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SMITH COLUMN: Jon Fabris is still coaching

Jon Fabris is still coaching — this time, however, it is akin to home schooling since his instructional expertise is reserved exclusively for a most valuable twosome in his household — sons Jack and Michael.

“Fab,” as he is known across the college football landscape, spent more than 30 years in coaching. He had a brief foray at the professional level with the Cleveland Browns before coming to Georgia with Mark Richt but realized the college game was the best fit for him.

He knows what it is like to coach in championship games with the Bulldogs.  More than likely, he can recite the words to the fight songs of the campuses where he has resided which would include Notre Dame, where he was a 38-year-old graduate assistant.

The postman has delivered mail to him in Atlanta, where he coached at Georgia Tech; Pullman Washington (Washington State); Manhattan, Kansas (twice at Kansas State); Columbia, South Carolina (with Lou Holtz and the Gamecocks); Ames Iowa (Iowa State); Bloomington, Indiana (Indiana); Senatobia, Mississippi (Northwest Mississippi Community College) and nearby Gainesville, Georgia (Riverside Military Academy).

At every stop, his modus operandi was to instill into every player the intensity at kickoff that characterized his own coaching style.  On the field, he never let up, packing every ounce of energy and detailed instruction possible. First and always, he considered himself a teacher in the historical tradition of coaching. You highlight technique on the field and you give more than a cursory high five to the moral, ethical and give back tenets of the game. You go to class. You pursue a degree.

With an historical bent and with a deep and abiding passion for tradition, he learned all about the schools where he coached in his career. He probably knows as much, perhaps more, about the University of Georgia than many who have spent their career working for the institution.

Early on, his life took a peculiar turn. He and his older brother, Robert, were graduates of Starkville, Mississippi High, but both became football lettermen at Ole Miss. That unusual and unlikely circumstance can be easily explained. Their father, Frank, coached at Mississippi State before taking an administrative position at UGA. However, Mississippi State did not express much interest in recruiting the Fabris boys. Ole Miss did. Jon was a four-time letterman in Oxford, a three-year starter at defensive back.

While playing for former Georgia end, Ken Cooper, at Ole Miss, Robert and Jon worked out in the summers in Athens when they came home to visit their parents. John Kasay even let them work out with the Bulldog players whom they would line up against in the fall at Oxford.

Fab’s most celebrated player in Athens obviously was Davey Pollack, Georgia’s three-time All-America defensive end. “Davey played the game the way it was supposed to be played. He could have played in the 60’s and 70’s, when I think it was tougher,” Jon says

Many of the ends who played for Fab often were small town kids who were more imbued with the work ethic and were hungry for opportunity. Like Justin Houston who came to Georgia as an outside linebacker but moved to end with his hand in the dirt. Houston was good enough at Kansas City as a standup outside linebacker to register 22 sacks, just shy of Michael Strahan’s NLF single season record 22.5. 

When Houston was traded to the Colts, he returned to defensive end, with his hand back in the dirt. No problem, he just kept on sacking quarterbacks with abandon, eleven in 2019 and eight in 2020.

Following the trade to Indianapolis, Houston called Fabris, asking his former coach to “brush him up” on the technique for returning to his old position with his hand back in the dirt. It was like old times, Houston working under the sage eye of his former coach who brought that intense edge to fundamental coaching.

Fab can fire off stats and insights when a player’s name comes up.  “Quentin Moses was wonderful player to coach; he was so smart and reliable. The only player to start on the SEC championship teams of 2002 and 2005 was Will Thompson. He will always be one of my all-time favorites, the most selfless player I ever coached. Charles Johnson spent eleven years in the NFL. The last time I saw him, he gave me his business card. He owns three companies and is very successful.  Make you feel so proud. Fernando Velasco is with Sam Pittman at Arkansas.  He didn’t play for me, but I recruited him. He had a terrific career with us and also in the NFL.”

There are others including DeAngelo Tyson who played five years in the league; Danny Verdun Wheeler, who had NFL experience and is now the Assistant Director of Player Development at Arkansas; Marcus Howard, who initially was not assigned a position when he arrived in Athens, not big enough to play defensive end, but Fab believed in him and he was the MVP of the ’08 Super Bowl in the 41-10 thrashing of Hawaii; Charles Grant who won a Super Bowl ring with the New Orleans Saints.

Rings, bowl watches and citations are nice and get a thumbs-up from Fab, but nothing warms a coach’s heart as it did for him when Marcus Howard called “out of the blue” one day to thank Fab for the influence his former coach had on his life and career.

Jon always had his game face on for Tuesday and Wednesday practices and was, believe it or not, rather calm on game day. “We all barked at each other at practice which gave us an edge,” Fab says.

One of his most memorable games came in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Virginia Tech in 2006. The Hokies, highly regarded for special teams play under Frank Beamer, jumped out to an early 21-3 lead — with the Bulldogs constantly “shooting themselves in the foot,” but Fabris had spotted a vulnerability in the Tech kickoff alignment. He was confident an onside kick would work if the opportunity ever came about.  He reminded Coach Mark Richt of that opportunity when the team entered the locker room. 

At the end of halftime, Richt announced to the team that after the next Bulldog score, they would execute the onside kick, which both delighted and flummoxed the security conscious Fabris. Would somebody text out a “watch for this” message to a friend? Georgia got the ball on the kickoff, drove downfield and kicked a field goal.

When Virginia Tech lined up to receive the ensuing kickoff, Fabris flashed the signal, which was repeated by a couple of players on the field to make sure everybody got the message. Brian Mimbs executed the onside kick perfectly. The Bulldogs advanced the ball all the way for a score, added a two-point conversion to reduce the deficit to 21-14. Georgia suddenly had the momentum and won 31-24.