Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof talks to his defense on the sidelines during last week’s game against Virginia Tech at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)
ATLANTA — It may not be completely accurate to say that Ted Roof’s return to Georgia Tech as its defensive coordinator is a case of his career coming full circle.
After all, the Lawrenceville native and 1982 Central Gwinnett grad has traveled many paths away from The Flats after an All-ACC career as a linebacker for the Yellow Jackets in the early 1980s, and then returning to coach at Tech in the late ’90s.
Yet, it seems like every road out of town has eventually led him right back home.
“I guess it’s come full circle,” said Roof, who has returned to live in Gwinnett County near his childhood home with his wife Pam and twin sons Terrence and Michael. “I’ve gotten back to Georgia Tech now in the same job as I had 14 years ago. A lot of different experiences have happened to me which I’ve learned from, but it’s really exciting to be back.”
A lot of things have changed for both Roof and the Jackets since he started as a graduate assistant at Alabama in 1987 under his former Tech coach Bill Curry in 1987.
Aside from being 26 years older, the now 49-year-old has seen the game, and himself, evolve in stops at West Georgia, Duke, Massachusetts, Tech, Minnesota, Auburn and Penn State over that span, which included a four-year stint as head coach at Duke from 2003-07.
And he’s definitely seen a lot of changes in his many trips into and out of the metro Atlanta area, including Gwinnett County.
“Everything changes over the course of time,” Roof said. “I’ve been back here recruiting, but just the population of (the area) and how much it’s changed has really struck me. And I have changed somewhat. … As you go through the deal, there are some things in coaching that probably as younger coach, I would’ve spent more time on and would’ve wasted energy on.
“Now I focus on things I believe in that win football games. Maybe my perspective as a dad has helped me understand that the guy I’m coaching is somebody’s most important thing in the world to them. I get that.”
But make no mistake, the things that have most definitely not changed about Roof are his intensity and hard-nosed approach football.
They were his trademarks during his All-County career with the Black Knights and carried over to his career at Tech, where he currently ranks seventh in school history with 417 career tackles, and into his coaching career.
His current players will attest to that.
“He’s stresses the attitude,” said senior defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu, who had 10 tackles, two for loss, including a sack heading into the Jackets’ game at No. 14 Miami on Saturday. “It’s about the mindset and attitude of guys who like competition and who are not afraid of controversy when it comes to competition. That’s really what he and (defensive line) Coach (Mike) Pelton have come in and really brought that in — guys competing for positions and bringing out the best in each other.”
But as intense and competitive as Roof is, there is another aspect — besides stability — he’s brought back to the Tech defense that has been absent from a unit that has giving up an average of 25 or more points the last four seasons and has gone through three other defensive coordinators.
“The coaches are trying to instill (in us) that we’re actually having fun out there with each other and making plays,” said junior linebacker Quayshawn Nealy, who had 17 tackles heading into Saturday’s game.
Indeed, after enduring much criticism and some adversity over the past several years, Roof has emphasized the joy of playing football in order to instill a more fun atmosphere around the Tech defense this season.
It’s an approach that helped him reach players that faced considerably more adversity a year ago, when he joined Bill O’Brien’s staff at Penn State as the program began dealing with the aftermath of the scandal that led to the prosecution and conviction of former Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and tarnished the reputation of legendary late head coach Joe Paterno.
With the loss of scholarships and other sanctions levied against the Penn State program allowing players to transfer without penalty, O’Brien, Roof and the other coaches had to convince them it was worth their while to stay.
It proved to be one of the biggest challenges of his career, he said, but also a very satisfying experience, as the Nittany Lions’ defense allowed just 19.1 points (ranking 19th nationally) and 353.4 (29th) during a surprising 8-4 season.
“That was unprecedented,” Roof said of last season. “What (we) were going through was, … we were having to recruit our own players. But last year was one of the most rewarding as a coach.
“When all the dust settled, we had a group of kids loved each other, loved Penn State and loved to work. All we had was each other. It was almost football in the purest sense. I was not about one person. It was all about the team. So, it was one of the most enjoyable seasons of my life.”
Based on early returns, that positive attitude seems to be rubbing off on the Jackets’ defense, which entered Satrurday’s game ranking ninth nationally in total defense (275.5 yards per game) and tied for eighth in scoring defense at 12.8 points per game.
“Coach Roof is an intelligent man and an experienced guy,” Attaochu said. “He’s been a head coach. He knows how to treat players and communicate with us. We’re student-athletes. He’s been there. He’s gone to Georgia Tech with the academic rigors. So, he can relate on a much deeper level. Me personally, I enjoy that.
“He encourages us. Game day is our day to have fun and really enjoy the college football (experience).”
It is that experience which has not only brought respect and instant credibility from his players, but a lot of confidence from Tech head coach Paul Johnson.
“Yeah, I’m confident in Ted or I wouldn’t have hired him,” Johnson said. “I think Ted brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm and I think our players really enjoyed playing for him this spring. He’s had a lot of experience. He’s been not only a head coach in our league, he’s been a defensive coordinator at a couple schools in the Big Ten and SEC. So he’s been around the block.”
But no matter how far around the block Roof has been, he always seems to find his way back to where he started.
“We’re all a product of our experience,” Roof said. “And I have had a lot over the last few years. It shapes you, molds you, cuts to core of who you are. You’re not going to veer off from what you believe.
“I believe in the habits that Georgia Tech teaches. They’re the same habits that make you a success at life. I believe in Georgia Tech.”