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Rearview Mirror: Historical Head Coaches

From Heisman to Alexander to Dodd, these are the men who have guided Georgia Tech football.

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Bobby Ross as the header image of a From the Rumble Seat article - bet you never thought you’d see that.
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It seems to be the theme this week here at From the Rumble Seat that we’re talking coaches. And so, Rearview Mirror is going to be taking a look back at the history of head coaches here on the Flats, from Lt. Leonard Wood all the way to Paul Johnson. Welcome to the long look back at some of the great men who have guided the Yellow Jackets.

We’re going to take the broad approach and peek into the story of the eighteen men who have headed up the Georgia Tech Football program.

Head Coaches

Coach Years (Seasons) Record Percentage
Coach Years (Seasons) Record Percentage
Earnest E. West 1892 (1) 0-3 0.000
F. O. Spain / Lt. L. Wood 1893-94 (2) 2-4-1 0.357
R.B. “Cow” Nalley 1898 (1) 0-3 0.000
H.T. Collier 1899-1900 (2) 0-9 0.000
Dr. Cyrus Strickler 1901 (1) 4-0-1 0.900
John McKee 1902-03 (2) 2-11-2 0.200
John Heisman 1904-19 (16) 102-29-7 0.764
William Alexander 1920-44 (25) 134-95-15 0.580
Bobby Dodd 1945-66 (22) 165-64-8 0.713
Bud Carson 1967-71 (5) 27-27 0.500
Bill Fulcher 1972-73 (2) 12-10-1 0.543
Pepper Rodgers 1974-79 (6) 34-31-2 0.522
Bill Curry 1980-86 (7) 31-43-4 0.423
Bobby Ross 1987-91 (5) 31-26-1 0.543
Bill Lewis 1992-94 (3) 11-19 0.367
George O’Leary 1994-2001 (7) 52-30 0.634
Chan Gailey 2002-07 (6) 44-32 0.579
Paul Johnson 2008-18 (11) 83-60 0.580
Here’s the short version. Data sourced from Georgia Tech Football Media Guide, 2018 season record.

Earnest E. West

I wasn’t expecting to find much on him, but to paraphrase what I did find, he intended to go into the navy after going to Annapolis, was a lawyer, professor, coach, and fullback at Tech, and a marine. Truly an interesting man, though subject to a tragic demise.

F. O. Spain and Lt. Leonard Wood

The former? Not much info. The latter, perhaps the most fascinating man ever to head the Georgia Tech football program, though John Heisman would likely be offended if he were around to read this. Though Teddy Roosevelt is the most noted Rough Rider that charged up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, it is actually Wood who led that unit, and who was later named governor-general of both Cuba and the Philippines. Though he was passed over during World War One, he was a leading choice for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920. Oh, and after enrolling in classes while stationed at Fort McPherson, he was the first coach to lead Georgia Tech to a victory over the school in Athens, its first ever win.

R.B. “Cow” Nalley

After starring for the Athenians the year before, Nalley led the Yellow Jackets to a winless season, and that’s all she wrote.

H.T. Collier

Another one I wasn’t expecting to find much one, Collier was a baseball and football start at the University of North Carolina in 1895 before transferring to Virginia and playing three years there. Just out of college, he left to coach Tulane for a season while he attended medical school and was in a secret society before winding up in Atlanta for a year as well. He was winless in both stints.

Dr. Cyrus Strickler

It would make sense if this is him, but who’s to say? The Wikipedia entry describes a man who was a clinical medicine professor at Emory, so the location and profession seems accurate.

John McKee

The Wikipedia article and the Georgia Tech media guide don’t agree. Fighting ensues?

John Heisman

A renaissance man, and a man who was good at football. He left Tech after engineering the school’s rise to national consciousness, thanks to his innovative mind for the game and his tenacious press to be the very, very best at absolutely every aspect of the sport. Even when he left, it seemed his teams were just then reaching their full potential. He was the mastermind behind the 222-0 shellacking of Cumberland, several conference titles, the 1917 national championship, and the impetus behind the formalization of Tech’s home grounds in the valley between Tech Tower and the rest of Atlanta. There are so many words that could be said, and indeed many already have been, but his own words sum him up pretty well: “it is better to die a small boy than to fumble this football.”

William Alexander

Another man about whom much has been written. He was the heir to Heisman, a true Tech man from the very beginning. William Alexander, “Captain of the Scrubs,” was a student, athlete, professor, coach, and athletic director at Georgia Tech. He led Tech to the Rose Bowl and its second national championship and through the trying straits of the depression years. He was immortalized in the Alexander Memorial Coliseum after years of trying and failing to get Tech basketball a proper on-campus home. Coach Alex was young and popular when he was hired, and reinvigorated the program. His “Plan” remains one of the most amazing examples of extreme rivalry pettiness in the history of sports. He founded the Yellow Jacket Club, which exists today as the Ramblin’ Reck Club. His service as athletic director paved the way to sustainable non-revenue sports at Tech. And, above all, he cared deeply for his athletes and their well-being, until he died in 1950.

Bobby Dodd

Dodd took over for Alexander after serving him as an assistant coach for fifteen years. He spent his entire career as a Yellow Jacket, becoming athletic director after Alex died, and led the Yellow Jackets to two conference titles, as well as both a claimed national championship and an unclaimed national championship before going independent to protest the horrific treatment of student athletes by the Southeastern Conference, most notably through the 140 Rule. Though he was never an all-star student growing up, Dodd understood the power of education, and respected his young men thoroughly. He was known as lucky, but the better way to put it is probably shrewd. He lived rent-free in the heads of Wally Butts and Bear Bryant. And it suited him well, as he is Tech’s winningest coach of all time.

Bud Carson

Carson’s time on the Flats was perfectly mediocre at 27-27, though he led Tech to a Sun Bowl as well as a Peach Bowl. As the handpicked successor to Bobby Dodd, many great things were expected of him, but he had fulfilled little of them when he was ousted by interim president James Boyd, a curious, though fairly well-supported move. He would go on to be a solid NFL coach, mostly working with defense, with the exception of one stint as head coach, and became the father of the Cover 2 defense.

Bill Fulcher

Fulcher again was decent, though not great. He first came to Tech as a star player for the great mid-fifties Dodd teams, and went on to play professionally. He was an assistant for both Dodd and Carson before becoming head coach for a year at the University of Tampa. He made one bowl in two years, and was ousted despite finishing at 20 in the Coaches Poll after a Liberty Bowl win in just his first year.

Pepper Rodgers

Though he was the quarterback that led Tech to two SEC championships and one national championship, Rodgers wasn’t quite all that for his alma mater once he became the coach. Though he marched the Kansas Jayhawks to a conference title and an Orange Bowl appearance, then performed another short turnaround at UCLA, his season at Tech were largely mediocre and went 4-6-1 in his last season on the Flats. His only bowl appearance was a loss in the Peach Bowl. He did, however, write a work of realistic fiction about the game called Fourth and Long Gone that I just found out about and it sounds fascinating.

Bill Curry

Let’s just preface with this: his full name is William Alexander Curry. If there was a man born to be a Tech man, he was it. He was born in College Park and played center for Bobby Dodd before spending more than a decade in the NFL. He came back to Tech to coach under Rodgers, before leaving for two years for the Green Bay Packers. He and another former Rodgers assistant, a young man named Steve Spurrier, were up for the Tech head coaching job. Curry got it and spent more than half a decade on the Flats, starting abysmally, with two wins in two years, before bounding upwards, peaking at nine wins in his penultimate season, finishing ranked with a bowl win. He ultimately left for Alabama, later heading to Kentucky, before midwifing the Georgia State football team into existence.

Bobby Ross

Ross coached Tech to its most recent national championship. He has won four ACC titles ever, though only one came with Tech. He and George O’Leary are the only two coaches to win the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award while coaching Bobby Dodd’s team. He left on his own accord to become the successful coach of the San Diego Chargers.

Bill Lewis

Though he was successful in previous stints, he was not at Georgia Tech. He was let go midway through the 1994 season after starting 1-7.

George O’Leary

O’Leary was thrust into the head coaching spot midway through the 1994 season, though it was not his first role as Tech. In two previous stints, he has served as the defensive line coach of the Yellow Jackets, both for the 1990 national champions under Bobby Ross, as well as under Bill Lewis. He started Tech’s bowl streak after a down start, and coached the Jackets to three straight wins over the school out east. The 1998 team were the ACC Co-Champions, and he even reached as high as 10 wins. However, he was generally a scandal-prone coach and the effects of his ineligible players would spill over into the next coach’s tenure. He left for Notre Dame, but never coached there due to inaccuracies on his resume, before heading to the NFL, and later Central Florida.

Chan Gailey

Look up mediocrity in a textbook and the tenure of Chan Gailey at Georgia Tech might appear next to the definition. He went to a bowl each year of his tenure, but he never beat the Athenians and never won more than seven games. His contract was bought out to hire some flexbone guy from a service academy.

Paul Johnson

Yeah, you might say he did alright on the Flats. His first team narrowly missed a conference championship. His second beat Clemson twice in one year to do it. Multiple eclectic season later, he secured an Orange Bowl title after coming darn close to making the inaugural College Football Playoff running an offense that receives an undue amount of hate and managing not one, but a plethora of wins that will be remembered as all time greats. The memories were many, and much more could be said, but condensed into a single paragraph, he was our fearless leader, always wont to go for it on fourth down, firm in his beliefs, and an inspirer of fierce loyalty in those whose lives he touched on the Flats. He will be missed, but, as the longest-serving and winningest coach on the Flats since Dodd himself, he earned his place etched in the history books with those greats.

This weird, one-off finals week edition of Rearview Mirror wasn’t really supposed to be yet more information about head coaches. But the facts are facts. Might as well learn about our past triumphs, as well as mistakes. After all, those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it. And I wavered about making this just my editorial about the whole situation, but Chris has already waxed poetic about the legacy of Paul Johnson, and there’s plenty of opinion on this very site. In the end, Georgia Tech is a school of innovators. We exist for progress and service, to create the next. And no matter who is introduced as the next head coach of Georgia Tech, we can best hope they do the best yet in making that their creed, and the goal of the department as a whole. In the meantime, I think Andy Bernard said it best. Like it or not, we’re living in a moment in history right now, a moment which will define Georgia Tech to come in ways we don’t even know yet. So slow down. Savor it. Remember it. And be thankful that we have such great memories of the last eleven storied seasons to hold on to thanks to the eighteenth man to helm the Yellow Jackets.

If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule, as the column is only planned out through this very column. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading the latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.