The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have played the Air Force Academy Falcons three times overall before the upcoming Independence Bowl held in Shreveport, Louisiana. All three games came during the Pepper Rodgers era, specifcally 1977, 1978, and 1979. The Jackets played Air Force in a 2-for-1 special. We discussed the 1977 game in Atlanta as well as the historically significant 1978 blizzard game. Today, we will wrap up our look back at the Georgia Tech vs. Air Force Series with a discussion of the 1979 matchup held in Atlanta.
On March 2, 1979, Bill Parcells resigned as he was being pushed out by the Air Force fans. The Academy hired his offensive coordinator Ken Hatfield as the head coach a day after his resignation. Al Groh, who stayed on for his second year as defensive coordinator, hired a young man coming out of his graduate assistant position from Troy State as his defensive backfield coach, Chan Gailey.
Both teams were playing poorly in build up to the game. Tech was 2-5-1 as Mike Kelley struggled through his sophomore slump. The Atlanta Constitution reported:
Tech broke a four-game losing streak last week, while Air Force broke an 11-game losing streak, which had been the nation's longest. Tech, 2-5-1, beat Duke 24-14, and Air Force, 0-8-1, upset Army 17-7. Ken Hatfield, an assistant under Doug Dickey at both Tennessee and Florida, has had a tough first year. Air Force has lost eight games but only twice to winning teams....
Key Matchup - Tech QB Mike Kelley vs. Air Force defense: To have any chance at victory Air Force must limit both Kelley's running and passing. Kelley killed Duke last week with 340 yards total offense.
What Air Force needed to stop wasn't Mike Kelley necessarily, it was a freshman who was benched because of his inclination to fumble the football. In five games, Ronny Cone, the father of Tech receiver Kevin Cone, had fumbled the ball five times. Given one last chance to prove himself, Papa Cone ran over Air Force for 156 yards and a touchdown while never losing the football. He didn't fumble the ball once in a 21-0 shutout victory over Hatfield's hapless airmen.
Pepper Rodgers evaluated Cone's performance and gave a response that most of us would expect from Paul Johnson:
That's the type of yardage that you need [and expect] from a tailback in the I-formation. - Coach Pepper Rodgers
After the victory, Georgia Tech came back and beat Navy 24-14 before losing to georgie 16-3 in Athens. It was also the end of the Pepper Rodgers Era on The Flats as another one of Bobby Dodd's former players was hired to take over. Bill Curry resigned as offensive line coach for the Green Bay Packers in 1980 and was hired by Georgia Tech on January 7th, 1980. He would become Georgia Tech's 7th professional head coach. Ronny Cone overcame his fumble-itis and continued to have a stellar career with Georgia Tech. He accumulated 13 offensive touchdowns and 2,196 yards of offense from Curry's fullback position. Cone was later drafted by the New York Jets in 1984.
The Air Force Academy wouldn't see a winning season until 1982. Ken Hatfield put together two solid seasons and was whisked away by Arkansas. Hatfield was followed by legendary and controversial Air Force stalwart Fisher DeBerry. Al Groh left the Academy in 1979 to become the linebackers coach at Texas Tech while Chan Gailey took over as defensive coordinator in 1981 and left Air Force in 1983 to become the head coach of Troy.