Say this for Mike Ekeler: Through all of his travails the last few years, he has maintained a sense of humor.
Ekeler was Georgia’s inside linebackers coach and co-special teams coordinator the past two seasons. He was also one of the assistant coaches who did not hang around for the Bulldogs’ appearance in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
That, he said, was because he needed to find another job.
“I’m pretty proud of the new record I set,” said Ekeler, speaking by phone during a short return to Athens this week. “I’m the only coach in the history of the NCAA to be part of two staffs that get fired after winning 10 games and finishing with a top-10 defense. I’m pretty sure that’s never happened. I’d be willing to bet it hasn’t.”
Indeed, Ekeler was on a Southern Cal staff that was not retained after winning 10 games and finishing in the top 10 nationally in defense the year before he came to Georgia in 2014. And according to him, there was little to no chance he would’ve been retained after Mark Richt was fired by the Bulldogs last month.
Ekeler has landed on his feet. He has been working as the new defensive coordinator at North Texas since before Christmas. The school has yet to make an official announcement pending additional hires.
Ekeler said he had several opportunities to remain with Power Five teams in the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 either as a co-coordinator or a position coach. But it was very important for him to find a place where he could run a defense himself and “build it up from the ground floor.”
He has been offered that opportunity under Seth Littrell, who was named the North Texas head coach last month. Littrell, most recently offensive coordinator at North Carolina, worked together with Ekeler at Indiana in 2012.
“When we started bowl practice, I was going to be gone the first three days,” Ekeler said. “It was either stay and coach the bowl or go and interview at some of these places. If you don’t go, you might be without a job. So that’s why I didn’t do it.”
Ekeler knows a thing or two about moving around in the coaching business. Before Georgia and Southern Cal, he worked at Indiana as defensive coordinator, at Nebraska as linebackers coach and at LSU as a graduate assistant.
This past weekend, Ekeler made good on a promise to explain his position and talk about his experiences at Georgia.
On settling on North Texas in Dallas as his next destination …
“I had a chance to go to another SEC school, a couple of Big Ten schools, the Pac-12. But it wasn’t as sole coordinator. I want to get out front and lead and do it the way I want to do it and treat kids the way I want to do it, and I want to work with people I want to work with. I don’t want to be in rooms with people I don’t enjoy and don’t have much in common with.”
On why it was so important to ‘do his own thing.’ …
“I learned a valuable lesson watching Brian Schottenheimer. He came into a situation where he tried to run an offense that was already in place and didn’t run his offense, so to speak. I didn’t want get into a situation like that after watching the difficulties that he had. When you do that – and I watched it happen – as a coordinator, and it’s not really your stamp but it’s your name, that’s not a good gig. That’s why I chose to go to North Texas with a guy I think is a rising star as a head coach and a great friend of mine. I absolutely love him. And I have the opportunity to do exactly what I believe in.”
So you think Schottenheimer got a raw deal at Georgia?
“I think Schotty took so much heat and it was really unfounded, in my opinion. That guy will go back to the NFL and do well. He’s a ball coach and he’s great at what he does. He’s one of the greatest people I ever met.”
What was your takeaway from your two years with the Bulldogs?
“I want people to know I really, really enjoyed the University of Georgia and really appreciate the opportunity Mark Richt gave me. I did not know those other guys before I stepped in. But I’m proud of the fact the linebackers played pretty doggone good. And we tied a record on the number of touchdown returns with Isaiah (McKenzie) the last two years. Special teams played with eight true freshmen. There’s nobody in the country doing that. We didn’t have one starter on special teams. Nobody does that. But that was because of the depth issues we had.
“I don’t have sour grapes or anything. I think we left those guys some good players on defense. They were the No. 8 defense in the country and they ought to be better next year.”
On his experience as a member of Jeremy Pruitt’s defensive staff …
“I knew no one when I came here. I’d never met Jeremy Pruitt; I’d never met Tracy Rocker; I’d never met Kevin Sherrer. Coach Richt gave me the opportunity and I’ll forever be grateful for that. Everywhere I’ve ever been, I’ve learned things, and I learned some valuable lessons (at Georgia). I’ll take away some things that I’ll value. There were some things we did on defense I’ll definitely use, and from a recruiting standpoint there are some things I learned.”
On reports of dysfunction and disharmony within the coaching staff at UGA this past season …
“I would say there’s stuff that happens within a football program and a staff that really needs to stay in-house. I’d rather not comment on that. People there know, and that’s all that matters. You could say it was one of the more difficult seasons I’ve been a part of. I think that’s fair to say.”
On the status of inside linebacker Reggie Carter, who didn’t play this season due to injury …
“I’ll tell you what, that kid’s a helluva player. He had to make the choice to have shoulder surgery. He did everything he could not to have to do it but he just couldn’t.”
On Georgia’s future at inside linebacker …
“Those guys are stacked. Roquan (Smith), Natrez Patrick, Juwan Taylor, Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin, you’re talking about a pretty darn good room full of guys who know how to play. I’m excited for these guys next year on defense. If you look at it, there are 4- and 5-stars across the board, they finished eighth in total defense this year. They ought to be able to rack up next year.”
On what if anything you’d change about college football coaching if you could …
“People talk about hiring great recruiters; I think that’s an absolute joke. If you’re labeled that, 99 percent of the time that means you can’t coach a lick. That’s a fact. There are very few exceptions. Ed Orgeron is a fantastic recruiter and he’s probably the best defensive line coach of them all. The guy is big-time. It’s great to recruit 5-stars, but then they come in and play like 2-stars. It’s too bad that’s how this profession is, but that’s part of the deal now.
“It’s not about recruiting, it’s about evaluating. That’s one of the things I learned from Ed Orgeron. It doesn’t matter if he’s a 2-star or a 5-star, it’s how you evaluate it and what you think you can do with him. That’s what I learned from him. Again, you recruit them. But there’s only about five players in the country that are totally different than everybody else. Everybody else can fall into a similar category. At that point it’s about developing and teaching. It’s about evaluating and developing your talent. And that’s a fact.”
Any last words regarding your time at UGA?
“My family and I absolutely loved living here and wish nothing but the best to all these players and the new coaching staff as well.”