‘A Legend at This’: Rodney Garner Fostering Quality Players Through Tough Love

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    Tennessee defensive line coach Rodney Garner has a long-standing reputation for being one of the top defensive line coaches in the nation. Stops at Tennessee, Auburn, and Georgia have built Garner’s name into a powerhouse of an assistant coach. However, Garner’s 32 years of coaching in the SEC have also given fans a great look into his coaching style.

    For all that goes into it, Garner’s method of coaching can be described as a little bit aggressive, a little brutal, and not always in the nicest manner.

    Those aren’t just someone’s words, either. Those are all traits that Garner described himself as on Monday.

    But despite his loud and colorful coaching style between the lines, the reasoning for it is sound. As Garner said on Monday, he just wants the best for his players. And the way he see’s it, that’s both on and off the field.

    The Tennessee defensive line coach used a moment from practice on Monday to connect the dots of why he coaches the way he does.

    “All I want for my players, I just want them to be the best version of them,” Garner said. “And obviously, when they’re in that moment, it may not seem that way. It was just like, I called them up today after practice, I’m coaching [freshman] Tyre [West], telling him something out there on the field, and he gives you that look. That look like, whatever. And I’m like, ‘Dude. Man, I just want you to be the best version of you. When we get this look right here, this is what we are supposed to do, right? Am I right? Well, you didn’t do it. You know what, when we go up there and turn the film on, you know what, you didn’t do it.’ I think so many times that they take it personal. And I try to tell them, I can be probably a little bit aggressive, I can probably be a little brutal. I may not say it in the nicest way. But I try to tell them, ‘Don’t take the tone. Receive the message.’ Take that aggressiveness – that’s just me wanting to win. That’s just me wanting you to be better.”

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    Junior defensive lineman Omari Thomas, a second-year player in Garner’s system, echoed the same sentiment on Monday. With more than 30 draft picks to his name, including 2021 Vol veteran Matthew Butler, Garner’s methods have proven successful. Thomas understands that Garner’s style, while sometimes unconventional, does work.

    “He’s been at it a long time,” Thomas said about Garner on Monday. “He’s a legend at this. So you’ve got to understand, respect that he knows what he is talking about. You’ve got to always be coachable. I’d say that’s one thing where we’re coming along as a d-line, just being able to be coachable. Some of the guys in the room are already coachable, but we’re bringing everybody on. Just [knowing] that he’s not attacking you, he just wants you to be the best player that you can be.”

    Redshirt senior defensive lineman Kurott “Prime” Garland agreed with Thomas. For Garland, even though Garner is a “real forward-speaking person”, he said that it just takes an adjustment to get used to his style and understand the intent behind it.

    There’s a method to the madness of Rodney Garner. It’s not personal, it produces results, and it develops strong bonds that stand the test of time. Garner looks at his players beyond just their uniform number and sees the family members that are along with them. Garner coaches with tough love – like a parent, even. But make no mistake, the love element is still there. If anything, that’s one of the more rewarding aspects for a coach that has been in the same conference for more than 30 years.

    “At the end of the day, 99 percent of my guys, they come back and they love me,” Garner said. “At the moment right now, they don’t like me. Which is sort of like being a parent. Your kids don’t like you when you raise them, but they get old, they love you and appreciate everything you did for them. That’s the same thing we’re hoping is going to transpire here. That these guys are going to love me. That they are going to bring their wives, bring their kids back to see me. I’m going to be playing with their kids like they’re my grandkids. That’s what it’s all about. Just getting them to understand that I want what’s best for them. I want them to be the best version of themselves so that we can be the best version of a Tennessee d-line, and that we can be the best version of the Tennessee football team. That’s all I want.”

    Ric Butler is a Knoxville based sports media personality who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 2017. Most recently, he served as the lead writer for the website of a local radio station. Ric also helped create and host a daily radio show called “The Blitz." Ric’s passion for sports, smooth vocal, and infectious personality have made him popular with both his peers and Vol Nation. Originally from Dallas, Ric didn’t grow up riding horses to school. But he did dream of the big city lights. When not chasing down the latest Tennessee story, Ric can be found watching the WWE, often attempting their moves in an embarrassing fashion.