AUBURN - As Rodney Garner played his final season at Leeds High School, Auburn was on its way to a Southeastern Conference championship, its first under Pat Dye. But Garner really wasn't all that interested.
Rodney Garner says his heart always was at Auburn/Todd Van Emst photo
Garner, a highly recruited defensive line prospect, had committed to Alabama. He didn't like Auburn. It didn't even matter that his cousin, Charles Barkley, was on his way to become one of the great basketball players in Auburn history.
"I did not grow up an Auburn fan at all," Garner says with a laugh. "I'd committed to (Alabama assistant) Ken Donahue in the 10th grade. I always watched Charles play when they played in Tuscaloosa. I wouldn't even go down to Auburn to see him play."
But Auburn assistant Bobby Wallace was persistent and finally convinced Garner to take a visit.
"He came and wanted me to go to the Maryland game," Garner says. "I didn't really want to go, but I ended up going with four or five other guys. Charles went somewhere else and let us stay in his dorm room that night. The rest is history. I was hooked."
Dye convinced Garner, his mother, Mevla, and everyone close to him that Auburn was the place to be.
"Coach Dye was just so down to earth," Garner says. "He visited my grandparents, went to their house. I still remember him washing dishes at my house after he ate pound cake and stuff. It had that family feel. I think it is unique. It really is family."
And that's how Garner became an Auburn man for life.
Garner went on to become an All-SEC offensive guard and was part of two SEC championships. He coached at Auburn from 1990-1995, moved to Tennessee and then to Georgia, where he spent the past 14 seasons. Last month, first-year head coach Gus Malzahn called him home as associate head coach, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator.
Rodney Garner in his playing days
"Even though I had different letters on my chest," Garner says, "I always had Auburn in my heart."
It is Monday morning, nine days before National Signing Day, and Garner is already on the road headed toward Atlanta. Later, he'd be in Kansas. He was in Indiana over the weekend and will be in New Jersey on Wednesday. There'll be time for rest later.
"It's great being home, selling something you believe in," Garner says. "It's good for me personally and professionally. It's been good for my family."
Garner's wife, Kim, and their five daughters haven't yet made the move from Athens, but they have made the trip for every recruiting weekend. His mother, who still lives in Leeds, will be in town next weekend. And Garner relishes it all.
"I have always wanted to be back home," Garner says. "I always refer to Auburn as home. In my heart, that's how I feel about it. You want to make sure you come home at the right time. I just felt like this was the right time. I feel blessed. Auburn is just special."
The memories came rushing back for Garner when he arrived on Dec. 21. He'd not been in the Auburn Football Complex since leaving the coaching staff in 1995. Sewell Hall, where he lived for five years as a player, was gone, construction on fancy new dormitories taking its place.
"A lot of things have changed, but it still is the same," Garner says. "It still has that home feeling. I can still remember getting out of that car and walking in the dorm and seeing Benji (Roland) and Rob Selby and all those guys standing there."
Rodney Garner spent 14 seasons at Georgia
Roland, now a pharmaceutical salesman, remembers, too. He and Garner competed for playing time on the defensive line and later went head-to-head on opposite sides of the ball. Along the way, they became as close as brothers.
"When he told me he was coming, I was elated," Roland says. "It's an advantage for our football program to have a guy of his caliber, his coaching ability, his recruiting ability, his love for this university, his wife being from here, his daughters.
"Rodney and I go back for years. It doesn't matter if he's the coach at Tennessee or Georgia or Auburn. He's a friend of mine. He always will be."
Garner says there is something special about the staff Malzahn has assembled to take Auburn forward from last season's 3-9 disaster.
"I love this staff," Garner says. "I think it's unreal. I think everybody loves coming to work every day. As an Auburn man, it makes me smile to see guys excited to come in and work for my school every day."
Those coaches face a major challenge. They must restore confidence to a program that won the national championship two years ago but was outscored 150-21 in its last three SEC games last season and staggered to the worst Auburn season in 60 years, costing Gene Chizik and all his assistants their jobs.
"I think there are good kids at Auburn," Garner says. "They are resilient. I told my guys we're not going to focus on what was in the past. I definitely take on Coach Gus' motto that it's a new day. There are a lot of challenges, a lot of things that have to be corrected.
"We are going to do it the right way, with hard work, with discipline. We are going to have an unbelievable work ethic, pride. It's going to mean something. It's not going to be phony. We are all going to follow our leader. That's the only way I know how to do it. I think these kids are going to buy into it and we are going to roll our sleeves up and go to work."
That will show, Garner says, on the field and off, not just in how players perform but in how they live their lives.
"In phase one, I think they are going to represent Auburn in a first-class manner," Garner says. "I think parents are going to see some differences and kids are going to see some differences. It's easy to work for something you believe in, something you love. Even when you are tired, you will go the second mile."