Tracy Rocker sat in Mark Richt’s office, in the furthest corner of Georgia’s football facility, late last January. Rocker, then with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans, was interviewing for the vacant defensive line coach position in Athens, and he knew little about Richt. Namely, that the Georgia head coach, for all his stoicism, keeps a running monologue wherever he goes.
So, when Richt paused during the interview, suddenly deep in thought, and said, “Tracy Rocker…didn’t you coach Nick Fairley?”
Rocker shifted in his chair. He had, in fact, coached the dominant (and controversial) defensive tackle at Auburn in 2010. When Georgia visited Jordan-Hare Stadium that year, Fairley drew several personal fouls for spearing redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray. Former Auburn assistant Trooper Taylor had to drag Fairley off the field in the fourth quarter.
“Yeah, I didn’t like that too much,” Richt continued.
Rocker got the job anyway.
“I told him, with all due respect, coach, that’s just how I do it,” Rocker recounted, laughing as he told the Forsyth County Rotary Club the story on Thursday afternoon.
Rocker, an Atlanta native and College Football Hall of Famer after a playing career at Auburn that included a Lombardi Award (given annually to the country’s best defensive lineman or linebacker), comes across as your stereotypical, no-nonsense football coach.
One of the first questions he asks recruits, Rocker said, demonstrating on an unsuspecting attendee: can you play hurt?
Rocker’s attitude would seem to fit with the all-new defensive staff Georgia brought in prior to last season to replace Todd Grantham. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer both are Nick Saban disciples. Inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler is so intense, he keeps a personal fridge stocked full of Red Bull in his office.
During his playing career at Auburn, former Tigers coach Pat Dye told Rocker one day that he was going to be named team captain. Rocker was surprised—he thought he already was, given the way he would always tell others what to do.
That brings us back to Nick Fairley. Earlier in that 2010 season—the Tigers would go on to win the BCS championship behind Cam Newton—Auburn visited Mississippi State in September. Rocker told his protégé to plant Bulldogs quarterback Chris Relf to the turf. Fairley did—twice—and intercepted a pass in the second quarter.
“When he did that,” Rocker said, “those cowbells went silent.”
After his first full recruiting cycle at Georgia, Rocker has a player with the potential to be just as good as Fairley: Westover (Albany, Ga.) defensive tackle Trent Thompson, the No. 1-ranked player in the country for 2015, according to 247 Sports.
In addition to Thompson, Rocker helped pull in maybe the best defensive line class in America, with Jonathan Ledbetter, Chauncey Rivers and Michael Barnett, among others.
On the recruiting trail, Rocker said he tries to be as friendly and personable as possible, but acknowledges that playing under his tutelage isn’t for everyone.
“I’m a no-bull type guy,” Rocker said. “I’ve had kids get on campus and say, ‘I thought you were nice.’ I am, but you’re about to see a whole different side of me.”