“I’m just happy for him, I really am,” said Mac McWhorter, Keys line coach during his time at Tech. “I’ve said it so many times. Every school has a fit. And he fits Georgia Tech so well because he’s a graduate and a former player and then he has a great coaching resume to bring back to Georgia Tech.
McWhorter has remained close to Key over the years — earlier this season he called Key “what every parent would want for a son” — and stayed in touch with him while he was acting interim coach at the Jackets.
“He said, ‘Well, we talked and talked and they keep telling me, just keep doing my job,’ and that’s about it,” McWhorter said. “He was really keen on just working for Tech.”
Ahead of Tech’s final game against Georgia – McWhorter’s alma mater – he got a text from Key wanting to know which team McWhorter was crossing his fingers for in the game.
“I wrote back and said ‘Brent Key,'” McWhorter said. “And that was the honest truth.”
McWhorter said Key was the first player he coached in his 40-year career and went on to become a collegiate-level head coach.
“Very, very satisfying,” he said. “I love seeing my ex-players do well at everything they do.”
The sentiment is similar for former Key teammates.
“It’s pretty nice to think that the guy you played next to for four years is going to be running the entire program now,” said David Schmidgall, who was at center alongside Key on the right. “Pretty exciting. It’s hard to believe.”
Schmidgall, who continues to own season tickets while living in Tampa, Fla., watched with interest as Key led the Jackets to a 4-4 record in the final eight games of the season, which led to athletic director J Batt on Tuesday removed the temporary tag .
“I’m really happy for him and I think it’s going to be a great take and just what they need now,” said Schmidgall. “Exactly what he has shown, has proven itself for a three quarter season and is exactly what the program needs. I think it will be a great fit.”
O’Leary said that when Key was on his staff — he worked for O’Leary in 2001 at Tech as a research assistant and then from 2005-15 when he worked his way up from GA to offensive coordinator — his attention to detail and work habits told him that one day he could become head coach.
“I used to walk the hallways and look at the guys who were on the phone and the guys who were watching movies,” O’Leary said. “He’s always been a guy who was always watching movies. This is how you improve. You don’t improve on the phone.”
O’Leary, who also had former coach Geoff Collins on his staff at Tech and UCF, kept a close eye on Tech during Key’s transition and broke down Sunday morning’s games with him over the phone. When O’Leary watches teams play, he notices a few things – are they playing hard? Are they playing smart? do they play together Do they play enthusiastically?
“I’ve seen that since Brent took over,” O’Leary said. “I saw that from the first to the last minute. They obviously need better players in some areas, but I think that’s why you hire a coach to recruit him and give him the opportunity to get the program right. I’m glad they made that decision.”
O’Leary himself got the job at Tech after three games as an interim in 1994 in place of Bill Lewis.
“I think sometimes people look everywhere to try and find the right fit, and the fit is right there in the same building that you work in,” O’Leary said.
Like Key, O’Leary had never been a collegiate-level head coach before then-athletic director Homer Rice gave him the job, almost 28 years to the day before Key’s promotion. In O’Leary’s seven seasons, Tech went 52-33, shared an ACC title, finished in the top 25 five times, played in five bowl games, and defeated Georgia in three straight seasons for the first time since the Bobby Dodd era.
“There’s a process to becoming a head coach,” O’Leary said. “You pay your dues and work your way up the ladder. Other head coaches, they’re not always the right answer. I think Georgia Tech is now in a position to have the man in place who can get them back to where they need to be.”
O’Leary described Key as enthusiastic about the job. O’Leary was feeling pretty good too.
“I’m happy for him because I think he put his heart and soul into the job, as much as the passion takes it,” O’Leary said. “And it wasn’t false passion, which is usually an instant read. It was a real passion that he wanted to be here.”