Taking charge mid-season meanwhile comes with obvious challenges. Something went very wrong and there is little time to make corrections. Being the permanent head coach comes with many more difficulties including hiring a staff. Key is a technician, which is important. But he was only a one-season coordinator at a Group of Five school, with poor results.
Those are the potential downsides to hiring Key as a permanent head coach, where “permanent” in his job means “until further notice.” I still say Batt should do it. It’s not just that Key’s Jackets have won more games than they’ve lost. They’ve also developed a resilience they just didn’t have with Collins.
His tenure ended with nine straight losses to FBS opponents. There have been four consecutive uncompetitive attempts against Power Five opponents. The same team that used to give up too many times began to step in with Key as the leader. So many times the jackets have appeared forever downcast just to get off the mat.
Tech had a bye week after starting 2-0 with Key. There was optimism around the program again. Then the Jackets lost at home to Virginia, the ACC Coastal’s worst team before they were buried in Florida state. The next week, the Jackets overcame an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win at Virginia Tech. Tech returned home thinking of a bowl game, only to collapse against middling Miami in the fourth quarter.
No. 2 QB Zach Pyron suffered a season-ending injury during that game. Key soon announced that No. 1 QB Jeff Sims would not play again this season. The Jackets were physically battered and weighed down by a difficult season. So I thought they would be in No. 13 North Carolina to be blown out.
My prognosis looked good when Tech fell 17-0 down early on. However, the Jackets scored 21 straight points to win as underdogs with three touchdowns. North Carolina, the ACC’s highest-scoring team, was ruled out because of its last six possessions. It was the latest and greatest effort from Key’s brave jackets.
Key has shown he deserves to keep his job. Maybe I’m the wrong person to talk to on this topic because I also thought Collins was the right coach for Tech. My argument made sense: Collins has a long track record of being a good recruiter, including a stint as a tech assistant, and he had coordinated a good defense at the SEC.
Collins upped tech recruitment in the post-option era. Coaching is where he fell short. Running defense in the top league in the country for five seasons and two years as Temple head coach did not translate into success as Tech head coach. Collins seemed a good fit with Tech. It just didn’t work. It happens.
Key’s resume is relatively thin compared to Collins’. He was the 2015 offensive coordinator for Central Florida under former tech coach George O’Leary. The Knights ranked 126th out of 128 FBS teams in terms of points scored. Prior to this season, O’Leary, who was also interim athletic director, endorsed Key as his successor. But O’Leary withdrew after an 0-8 start and the school’s president announced that the next head coach would come from outside the program.
Key became an offensive line coach in Alabama under Nick Saban. In 2019 he returned to his alma mater for the same position and more money. Batt, a former administrator at Bama, must decide if Key should be the permanent head coach without seeing him work as a coordinator. It’s a delicate situation.
Saban confirmed the point to AJC Tech beat writer Ken Sugiura last month. Saban listed what he saw as Key’s positive qualities at Alabama: recruiting, relationship building, communication, and bringing out the best in the players under his stewardship. But he added:
“When you have someone in a position of responsibility like a coordinator, it’s a little bit easier to assess whether they would be able to take that next step and be a head because they have a leadership position for a whole group coach. Sometimes it’s hard to judge if someone is just an assistant coach. But I think (Key’s) has all the ingredients to become one.”
Swinney did that to Clemson. Then-athletic director Terry Don Phillips had identified Swinney as the head coach during his more than five years as an offensive assistant. Swinney had never committed a crime, but Phillips recognized his leadership qualities. Swinney built Clemson into a national power.
If Tech hires Key as a permanent coach, he’s unlikely to win as big as Swinney. On the other hand, Key was unlikely to make the Jackets competitive after acquiring Collins. Batt should give him a chance to do more as Tech’s head coach.