Today he lives two hours away from Atlanta, has reunited with new Auburn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and teaches young athletes how to handle the college ranks.
Auburn’s new defensive coordinator finds himself in a new world, but with similar ideas.
“I was an emotional player playing the game and I think that those same emotions show up in my coaching,” VanGorder said. “I’m excited about what I do and take pride in what takes place on the field with a unit that I’m teaching and working with and attempting to establish high standards and expectations, so I think that’s normal if you’re really into your work.”
Leaving the Falcons after four years, VanGorder said Atlanta coach Mike Smith wasn’t happy when he heard the news.
“He was very disappointed,” VanGorder said. “We felt like over four years we took a fairly bad situation and gave it consistency. We had four straight winning seasons, and defensively taking over a unit that was ranked No. 29 in the NFL and probably even getting it to a point two years ago to No. 5 in the league in scoring defense. We had worked hard and felt like we had an ascending situation. Any time you have staff transition it’s tough.”
Although his family will remain in Georgia for now, VanGorder said his transition away from the NFL was a multi-step process.
“I had conversation with Gene (Chizik) late in our season when we had a couple of games left,” VanGorder said. “I had a number of days to investigate and identify the interest to the Atlanta Falcons.
“I had to deal with their interest in keeping me there and negotiating some of that and it was kind of a busy time, but I am grateful that there was quite a bit of time to let the dust settle from the initial conversations, to negotiations, to finding out about Auburn specifically and then trying to decide whether or not, from a professional standpoint, I wanted to make the move from the (Falcons) back into college football and Auburn.”
VanGorder played linebacker at Wayne State University in Detroit from 1979–80 and said his age impacts his coaching style by reflecting back on how he played the game and applying those ideas to the present.
“We don’t have the hours that we had in Atlanta to install an entire playbook,” VanGorder said. “We’ve got to find out the physical abilities of guys and find out those traits that take advantage of where they are from an ability standpoint.
“We’ve also got to consider what they can mentally take on in respects to the system. By design, we’ll start with our base defense and graduate it from there based on those two factors.”
After VanGorder accepted the job at Auburn, coach Gene Chizik said he was looking for a man that had proven himself.
“He has achieved success at every level, both professionally and collegiately, which is a testament to his ability as a coach,” Chizik said after the welcoming press conference. “He understands what it takes to succeed in the Southeastern Conference.”
VanGorder said all coaches display their emotions differently on the field, but he said he’s a high-energy, high-emotion coach.
“In the pro league, there’s no doubt about it, it’s a business,” VanGorder said. “It’s competitive and has a different business aspect, where in college ball the kids are playing for the love of the game and, in some ways, a means to an end in respects to them getting a college education and a degree. I like where the enthusiasm level is for the college kid, and I suspect that will bring more emotions from me on a Saturday afternoon.”
VanGorder also has ties with new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, having met him while coaching at Central Michigan and Wayne State in the ‘90s.
“We’re working on the things that are mandatory between an offensive and defensive coordinator,” VanGorder said. “Scotty and I, we’ve know each other for a long time. He was a Michigan guy, and I was driving over and trying to learn more football from (the University of Michigan), so our paths have crossed for a long time in respects to that.”
VanGorder’s role on defense will be geared toward a walking coordinator, spending time with all defensive players while still allowing the position coaches to do their job.
“I like smart, tough players,” VanGorder said. “That’s where I began and then you can make judgments on the physical traits, but I found that smart tough players, what you coach a lot of time from them is a dependability factor that you need. And usually you enjoy working with them.”
VanGorder was defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at the University of Georgia from 2001–04 and said the linebackers in his system can’t afford to sleep on the job.
“They have a difficult job in our scheme in respects to their knowledge and ability to communicate,” VanGorder said.
“So that will be the emphasis early on here, to find the guys that can see the big picture of football and comprehend the entire system and then be able to communicate it.”
Evaluating talent objectively is important to VanGorder.
“At heart I’m a pressure guy, but I’m also going to make decisions as we build the system based on the ability of our defense,” VanGorder said. “My belief is that you find the things that a player can do well and you work toward those positive traits that they carry.
“If I don’t feel like we’re very good in respects to our ability to play man-to-man, then you’re just not going to see a lot of press man.”
Junior linebacker Jake Holland said his relationship with VanGorder is growing stronger, but expectations have already been set.
“What VanGorder is doing is he is kind of an overseer, so he doesn’t necessarily coach one position, he coaches all of us,” Holland said.
Although VanGorder is moving the defense in a new direction, his most renowned trait may be his thick, bold mustache.
“We don’t joke about it much anymore now that we’ve gotten used to him, but when we first saw pictures of him we said that he looked like Uncle Rico off of ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’” Holland said.
VanGorder said his mustache is nothing new.
“I’ve always had a mustache,” he said. “I don’t know where the motivation comes from.
“My older brother wore a mustache and that’s what I saw growing up and pretty much since I could grow one I’ve carried one.”