ATHENS — Tennessee had the money, but Georgia had Rodney Garner’s heart.
Following 48 hours of speculation, the Bulldogs’ assistant head coach turned down a reportedly lucrative offer from the Volunteers to join the staff of newly-hired head coach Lane Kiffin, choosing to remain in his post with Georgia where he has gained a reputation as one of the nation’s top recruiters.
“Certainly, I’m flattered and am sincerely appreciative of the interest shown by Tennessee,” Garner said in a statement released by the school Monday. “But in the final analysis, the positives at Georgia were the determining factors.”
This was the second SEC school Garner had flirted with since Georgia’s regular season ended. He first interviewed for the head coaching job at Auburn, later filled by Gene Chizik, then was later rumored to be a candidate for Chizik’s staff.
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The Tennessee offer was a bit of a surprise, however, as Kiffin had already hired his father, Monte, as defensive coordinator for a reported $1 million annually, and handed out another large contract to former Mississippi head coach Ed Orgeron to fill the role of defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator — the same job Garner currently holds at Georgia. Garner was reportedly offered the offensive line coach position at Tennessee.
“My heart is coaching on the defensive side of the ball,” Garner said of his decision to remain in Athens. “I enjoy working with Coach (Mark) Richt and the rest of the staff and our family loves being a part of the Athens community. And we have some really good defensive linemen returning next year along with some outstanding newcomers.”
Those newcomers have committed to Georgia in large part due to the efforts of Garner, who has been at Georgia since 1998 and has helped the school land a bevy of top-flight recruits.
A change at this point in recruiting season could have been devastating for the Bulldogs, who are still looking to fill several key voids — particularly if stars Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno depart for the NFL. Garner’s decision to remain at Georgia means a measure of consistency that Richt said is crucial in landing top high-school talent.
“They’re not talking to a brick wall,” Richt said of recruits and their families. “They’re not talking to a field turf field. They’re not talking to a football. They’re talking to people. They’re talking to people who are going to be in charge of their children’s lives.”
Garner interviewed Saturday with Lane Kiffin and a University of Tennessee plane arrived in Athens on Sunday, presumably a sign Garner would be returning to Knoxville as a new assistant on the Volunteers’ staff. That never materialized, however, and Garner instead met with Richt and his staff to discuss the future.
After Garner informed Richt he would remain with the Bulldogs, Richt said he sent his longtime assistant a text message explaining how humbled he was by the decision.
Richt declined to offer specifics Monday about any changes to Garner’s contract that may have led him turn down the Tennessee offer other than to say that each of his assistants would receive a raise before the 2009 season.
“Rodney’s the one that made the decision,” Richt said. “I didn’t have to talk him into anything. We did have some good conversations, no doubt, but Rodney believes in what we’re doing here at Georgia and he and his family enjoy Athens very much. It was certainly a very flattering situation for him no doubt. I can’t say it was an easy decision for him. But he made the call, and I’m just thankful he wants to still be at Georgia.”