ATLANTA — Georgia Tech once claimed a relevant and competitive football program, even with academic mandates and economic realities that limited its ceiling among top FBS competition. The Yellow Jackets occasionally contended for ACC titles or upset ranked teams, even the Godzilla of a program to the east in Athens.
But that’s not the Georgia Tech of today. The Jackets have spiraled to unforeseen depths of inadequacy and humiliation. They are 10-27 since 2019 when coach Geoff Collins took over for the retiring Paul Johnson. Collins has lost eight straight games to FBS opponents — the past four by a composite score of 183-10.
Along the way, the Jackets also have dropped games to The Citadel, Temple and Northern Illinois, and last week they were blown off their home field by Ole Miss (42-0). The Rebels ran the ball 62 times for 316 yards because, in short, Tech’s defense, couldn’t stop them. Lane Kiffin, the Ole Miss head coach, referenced his team’s rushing numbers as “kind of old Georgia Tech numbers” — a nod to the option offense embraced by Johnson — and said he would’ve liked to call more passing plays to give his backup quarterback some work, but he had, “empathy for what was going on in that game on the other sideline, and the hot seat, or whatever he’s on. I just didn’t really feel like it was right.”
It’s come to that — Kiffin feels sorry for an opposing coach.
This is tough on anybody who associates themselves with Georgia Tech — players, fans, alumni, boosters, employees. But it’s not tougher on anybody more than the program’s former players, many of whom now feel Collins needs to go. The Athletic spoke to four former Jackets, who played for Johnson at Tech between 2008 and 2016, a period in which the Jackets won an ACC title, had two 11-win seasons and won three times at Georgia. All four players have lost faith that Collins will be able to turn around the program and would endorse a change.
Asked if he would fire Collins if he was in charge, former fullback Zach Laskey, “I would. I don’t know what the reason is that they’re not. I’m guessing it’s a money thing. I mean, he’s done some good things, and he’s come up with some catchy slogans. But at the end of the day, I don’t care about slogans. I care about winning football games.”
Former guard Will Jackson said he doesn’t feel it’s his place to say the words, “Fire Geoff Collins,” but his comments clearly support that position.
“I’m not sure what the administration saw last season that was encouraging enough to bring him back,” Jackson said. “The way we finished last year, that decision was completely lost on me, particularly when you look at a school like Nebraska that basically sent up the Bat Signal who said, ‘We’re really serious about football, and we’re so serious that we’re going to eat X millions of dollars to get this guy out of here, sooner than later and let the next guy know we’re invested in this program.’ It felt like Georgia Tech was going in the complete opposite direction because it was clear the train was going the wrong way.”
Jackson said even with Tech’s limitations, “seven wins a year should be the floor. … I don’t speak with anyone who is positively inclined about Georgia Tech football. It’s, ‘I have better things to do on a Saturday,’ or, ‘Why am I watching Ole Miss run for 300 yards in our stadium?’”
Collins’ exit seems all but assured. Many wanted him out after a third straight three-win season, bringing his mark at Tech to 9-25. But economics likely saved him for another year. Athletic director Todd Stansbury, whose future also may be tenuous, gave Collins a seven-year contract with $15.05 million in salary when Collins was hired in December 2o18, plus other ancillary income and benefits, with no reduced buyout for an early firing without cause. Making a change after 2021 would’ve been too costly for an athletic department that doesn’t have a deep well of reserves or heavily invested boosters that other Power 5 programs possess. Per the contract, if Collins is fired after the 2022 season, he still will be owed $7.2 million: the $7.05 million balance of his salary, plus a negotiated settlement for ancillary income.
Schultz: Georgia Tech’s Geoff Collins under fire, but buyout makes firing unlikely
Stansbury also made several concessions for Collins in terms of support staff that Johnson didn’t have, and Stansbury committed $2.5 million to satisfy Collins’ exit fee at Temple. So while the athletic director was highly sought after by the school and spearheaded a $125 million capital campaign, with the $82 million renovation of the Edge Athletics Center as the lead project, he’s catching heat. Football is the front door of an athletic department, and Collins’ hiring has been a costly mistake.
But Stansbury should recognize at this point that these are sunk costs. There’s no evidence to suggest Collins is going to succeed, and making a change soon at least will quiet the noise and make the atmosphere at remaining home games slightly more palatable. The Jackets are expected to lose the next two games at Central Florida (the Knights are favored by 20 1/2 points) and Pitt next week. A change could come after either likely defeat and before the next home game against Duke (Oct. 8).
Stansbury declined to comment Tuesday on Collins’ status or the state of the program.
I asked Collins what he would say to those who believe he has had long enough to prove himself and don’t believe he can turn things around.
“I understand all of that,” he said. “But I have a tremendous amount of confidence based on demonstrated ability. Now, has that shown up yet while we’ve been here? It has not. Do I have faith and belief in the process that we’re going about to do it? Absolutely. Do I have faith and belief in the young men who we’ve recruited and we’ve developed to take the next step? Absolutely.”
The “demonstrated ability” part of Collins’ comment is debatable. He went 15-10 in two seasons at Temple after his predecessor, Matt Rhule, went 20-7 the previous two seasons. It was a healthy program. Similarly, Tech went 7-6 the season before Collins’ arrival. It had slid late in Johnson’s tenure, but he had only three losing seasons in 11 years, and his .580 winning percentage ranks tied for fourth in program history with William Alexander, behind only John Heisman, Bobby Dodd and George O’Leary.
There’s a strong perception that Stansbury was sold on Collins in part because of his ability to sell and market the football program in a way that Johnson didn’t. While that may be true, losing negates all sales efforts, and a program’s talent can erode quickly in the era of the transfer portal and NIL.
“I remember the opening press conference and hearing the two words that got him the job were brand and culture,” Jackson said. “That struck me as odd at the time because Georgia Tech football is not an advertising agency on Madison Avenue. It’s a football team on North Avenue.”
Schultz: Jeff Sims on why he stayed at Georgia Tech
Two of Collins’ 10 wins have come against FCS programs Kennesaw State and Western Carolina. His only win in the past 10 games against an FBS opponent came over Duke in October (31-27 on a touchdown pass with 51 seconds left in the game). Collins’ team was shut out offensively at Temple (24-2). The scores of the past four games/maulings versus FBS opponents: Notre Dame (55-0), Georgia (45-0), Clemson (41-10), Ole Miss (42-0). Collins’ .270 winning percentage ranks as the second-worst of all coaches in the program’s history, behind only John McKee, who went 0-6-2 (.125) in one season in 1902 — before anybody really cared.
Collins revamped the offensive coaching staff and was expected to have some level of success with Jeff Sims, who opted not to transfer. But the Jackets have one touchdown in two games against teams not named Western Carolina. They have been shut out in three home games under Collins after not being blanked at home since 1957. They’ve had three punts blocked this season alone.
“You don’t even want to wear your Tech gear at times,” said former center Freddie Burden, who supports Collins’ firing.
In ESPN’s predictive rating system, Georgia Tech currently ranks 99th nationally out of 131 programs — behind the state’s two Group of 5 programs, Georgia Southern (86th) and Georgia State (98th). In Sagarin computer rankings of 261 FBS and FCS programs, Tech ranks 113th, between Incarnate Word and U.C. Davis.
A dozen players left the program via the transfer portal after last season. The total was close to the average for college programs, but it was noteworthy that running back Jahmyr Gibbs, by far the team’s best player, left for Alabama, and two other players, Mike Lockhart and Wesley Walker, referenced “uncertainty in the program” in social media posts on the way out the door.
It also was significant that five assistants left for other jobs, notably running back coach Tashard Choice, who went to Texas despite having played for the Jackets. Choice was their lead recruiter.
Burden said, “A change needs to be made, honestly. … We guaranteed a guy seven years, and we haven’t seen him be successful. I guess he was a pretty good coordinator. But what are we really doing? Coach is getting paid a crazy amount of money, and our budget is such that you can’t just go get anybody. It’s a tough spot for the AD and a tough spot for Collins, but at the end, I think you need to make a change.”
Former tackle Trey Braun, a recent president of Georgia Tech’s Letter Winners Club, said he doesn’t want to call for a firing because he believes “public complaining can have diminishing returns.” But he conceded the evidence to support a change is overwhelming.
“No one is in disagreement about the state of the program and the necessary path forward,” Braun said. “The only mistakes that can be made at this point are indecisiveness mistakes. I want things to move forward professionally, and that seems to be a lost art. Everything is so emotionalized.
“Now I understand the frustration at sitting in a state of limbo, especially since we’ve collected the data this season. There was a ubiquitous understanding that last Saturday was a form of a test, and there’s nothing left that can (dispute) that. We’ve gone through every test possible, and the results are in. Every opinion that matters is on the same page at this point. Everybody’s opinion, including the fan base, has been heard and validated. The results indicate there needs to be a change. I don’t want edifices of opinions to poke through. It’s important that the results speak for themselves.”
Laskey believes there’s a lack of accountability when players make mistakes. He puts that on Collins, who has refrained from criticizing players publicly: “I can appreciate a player’s coach and how he doesn’t want to throw anybody under the bus. But where’s the accountability? We’re not seeing it translate over from practice to games. You can see that with the blocked punts. I’m a little bit more old school. I think guys should be held accountable, and good teams should want to be called out. If you’re a good, tough team, you can take criticism.”
Roddy Jones, a former running back turned broadcaster, called the Ole Miss game “embarrassing” on his College Sports Now podcast and questioned the team’s toughness: “Not only are they not as talented as we were promised as they would be at this point, but there also seems to be no toughness to this team. There’s no want-to or will to win.”
Jones called this a “low point of Georgia Tech football over the last 50 years,” then reminded himself of the 1-10 season under Bill Lewis in 1994 and said, “maybe 25 years.”
This wasn’t expected. But Jackson recalls watching Collins’ introductory news conference, and, as a Knoxville native, he thought about former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, master of “championship of life.”
“It was reminiscent of a coach (Jones) who won every press conference, set expectations and said a lot of nice things, but when you set up expectations like that, it sent up a lot of red flags for me,” he said. “Then we get on the field, you watch us lose to The Citadel and Northern Illinois and not even being competitive against the Clemsons and the Georgias of the world. It made it pretty obvious we were not headed in the right direction. And it’s tough right now. I hate it for the players, I hate it for the fans. Everybody wants to be just relevant.”
Reminded that Jones actually had two nine-win seasons at Tennessee, Jackson said, “Yeah, it’s probably a disservice to Butch Jones to compare the two.”
(Top photo: Jeff Schultz / The Athletic)