented a huge commitment to intercollegiate athletics at Tech.
"It is my firm belief that had it not been for Kim King in the late '70s and early '80s, we would not have enjoyed a fraction of the success we have experienced in athletics," said former Tech coach Bill Curry, who led the Yellow Jackets from 1980-86. "His vision, intelligence and capacity to form coalitions within the Tech family were vital."
The Edge Center project, which now seems like a routine endeavor for athletic departments, at the time served a greater purpose.
"I think when you talk about great names in Georgia Tech, you always hear Heisman, Alexander and Dodd. I always put Homer Rice in there because he did so much for the program. When you talk about Homer, you have to talk about Kim, because at one time this program was almost ready to go downhill," Braine said. "If it weren't for Kim and
Homer getting Coach Dodd back in the program to raise the money for the Edge Center, we might not be where we are today."
King also was influential in getting Dodd's name added to the name of the Tech football stadium and in luring Braine, who developed a close friendship with King during his stay (1974-75) as an assistant coach at Tech, from Virginia Tech to Atlanta in 1997.
Most fans, however, knew King primarily for his familiar voice on Tech's radio broadcasts.
"He is such a significant piece of Georgia Tech legend, lore and history. He was such a comforting voice on Saturday afternoons for so many people," said Wes Durham, King's broadcast partner for the last 10 years. "For so many people, he embodies what Georgia Tech is you play, you compete, you win, but you do it the right way. And not just on the football field."
King's last public appearance was at halftime of the Yellow Jackets' Oct. 2 game with Miami, when the home locker room was officially re-named in his honor.