Pepper Rodgers, who helped lead Georgia Tech football to the 1952 national championship as a student-athlete and later served for six seasons as the Yellow Jackets’ head coach, died Thursday in Reston, Va. He was 88.
Born Franklin Cullen Rodgers in Atlanta on Oct. 8, 1931, Rodgers was a three-sport high school star at Atlanta’s Brown High School, winning a state championship in football as a senior in 1949. He stayed in Atlanta to attend Georgia Tech, where he was a three-year football letter-winner under legendary head coach Bobby Dodd from 1951-53 (freshmen were ineligible to compete in varsity athletics at the time).
A quarterback and place-kicker, Rodgers helped lead the Yellow Jackets to the 1952 national championship. He threw a touchdown pass and kicked a field goal and three extra points in the Jackets’ 24-7 win over Ole Miss in the 1953 Sugar Bowl, which clinched Tech’s third national title (and first in 24 years). He capped his collegiate career by passing for 195 yards and three touchdowns and kicking a field goal and two extra points on his way to being named MVP of the Yellow Jackets’ 42-19 rout over West Virginia in the 1954 Sugar Bowl. In 2018, he was a member of the inaugural class of the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame.
Georgia Tech compiled a 32-2-3 overall record, claimed two SEC championships and won three major bowl games (1952 Orange Bowl, 1953 and ’54 Sugar Bowls) in Rodgers’ three seasons on the squad.
“I am devastated to learn of the passing of Pepper Rodgers," Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury said. "He was a Georgia Tech legend, having won a national championship as an outstanding player and going on to compile four winning seasons in six years as head coach. On a personal note, he was the coach that recruited me to Georgia Tech, and I am eternally grateful to him for bringing me here. If it weren’t for Pepper, I would have never had the opportunity to live out my dreams as a Tech student, football player, alumnus and, now, athletics director.
"He has also been a mentor and friend throughout my professional career and I will miss him greatly. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Livingston, his family and his many, many friends. We have lost a great Tech man.”
Rodgers was selected in the 12th round of the 1954 National Football League Draft by the Baltimore Colts, but instead entered the U.S. Air Force, where he was a pilot for five years.
After his stint as an aviator, he joined the coaching ranks as an assistant at Air Force. He spent nine seasons as an assistant, two at Air Force (1958-59), five at Florida (1960-64) and two at UCLA (1965-66) before landing his first head coaching position at Kansas in 1967. In 1968, his second season at Kansas, he led the Jayhawks to a 9-2 record, the Big Eight championship, a berth in the Orange Bowl and a No. 6 final national ranking. The conference championship remains the last one that KU has won.
Following four seasons at Kansas, he was named head coach at UCLA in 1971. In 1972 and ’73, he led UCLA to records of 8-3 and 9-2. After leading the Bruins to a No. 9 final national ranking in ’73, he returned to his alma mater as Georgia Tech’s head coach in 1974. As Tech’s head coach from 1974-79, he led the Yellow Jackets to four winning seasons in six years, highlighted by a Peach Bowl berth in 1978. Among his most notable wins as the Jackets’ head coach was a 24-3 triumph over No. 12 Notre Dame in 1976, a game that Tech won without throwing a pass.
He was a six-time coach of the year in his 13 seasons as a collegiate head coach – two-time Big Eight Coach of the Year at Kansas, two-time Pac-8 Coach of the Year at UCLA and two-time Southern Independent Coach of the Year at Georgia Tech.
Rodgers went on to coach the Memphis Showboats of the United States Football League (1984-85) and the Memphis Mad Dogs of the Canadian Football League (1995). He served as vice president of football operations for the NFL’s Washington Redskins from 2001-04.
He is survived by his wife of 45 years, Janet Lake Livingston.