ATHENS, Ga. -- Most college football coaches adopt a business-first mentality out of necessity.
Many of them -- particularly well-traveled coaches -- cross paths with former co-workers several times per season, but they understand their loyalties must be to their jobs and not to friends with other programs or even their alma maters.
Despite that fact of life within the coaching ranks, Georgia coach Mark Richt and several of the coaches involved in Saturday’s meeting between the fifth-ranked Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) and rival Auburn (2-7, 0-6) will face highly unusual circumstances in that regard.
All three men who have served as defensive coordinator for Richt at Georgia will be coaching Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium -- Todd Grantham, who has held the position at Georgia since 2010, and Auburn assistants Brian VanGorder (2001-04) and Willie Martinez (2005-09).
“I love both of them, I love their families, but I think we all know that we’ve got to prepare our teams to play ball and that’s what will be going on from kickoff till the end,” Richt said when asked about VanGorder and Martinez, who were both members of his original staff at UGA.
VanGorder helped Richt put Georgia’s program on the map with a fearsome brand of defense that regularly had the Bulldogs among the national leaders in most defensive statistical categories. He won the 2003 Frank Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top assistant coach, before holding a variety of positions in the interim -- most recently defensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons before accepting the same job at Auburn in the offseason.
Meanwhile, Martinez was at Georgia recently enough to have coached with most members of Richt’s staff. Several veteran Bulldogs played under Martinez, as well, which is a more irregular occurrence for players and their former coaches.
“He taught me a lot of things when he was here, so I’m kind of happy to see him because I haven’t seen him in a long time,” said senior safety Bacarri Rambo, who was a freshman in 2009 when Martinez was in his final season as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.
That doesn’t mean the reunion will be entirely comfortable, however.
“I texted him when he got the job at Auburn and went back and forth and said, ‘I’ll see you then,’ and everything like that,” senior linebacker Christian Robinson said. “So it is going to be nice before the game and after to get to say hey to him because he recruited me to come here -- and I’m thankful and I’ll always be thankful for that.
“... But playing against Coach Martinez, that’ll be unique and I know a lot of guys -- especially the DBs -- will be over there talking to him during the plays and stuff.”
Martinez coached Oklahoma’s secondary for the previous two seasons. In 2009, Richt fired him and two assistants after several seasons of declining defensive results. This season, VanGorder brought him to Auburn; their results on the Plains have not been particularly promising. The Tigers are in the middle of one of the worst seasons in program history, and the defense has been one of the leading culprits in the team’s regular meltdowns.
Auburn ranks 84th nationally in total defense (428.67 yards per game, which ranks 13th in the SEC) and 96th against the run (199.22, last in the league). The Tigers are also 10th in the conference in scoring defense (27.33 ppg) and ninth against the pass (229.4 ypg) -- a far cry from the dominant play that marked VanGorder and Martinez’s early years at Georgia.
“I think obviously everyone knows Brian’s body of work and he’s done a great job with being a defensive coordinator wherever he’s been,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “With us personally, it’s a transition period for sure and we’ve had our peaks and valleys. … But I don’t think you can pin it on one thing. I think it’s been very inconsistent and sporadic, but there’s been some good and some bad.”
Unlike Auburn, Georgia’s offensive scheme has not undergone massive changes over the last decade -- certainly not like the vast philosophical shifts at Auburn between Al Borges to Tony Franklin to Gus Malzahn to current coordinator Scott Loeffler.
VanGorder and Martinez’s familiarity with the offensive concepts that Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo employ is probably an advantage for the Tigers, but Chizik was not sure how much that will help. He complimented Richt’s staff for adjusting its approach to make use of its most talented players -- for instance, using the tight end more heavily in the passing game during the last few seasons because of Orson Charles’ receiving skills -- which causes tendencies to change from year to year.
“I think we’ve got to really go back and look and see how much change there’s been,” Chizik said. “One thing Georgia’s done over the years that’s been very A, smart and B, very effective is that they do things based on their personnel and who they have at strong positions.
“… But they do a good job of teaching their people and utilizing them, so we’re going to have to look and see. It’s been a long time since Brian was over there with them, but for the most part, their base offense and the things that they’ve done really hasn’t changed fully, but they’ve done a good job of adjusting to their personnel.”
Likewise, Richt and Bobo are familiar with their former co-workers’ defensive philosophies for their 4-3 scheme -- and that might might help in some way -- although it’s a vastly different situation for VanGorder and Martinez since this is their first season with a new staff and new personnel at Auburn.
“I can’t imagine them totally reinventing the wheel,” Richt said. “They’re a 4-3 and I’m sure they’ll be doing a lot of things that [VanGorder has] been comfortable with doing for years.”
Saturday’s Auburn game pits Georgia’s coaching staff against former co-workers Brian VanGorder and Willie Martinez, but that’s far from the only example of coaching crossover on the Bulldogs’ schedule this season. A sampling of some of the other ties between Georgia’s coaches and some of their 2012 competitors:
Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry was a defensive graduate assistant at Virginia Tech between 1995-98 and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was the Hokies’ defensive line coach in 1995.
Head coach Derek Dooley was a graduate assistant at Georgia in 1996 when offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was a player.
Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and special teams/tight ends coach Charlie Coiner coached with receivers coach Tony Ball at Louisville from 1995-97.
Defensive line coach John Palermo worked with inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti with the Washington Redskins from 2008-09.
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward coached with Ball at Virginia Tech between 1999-2005.
Head coach Steve Spurrier and receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. worked with Olivadotti in 2002-03 with the Redskins
Special teams/tight ends coach Greg Nord coached with Ball at Louisville from 1995-97.
Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders worked alongside defensive line coach Rodney Garner in 1996-97 at Tennessee.
Receivers coach Pat Washington was a graduate assistant at Auburn in 1987-88 when Garner was a player and coached alongside Garner at Tennessee in 1996-97.
Florida head coach Will Muschamp played at Georgia with Bobo in 1993-94.
Muschamp was a graduate assistant at Auburn in 1995 when Garner was a Tigers assistant.
In addition to VanGorder and Martinez, Auburn graduate assistant Tony Gilbert played linebacker at Georgia under Richt and was on the Bulldogs’ strength and conditioning staff until earlier this year
Offensive coordinator Brent Davis played at Georgia in 1996 alongside Bobo
Receivers coach Brett Gilliland played quarterback at West Alabama in 2001 when Georgia’s Will Friend was offensive line coach.
Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly played at Auburn alongside Garner and was a graduate assistant at Auburn in 1993 when Garner was on the coaching staff.
Quarterbacks/B-Backs coach Brian Bohannon played at Georgia from 1990-93, overlapping with Bobo’s time as a UGA player.