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December 21, 2012- -
AUBURN -- Benji Roland saw the recent hiring of coach Gus Malzahn as a chance to make a major change on the Plains.
So the former Auburn tackle reached out to athletic director Jay Jacobs. His idea? Populate the Tigers' coaching staff with more familiar faces, men with a personal investment in the program's success.
"I told him that it's time for some people, Auburn people, to come home," Roland said. "Rodney's name was one of them. I knew it would be an advantage for our football program to have someone of his caliber, his coaching ability, his recruiting ability, his love for this university."
Roland - and many more Auburn supporters - got their wish Thursday night when Rodney Garner was hired to manage the defensive line and serve as assistant head coach. Garner played at Auburn during the late 1980s as both a nosetackle and guard, though he emerged as an all-conference player in 1988 as an offensive lineman.
He began his coaching career on the Plains under Pat Dye in 1990, but left for Tennessee after the 1995 season when defensive coordinator Wayne Hall was terminated. After a two-year tour at Tennessee, Garner found fame as a defensive assistant and recruiting coordinator at Georgia.
He was in his 15th season with the Bulldogs earlier this month when Malzahn called. To hear Garner tell it, the conversation wasn't exactly complex.
"I said, 'Hey Coach, if you feel that I can be an asset to you, and I can help you in your mission statement and your vision of where you want to take this great institution, then I would love the opportunity to be a part of it,'" Garner said during his introductory press conference Friday. "I'm going to be the most loyal team member that (Malzahn) has. I'm going to work every day. I bleed orange and blue. When I tell a kid what it means to be an Auburn man, it's coming from the heart."
The past two seasons provided some bittersweet moments for Garner, whose Bulldogs have pummeled his alma mater by a combined score of 83-7. His focus on those Saturday afternoons, of course, was to maximize Georgia's advantage along the line of scrimmage and find ways to undermine everything the Tigers attempted to accomplish.
Yet those wins weren't always easy to swallow. Auburn quickly lost momentum after winning the 2012 championship and that fact was inescapable to anyone familiar with the team.
Garner said Malzahn's plan to revitalize the Tigers' program quickly resonated in profound ways. It didn't hurt that Garner's wife, Kim, is an Auburn graduate as well.
" We just felt that it was time. Auburn was calling me home," Garner said. "It felt like it was a time of need. I'm not trying to toot my own horn or saying that I'm the answer to anything, but it was just a time that I felt that I could go back and help my school in a way that I think my school has helped me. If I can make any type of contributions along those lines then I felt led to do that."
Malzahn said he believes Garner is the perfect complement to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and secondary coach Charlie Harbison. Auburn needed savvy on that side of the ball and now has hired three men with at least 15 years experience in major-conference ball.
Garner means more than a resume to Malzahn, though.
He's an embodiment of what players can become.
"He is going to be a great example for players," Malzahn said. "He is a former player that has been successful and helped make him into the man he is today. I think that is great for our players and will be a great asset for us."