AUBURN, Ala. — There are constants on nearly every coaching staff in America.
They hold things together when head coaches need help, whether it is in the locker room or the recruiting trail. They serve as parents for players far away from family. They help guide head coaches as they make decisions. They are the best of the best on the staff. More importantly, they are consistent in everything they do.
For Auburn, that man is Rodney Garner.
The defensive line coach and associate head coach has long been considered one of the nation’s best recruiters. He has also sent more than his fair share of players to the NFL (28), including six first-round draft picks.
But it’s in turbulent times that coaches prove their worth out of the sight of fans and reporters.
Garner’s importance on Auburn’s staff was never more apparent than in December, when defensive coordinator Will Muschamp left to become the head coach at South Carolina and took two defensive assistants (secondary coach Travaris Robinson and linebackers coach Lance Thompson).
As staff members bolted, Garner worked to keep the Tigers’ recruiting class together, including a defensive line haul that finished the recruiting season ranked as the nation’s best. None left the Tigers.
“It’s overlooked,” said linebackers coach Travis Williams, who was elevated from graduate assistant in January. “He’s the best in the business. He’s a good man, he cares about the kids, he coaches them hard, but he cares about them. We go to church and I have my linebackers with me and he has the D-line with him.”
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn often refers to Garner as the nation’s best defensive line coach — a line he repeated at SEC Media Days. He was the coach Malzahn chased the hardest to join Auburn’s staff in late 2012. The draw of coaching at his alma mater, and Garner knowing he would remain on staff as long as Malzahn remained at Auburn, was enough for him to return to his alma mater before the 2013 season.
The praise for Garner seems universal at times.
“I love working with Rodney Garner every day,” offensive line coach Herb Hand said.
Perhaps it’s fitting Garner receives a $50,000 retention bonus every February in the wake of stressful days on the recruiting trail. Garner has consistently been one of Auburn’s better recruiters.
Auburn’s latest haul along the defensive line will bolster an already-deep group on paper. Five-star Derrick Brown was the crown jewel of the entire 2016 class — offense or defense — and five of the six signees were rated as four-star prospects or higher.
“It was just a great team effort,” Garner said, swatting away the praise in April. “Everybody did a great job. Our current players did a great job, the entire staff did a tremendous job, especially with the turnover that we had and all that. For us to stick together and put forth the united front, I think that was really good.
“I’ve always said: ‘Auburn is a great, great product. And it’s an easy product to sell.’”
Four-star newcomer Marlon Davidson was one of three players to arrive on campus in January and proved to be the surprise of the spring, stepping in for the injured Paul James III at defensive end. He could see plenty of playing time this upcoming season despite being a player many overlooked while focusing on Brown and others.
Players view Garner as a second father, a man that is tough on them on the field and personable off the turf. Williams said he often leans on Garner for his on- and off-the-field wisdom. So does Malzahn.
“Obviously to be in the college game you want to feel like you’re having a positive impact on young men’s lives and it’s not just football,” Garner said. “It’s not just X’s and O’s. I really want to make a difference. I want them to see me as a husband, see me as a father, that someone they can interact with and come up there and shut the door and I’m going to listen to them and I’m going to talk to them and I care about what’s going on in their lives. I care about what’s going on with their families.”
Williams has seen it in person, whether it’s on the road talking to recruits or behind closed doors at the Auburn Athletics Complex.
“If I’m a father or parent,” said Williams, “I’m sending my kid to coach Garner.”
Garner, an All-SEC offensive lineman in 1988, played for Auburn, of course, and coached there for several years before leaving for Tennessee and later Georgia. All he has known is the SEC. Success has followed him everywhere, and his coaching style and personality stems from his time at Auburn and helping raise five daughters.
“I think that’s what truly made Auburn such a special place for me,” Garner said. “I never felt like I was just a number. I felt like coach (Pat) Dye valued every one of us. Our position coach valued every one of us and we felt loved. It’s an extension of our families, even when we left home.”