ATLANTA — Pepper Rodgers, a colorful personality who helped Georgia Tech to an unbeaten season as a player in 1952 and went on to coach the Yellow Jackets along with numerous other teams and is the one credited with getting Steve Spurrier into coaching, died Thursday. He was 88.
A statement from his alma mater said Rodgers died in Reston, Va., where he lived after retiring from his final job, in the NFL as Washington’s vice president of football operations in 2004. No cause of death was given, but he had recently suffered a fall.
Rodgers was an assistant coach at Florida during Spurrier’s freshman and sophomore years (1963-64). Though Rodgers left two years before the Gator quarterback won the 1966 Heisman Trophy, the two remained close.
“I owe my coaching career to ... Pepper Rodgers,” Spurrier, 75, recently told The Athletic sports website.
“Steve was one of the great ones,” Rodgers told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution last December. “He was always interesting, he was always fun, and I’ve been friends with Steve for a long, long time.”
After his 10-year NFL career ended following his stint as Bucs quarterback in their inaugural 1976 season, Spurrier took his first coaching job. Florida hired him as quarterbacks coach in 1978, but he lost that job when coach Doug Dickey was fired at the end of the year.
That’s when Rodgers reached out to Spurrier to join his staff at Georgia Tech to, again, coach quarterbacks.
“I had some feelers out that I didn’t really inquire into because I didn’t want to stay in coaching unless the opportunity was really right,” Spurrier said in a 1979 story in Tech’s alumni magazine. "To be a college coach (at Tech) was the best opportunity I could think of.”
“I love Steve as a person and as a coach,” Rodgers said in a 2015 AJC interview. “(Coaching) was just something that he thought he might do. I don’t know whether it was his lifelong dream to coach. I don’t know that it wasn’t. But when he got through playing pro ball, you’ve got to do something and so I think he decided that he would coach, and so he coached for me.”
A quarterback and kicker, Rodgers was part of Georgia Tech teams that went 32-2-3, claimed two Southeastern Conference championships and won three major bowl games during his three years on the varsity. He capped a 12-0 season in 1952 by throwing a touchdown pass, kicking a field goal and adding three extra points in a 24-7 victory over Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl.
Georgia Tech finished No. 1 in the International News Service poll, but it had to settle for No. 2 behind Michigan State in both The Associated Press and coaches’ polls.
When he returned to Georgia Tech as its coach in 1974, he showed up riding a Harley and sporting a perm, a sign of the free-wheeling style that often put him at odds with his bosses and staid alumni.
When coaching in the United States Football League, he once wore a tuxedo on the flight to play a game against the New Jersey Generals, a big-spending franchise owned by later-to-be President Donald Trump. Another time, Rodgers donned the helmet he wore while serving in the Air Force in an attempt to motivate his team.
But for all his antics, Rodgers stuck to business on the field.
“‘He’s no clown,″ Memphis linebacker Steve Hammond told the New York Times in 1985. ″He’s a good coach who likes to have some fun. That’s all.″
Rodgers began his head coaching career at Kansas in 1967. He went 20-22 over four seasons, including a Big Eight title and Orange Bowl appearance in 1968, before moving to UCLA. After going 2-7-1 in his inaugural season with the Bruins, he went 17-5 and posted runnerup finishes in the Pac-8 over the next two years with an explosive wishbone offense.
Rodgers left an arguably better job at UCLA to return to his alma mater, where he installed the wishbone but failed to match the level of success from his tenure in Los Angeles. His best season was in 1978, when the Yellow Jackets went 7-5 with star running back Eddie Lee Ivery, but he was unable to overcome the lack of modern facilities or the school’s then-independent status.
“We were not in a conference and the facilities hadn’t changed since I had played,” Rodgers told the AJC in 2015. “I knew how hard it was going to be to win there. But that had nothing to do with taking the job. It was about my love for Tech.’’
After slipping to 4-6-1 in 1979, Rodgers was fired by Georgia Tech. He posted a record of 34-31-2 over six seasons in Atlanta, finishing his college coaching career with an overall mark of 73-65-3.
Rodgers returned to coaching with the Memphis Showboats of the upstart USFL in 1984. He went 7-11 his first season and 11-7 the following year with an appearance in the league semifinals, but the league went out of business after a failed attempt to move to fall to compete head-to-head with the National Football League.
Even though the USFL was short-lived, Rodgers still managed to have some memorable encounters with his old pal Spurrier, who was coaching the Tampa Bay Bandits and lighting up the league’s scoreboards with “Bandit Ball.”
Here’s an excerpt from a 2002 story by the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins on one of the Rodgers-Spurrier matchups:
A classic instance of Spurrier gamesmanship was his duel with the Memphis Showboats in 1984. Memphis was coached by Rodgers, who thought he had an insight. “Steve hates to be behind,” Rodgers told his team. “So we’re going to onside kick and try to score first.” The trick worked: Memphis recovered the onside kick, scored first and went on to win the game.
In a rematch a few weeks later, Rodgers was standing on the sideline just before kickoff, when Steve Jr., serving as a ballboy for the game, trotted on to the field. He stopped to say hello to the Showboats’ quarterback (Mike Kelley). “My Dad’s got a surprise for you,” he said. Kelley ran over to Rodgers and repeated the remark.
Rodgers wheeled around and yelled to the field, "Watch for the onside kick!"
On the opposite sideline, Spurrier had in fact ordered an onside kick as revenge. Tampa Bay recovered it and scored.
Steve Jr. just smiled. "My Dad's got another surprise for you," he said.
It was another onside kick. Tampa recovered, and scored again.
Rodgers had one last coaching job, also in Memphis. In 1995, he went 9-9 with a team known as the Mad Dogs in the Canadian Football League’s failed effort to crack the U.S. market. Faced with massive losses and dwindling attendance, the team folded after one season.
“I am devastated to learn of the passing of Pepper Rodgers,” Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury said. “He was a Georgia Tech legend.”
Stansbury is a former Georgia Tech player who was recruited to play for the Yellow Jackets by Rodgers.
“I am eternally grateful to him for bringing me here,′ Stansbury said. “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.
“We have lost a great Tech man.”
Rodgers closed his professional career in the NFL, where we worked under Dan Snyder in his early years as Washington’s owner. The team failed to make the playoffs during Rodgers’ tenure, but he was there for Marty Schottenheimer’s final season as coach, the ballyhooed hiring of his friend Spurrier from the University of Florida, and Joe Gibbs’ return to the sideline in 2004.
“I was terribly saddened to hear the news about the passing of Pepper Rodgers,” Snyder said in a statement. “Anyone who knew Pepper knew what a genuinely good person he was. He was a kind and gentle man who helped guide me as a young owner in the NFL. He had an incredible knowledge of the game and was beloved by everyone in the organization.”
Franklin Cullen Rodgers was born in Atlanta on Oct. 8, 1931. He always thought basketball was the best of the three sports he starred in at Brown High School, but football became his calling card after he headed to his hometown university in 1949 on the heels of a state championship.
He carried on that success at Georgia Tech during perhaps the greatest era in the school’s history. After the unbeaten season in 1952, which the school still claims as a shared national title, Rodgers led the Yellow Jackets to a 9-2-1 mark as a senior, capped by a 42-19 rout of West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl. He threw three touchdown passes and was named the game’s MVP.
Rodgers was drafted in the 12th round by the Baltimore Colts but entered the Air Force instead, where he served as a pilot for five years. He began his coaching career as an assistant at the Air Force Academy in 1958, moved to Florida in 1960, then to UCLA in 1965.
Rodgers took his first head coaching job before the 1967 season, leaving behind a powerful UCLA team that was ranked No. 1 heading into its next-to-last game of the regular season against Los Angeles rival Southern Cal, led by star running back O.J. Simpson.
The Bruins dropped a 21-20 thriller, a game that UCLA quarterback and Heisman winner Gary Beban believes would have turned out different if Rodgers had still been on the staff.
“We would have not lost to USC by one point, and in essence, the national championship,” Beban told the Los Angeles Times. “Coach was worth at least another six points when he was calling the plays.”
Rodgers was associated with big names throughout his coaching career. As UCLA’s head coach, his quarterback was Mark Harmon, son of 1940 Heisman winner Tom Harmon and who became better known for his acting career.
Rodgers is survived by his wife of 45 years, Janet Lake Livingston.
Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post, Atlanta-Journal Constitution and Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.