Five months after he moved to Washington D.C., Pepper Rodgers landed the job he dreamed about in Memphis for 17 years.
Just think, Ive been up here five months and now Im the vice-president, Rodgers said with a laugh on Monday.
Earlier, Rodgers was named vice president of football operations for the Washington Redskins by his new pal, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who, at 37, is almost 30 years his junior. In the newly created position, Rodgers will help select a head coach for the Redskins, who fired Norv Turner and named passing game coordinator Terry Robiskie to replace him for the rest of the season.
The surprise announcement vaults Rodgers into the ranks of NFL bigwigs after trying for 15 years to get an NFL team for Memphis by virtually every means possible. He coached the Memphis Showboats in the rival USFL for two years. After that league folded, he worked with FedEx founder Fred Smith to bring an NFL expansion team to Memphis. When the NFL snubbed Memphis, he coached the Memphis MadDogs of the Canadian Football League for one year before that team folded. When the Houston Oilers left Texas, Rodgers worked for owner Bud Adams for the teams one year in Memphis and its first year in Nashville, until the Oilers became the Tennessee Titans.
Always the odd man out, Rodgers football career seemed at an end last year when the Titans moved into a new stadium and went to the Super Bowl, erasing the bad memories of that awful year in Memphis. Searching for excitement and something to do, he made an aborted, ill-advised run for mayor of Memphis in 1999, getting under 200 votes.
The man who had been a head coach in college at Kansas, UCLA, and Georgia Tech and a coach in two professional leagues seemed destined to be, at the end, just a fan. On weekends at his condo overlooking the Mississippi River, he would watch game after game in which old colleagues, assistant coaches, and rivals took the spotlight. Steve Spurrier, Terry Donahue, Jim Mora, Jeff Fisher, Bobby Bowden . . . football men were rarely more than two degrees of separation from Pepper Rodgers.
Then his personal story took maybe the strangest twist of all in a 50-year career that began in Atlanta where Rodgers played quarterback and placekicker for undefeated Georgia Tech and was named most valuable player in the 1954 Sugar Bowl. The Redskins built a new stadium. The naming rights went up for bid. Memphis-based FedEx, led by Smith, put in the winning bid of $205 million.
With the naming rights went two skyboxes at FedEx Field, one for customers and one for politicos and big shots. Smith asked The Coach, as he calls him, to help him and his marketing staff entertain the guests. Rodgers at first planned to keep his home in Memphis and live in Washington part-time. Then he hit it off with Snyder, the young owner determined to spend his way to a championship.
He became Snyders link to FedEx and, more important, to football players and coaches, both with the Redskins and around the league. He sat in Snyders box and was seen on national television on ABCs Monday Night Football
. He and his wife attended basketball games with Snyder and players Deion Sanders and Stephen Davis and their wives. The old coach became the young owners football confidant.
Few people realized just how close they were. When Turner was fired, Snyder first wanted to hire Rodgers as interim head coach, according to reports in The Washington Post
. Rodgers, who was not in the meetings himself but was up until 3 a.m., said Monday he much prefers his new position.
Im in the football business and I got a good position and Im with the Washington Redskins. What more could I want? When I grew up Atlanta, the Redskins and Georgia Tech were my teams.
In his new job, the coach and the player personnel director will report to him. He will influence player, coaching, and drafting decisions.
For the first time since the NFL expansion debacle, Rodgers was back in the limelight Monday, speaking at a press conference to dozens of reporters and accepting congratulations from players.
Im going to be in meetings with players and coaches, he said. Im basically someone who tries to help the owner make decisions.
The biggest one, of course, is who will coach the Washington Redskins. Incredibly, it was almost Pepper Rodgers. Just as incredibly, Pepper Rodgers gets to help make the choice.