Pepper Rodgers, whose long coaching career included UCLA stint, dies at 88

UCLA football coach Pepper Rodgers, right, tosses a ball to quarterback Mark Harmon during a team practice session on Sept. 13, 1972.
(Associated Press)

Pepper Rodgers, the wisecracking former UCLA football coach who mentored some of the sport’s greatest players and coaches during a career spanning six decades, died Thursday at Reston Hospital Center in Reston, Va. He was 88.

Rodgers was taken off life support after suffering complications from a fall in his bathroom Saturday morning. He sustained arterial bleeding that preceded a stroke and a heart attack, according to his son, Rick Rodgers.

“The doctors told us this would be a serious thing for a 19-year-old, much less an 88-year-old,” Rick Rodgers said. “He had movements and he stabilized, but he never responded to sight or sound.”

Only Pepper Rodgers’ wife, Livingston, and daughter Terri were allowed to be with him in his final hours because of visiting restrictions at the hospital related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other family members joined the group via FaceTime and Rick Rodgers relayed a message from Gary Beban, UCLA’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.

“I said, ‘Dad, even your favorite quarterback, Gary Beban, says, Get your butt out of that bed and get home,’” Rick Rodgers said with a chuckle, “and I thought he blinked a little bit.”


Pepper Rodgers coached UCLA's football team from 1971-73.
(UCLA Athletics)

Beban was among a long list of star players that Rodgers coached that also included Heisman winner Steve Spurrier, defensive end Reggie White and running back John Riggins. Rodgers compiled a 73-65-3 record in coaching stints at Kansas, UCLA and Georgia Tech and mentored several coaches who went on to Hall of Fame careers, including UCLA’s Terry Donahue, Ohio State’s John Cooper and Arizona’s Dick Tomey.

Rodgers liked to joke about the swift turnaround he enjoyed in his three seasons as the head coach at UCLA, going from 2-7-1 in 1971 to 8-3 in 1972 and 9-2 in 1973.

“I proved everything a man can prove in coaching,” Rodgers quipped during an interview with The Times in 2018. “I proved I could win with good players, I proved I couldn’t with bad ones.”

The best Bruins to play for Rodgers in his second stint at UCLA included quarterbacks Mark Harmon and John Sciarra and running backs James McAlister and Kermit Johnson. Harmon’s strong play and an innovative scheme devised by new offensive coordinator Homer Smith helped the Bruins engineer an upset of top-ranked, two-time defending champion Nebraska in the 1972 season opener, heralding the team’s return to prominence.

Rodgers had previously been UCLA’s offensive coordinator, and Beban liked to tease Rodgers that he had taken Beban’s national championship ring with him to Kansas when he left the Bruins after the 1966 season.

“If coach Rodgers had not left for the head coaching opportunity at Kansas my senior year in 1967,” Beban said via email, “we would not have lost to USC by one point, and in essence, the national championship. Coach Rodgers was worth at least another six points when he was calling the plays from the coaches’ press box.”

Not every Bruin lamented the move. Rodgers gave Donahue, a former UCLA defensive lineman fresh out of the Air Force, his first coaching job after Donahue called him and told him he wanted to join the profession.

“I said, ‘Well, Terry, I don’t have a job for a 23-year-old guy who’s never coached.’” Rodgers said in 2018. “He said, ‘I’ll work for nothing. Give me something to do.’”

Donahue spent a year as a volunteer assistant, the start of a career in which he went on to spend 20 years as UCLA’s head coach and become the winningest coach in Pac-12 history with 98 conference victories. He may not have gotten there had Rodgers not forgiven him for watching Kansas star Karl Salb quit the team in a huff without trying to stop him.

“[Rodgers] leaned forward in his desk and he said, ‘Terry, do you know how hard it is to recruit a 275-pound athlete who can run 4.8 in the 40-yard dash and play as athletically as this guy?’” Donahue remembered Rodgers asking him before he acknowledged to his boss that he did not. “‘And do you know how easy it is to find a 31-year-old defensive line coach? You get out of this office and you get Salb back on this team’ and I did, and I kept my job.”

Coach Chip Kelly said he is planning as if UCLA will play football this season because no one has definitely said what will happen in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Born in Atlanta on Oct. 8, 1931, Rodgers played at Georgia Tech under legendary coach Bobby Dodd and was a backup quarterback and kicker on the Yellow Jackets’ 1952 national championship team. He started his coaching career as an assistant at Air Force in 1958 and went to Florida two years later before arriving at UCLA in 1965 for his first stint at the school.

He left the Bruins for good after the 1973 season, lured by his alma mater.

“I sold peanuts and cola to Tech players when I was 10 years old,” Rodgers said, “so it was a lifelong dream for me.”

After six seasons with the Yellow Jackets, Rodgers returned to coaching in 1984 for a two-year stint with the Memphis Showboats of the United States Football League and concluded his coaching career with the Canadian Football League’s Memphis Mad Dogs in 1995. He went 34-31-2 at Georgia Tech and 27-27 record in his three professional seasons.

“If football came down to personality,” I.J. Rosenberg once wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Franklin ‘Pepper’ Rodgers never would have lost a game.”

Rodgers was vice president of football operations for the Washington Redskins from 2001 until his retirement in 2004.

Rodgers is survived by his wife, Livingston Rodgers, sons Rick and Kyle and daughters Terri and Kelly, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.