ATLANTA — Twenty years ago, the idea began to take root in Geoff Collins’ mind.
He’d look around at the city of Atlanta, the campus of Georgia Tech and the recruiting territory within its grasp, and imagine the possibilities. Unfazed by the reality of being a 28-year-old former Division I-AA linebacker-turned-grad assistant, he would work under coach George O’Leary by day, study for a secondary degree in psychology at night and dream of what he would do if eventually he were the one in charge.
He grew up a determined sort in nearby Conyers, unafraid to think outside the box. He even had the gall to tell others his plans. Brent Key, an offensive lineman at the time, remembers those conversations well. He was struck by the fact that even though Collins didn’t go to Tech as a student or play for the football team, he felt like one of them.
There was no if about it when Collins spoke. He didn’t want just any program. He had his sights on this exact one.
“When I’m the head coach at Georgia Tech …” Collins would say before starting in on one idea or another.
Many of the details of those conversations have been lost over time. Truth be told, Collins has so many ideas about so many things that remembering them all is next to impossible. But the sentiment he expressed back then was clear: whatever he was planning, it was big.
It was a dream he’d carry with him as he dotted the college football map — first with stops as an assistant at Western Carolina, UCF and FIU, and then later as a defensive coordinator at Mississippi State and Florida. There was even a formative year spent off the field as Nick Saban’s director of player personnel during the beginning of the Alabama dynasty in 2007.
When he was 45 years old, Temple made Collins a head coach for the first time. He went 15-10 in two seasons before Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury called offering the chance to return to Atlanta and replace Paul Johnson, who was stepping down after 11 seasons.
Others might have seen a middling ACC program with cumbersome academic standards, or a Frankenstein roster built entirely for the purposes of running the antiquated triple-option, or how powerhouses like Clemson, Georgia and Alabama were a bit too close for comfort. But Collins only saw the possibilities. Located in what is essentially the capital of college football, surrounded by a talent base that rivals any in the country, why couldn’t it become the Georgia Tech of his dreams?
“I’ve always had a clear vision of what this place can be and should be,” he said.
And what is that?
Hold onto your seats, folks.
“To be the elite of college football.”
There were two primary things Collins focused on when he spoke to Stansbury about the job. The first was culture.
Now if you’ve read pretty much any story about a coaching change before, your eyes probably are glazing over because you know culture is arguably the most overused word in the coaching lexicon. It can mean everything or nothing at all.
Collins told Stansbury, “We have to make sure it’s high energy, it’s engaging, it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s hard-working.” And at 6:20 a.m. on a Thursday last month, that was on full display when a staff meeting began with cake, candles and the singing of “Happy Birthday” to one of the players.
At one point, when the birthday boy left and coaches got down to business, Collins lectured everyone on positivity. He told them he didn’t want them cussing out players during practice for simple mistakes. He didn’t want them hung up on roster deficiencies, either. As long as the effort was there, he urged his assistants to build players up rather than tear them down.
“I’ve been around some legendary coaches in the game,” Collins said. “But I’m an avid reader and I’m constantly trying to find better ways to do things, and being free of thought enough to embrace that this is the generation we’re coaching right now, how can we help them within the structure of our program? A lot of that has to do with, I don’t want them to fear failure. A lot of that comes back to them knowing we care about them.”
Later, in the five or so minutes before position meetings begin, 2 Chainz blared over the loudspeakers. Collins, the inventor of the Swag Chalice, bobbed his head to the beat as he went around the room, hugging the necks of more than a few players.
“I think we’re in the epicenter of college football. It radiates from here in Atlanta. Here in our footprint are some of the best programs in the country, and that’s fine because we have so much to sell here.”
During the full team meeting, there was a one-man dance-off featuring a student volunteer that had the entire room doubling over in laughter. Collins awarded slick arm sleeves for the top performers from the previous day’s practice and turned giddy when he asked players about the new socks they just got in from Adidas. The more they win, the more swag they’ll get, he promised.
By the time practice began, there was no shortage of excitement. There was a DJ on the sideline, players autographed the “Get the Ball” board after each turnover, and a “Game of Thrones”-style gold crown made the rounds.
Some of it might appear superficial, but there’s a method to the madness. At one point during practice, Collins came to the sideline grinning from ear to ear.
“We ran 45 plays in one 11-minute period!” he said. “That’s fast!”
Just like that, he was gone.
“That’s the culture we want,” said the team’s general manager, Patrick Suddes. “The DJ at practice, the fun workouts we do, they’re busting their ass. But you have all the coaches dressed as ‘Game of Thrones’ characters” — as well as leprechauns on St. Patrick’s Day and bunnies on Easter — “We’re doing crazy stuff and you don’t think about it, but they’re getting better and stronger and having fun.”
Tight end Tyler Davis transferred from UConn, where he got to face Temple in the American Athletic Conference. Because of that, he knows going against a Collins-coached team is not some hourslong dance party.
“Hard-nosed,” is how Davis described it. “You knew they’d knock you in the mouth.”
Funny thing about the tight ends at Georgia Tech: There were none last year. Same for slot receivers.
Instead, there were 13 scholarship running backs, which is twice the number you’d expect. What’s more, there are smaller offensive and interior defensive linemen than your typical Power 5 school.
“We can’t flip it all at once,” he said, “but these are the players we love and care for and need to put in a position to be successful.”
If you were creating a bingo board for Collins, the phrase “position flexibility” would be a featured block. At practice, there were running backs playing linebacker and corners playing receiver. Two days earlier, there was a receiver at outside linebacker and a nose guard at fullback.
Utilizing the free-agency stream otherwise known as the transfer portal, he and Collins were able to add an experienced tight end (Davis from UConn) and offensive lineman (Jared Southers from Vanderbilt). There might be more to come this summer.
But they’re playing the long game, too. Collins keeps two copies of the book “Recruit or Die” in the building — one in his office for himself, and another in the staff meeting room to remind his assistants what the lifeblood of the program is. The subtitle of the book feels especially applicable to Georgia Tech: “How Any Business Can Beat the Big Guys in the War for Young Talent”.
Unlike in years past where the school recruited to a specific scheme, all aisles are open now. During an off day from practice, Suddes helped orchestrate what they call the “404 Takeover” during which each assistant on staff visited eight schools within the perimeter of Atlanta in a 24-hour period.
“You have coaches saying they haven’t seen a Tech coach in 11 years,” Suddes said. “They were recruiting different guys, but you have kids coming on campus who say they haven’t been here before. It’s been like they forgot Georgia Tech was in Atlanta.”
For too long the state has served as a feeder system to everyone but the Yellow Jackets. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence — a former five-star prospect from Cartersville, Georgia — practically had to drive through Atlanta to reach stardom at Clemson. The same can be said for safety Xavier McKinney and his path from Roswell, Georgia, to the starting lineup at Alabama.
In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Georgia is moving up the list of the country’s top talent producers. California, which was long held as the superior state, had 33 ESPN 300 prospects in the 2019 class, compared to Georgia’s 35. The upcoming 2020 class offers more of the same: Georgia 31, California 23.
Because of that untapped potential, Collins doesn’t hesitate to say, “The sky’s the limit for this program.”
“I think we’re in the epicenter of college football,” he said. “It radiates from here in Atlanta. Here in our footprint are some of the best programs in the country, and that’s fine because we have so much to sell here. The city, a lot of places that are in our five-hour radius can’t sell a city like Atlanta. The education, not everyone can sell.
“We welcome that challenge. We want to be in that conversation where when that recruit lists his top-five or top-10 — the guys we’re going to be recruiting, those guys should be listing those great programs, and we should be in the mix.”
The second thing Collins sold Stansbury on was brand. Whereas culture can sometimes feel intangible in college football, brands are more obvious. Alabama is strictly business, for instance, while Clemson borders on folksy.
Under Collins, Georgia Tech appears to want to be the coolest program in the sport. Their social media feeds are a constant stream of clever hashtags and graphics. They’ve even started a podcast and a web video series called “Waffle House Wednesday.”
Not many coaches have their lead graphic designer in on staff meetings, but fewer — if any — spend the kind of time Collins does working directly with the man everyone calls Morpheus.
(Why Morpheus? Because, according to Suddes, “When you go into his office, he’s tied into the Matrix.” His real name, for the record, is Santino Stancato, and his title is brand manager.)
Morpheus and Collins are peas in a pod. During one staff meeting, the two showed off a business card concept they came up with that was essentially a fully dressed out football player with the jersey number left empty.
Carry a Sharpie, Collins told his assistants. Because when they handed these cards out, he wanted them to fill in the jersey with each recruit’s number in order to add a more personal touch.
— Rick Cauley (@16RJC) April 30, 2019
“I equate it to the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind’ with Russell Crowe where there’s all this stuff on the wall and everybody doesn’t know what it means,” Suddes said. He later added: “The stuff those two put out — #404TheCulture, #404Takeover, the business cards — everything he does, he’s two steps ahead of other coaches. They catch up and he comes up with the next idea.”
When you’ve been off the radar as long as Georgia Tech has and your plans are as grand as Collins has for this place, you have to find a way to garner attention. Collins said he’s thinking about how to create buzz — or, better yet, brand awareness — “24 hours a day.”
It’s all grounded in his own experience, though. He’s drawing from some of the most successful coaches, using Saban’s recruiting structure, Dan Mullen’s practice methods, and the way O’Leary went about offseason studies and research.
But everything ultimately has the Geoff Collins touch. For it to work, the brand and the coach must be inseparable.
“I’ve been blessed to have all of these things to pull from, but then using my personality and who I am at my core, to filter all of those things and be genuine,” he said. “Because the second I run out there and I’m trying to be Nick Saban, who is an amazing coach, it’s going to be disingenuous. And with this generation of athlete and this generation you’re recruiting, the second you’re fake, the second you’re phony, you’ve lost. You got to keep it real. That matters.”
Time will tell whether this new version of Georgia Tech football resonates, whether the brand Collins is building has any substance, whether there’s any chance of overcoming the behemoth that is Clemson in the ACC. The only certainty is that his plan has ambitions beyond what the program has been in the past and what convention says it should look like in the future.
In early April, Antonneous Clayton, the former No. 10 overall recruit in the Class of 2016, raised eyebrows when he committed to transferring to Tech from Florida. The most recent ESPN class rankings have the Yellow Jackets at No. 19 — a far cry from 61st, 53rd and 42nd finishes of the past three classes.
It’s a start. Recruiting victories have to turn into actual victories for this to get off the ground.
The good news is that while there’s a lot of work to do, there’s a coach who has had a lot of time to think about how he’d like to do it.
“When I was here before, we were on College GameDay, we were a top-10 program, Bobby Dodd was filled, every game had implications in the league, every game had implications nationally,” he said. “That’s how I know this place, and that’s how I want this place to be. And I know it can be because I’ve lived it and I’ve breathed it.
“We’re going to go forward under those parameters.”