Every football game produces a score. Every coaching job ends with a win-loss record. In a sport that’s measured in yards and inches, field goals and touchdowns and statistics of every stripe, the measure of Pepper Rodgers was in laughs and relationships.

A football coach of wide-ranging talents, Rodgers also was an aviator and novelist who could play the ukulele, do a cartwheel and tap dance. An average yet fully committed singer, he knew the words to nearly every college football team’s fight song. Not just the first verse but every verse of every fight song of every school that gave him a job — from Florida, Air Force, Kansas and UCLA to his cherished alma mater, Georgia Tech — along with every other team of consequence.

With Rodgers’s death at 88 on Thursday from complications suffered in a fall in his Reston home, football lost a free spirit and innovator who had a hand in shaping the playing careers of quarterback Bobby Douglas, running back John Riggins and defensive end Reggie White, among others, and the coaching careers of Steve Spurrier, Terry Donahue, John Cooper and more.

Rodgers never fit the mold of the stereotypical football coach and didn’t bother trying. He wasn’t a jut-jawed, all-knowing autocrat with heightened paranoia. And he didn’t view reporters as adversaries; he was among the first coaches to support TV cameras on the sideline and female journalists in the locker room. As for players, he deployed whatever personae were necessary to coax their best — equal parts cheerleader, alchemist, comedian and evangelist.

On the sideline at one game during his stint coaching the USFL’s Memphis Showboats, Rodgers brayed at his squad, full voice: “We’re gonna win this game, somehow! I don’t know how! But somehow we’re gonna do it!”

He was a skillful matchmaker, too, achieving what Daniel Snyder couldn’t do alone: He lured Spurrier, whom he helped win the Heisman Trophy at Florida and later gave a boost to his nascent coaching career, to the NFL in 2002 to lead the Washington Redskins.

Spurrier’s pro football tenure ended with a 12-20 record two seasons later. Rodgers, whom Snyder had made the Redskins’ vice president of football operations in 2001, departed soon after.

But his calendar stayed full. With his wife, Janet Lake Livingston, a painter whose effervescence matched his, Rodgers was an avid tennis player, enjoyed golf and was a frequent honoree at universities around the country, most recently inducted to the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of 2018.

I met Rodgers in 1990, when I was covering the NFL’s expansion-team derby that ultimately boiled down to Baltimore; Charlotte; Jacksonville, Fla.; Memphis; and St. Louis vying for two teams. Rodgers was the frontman for the Memphis bid, backed by Federal Express CEO Fred Smith. For reporters covering the years-long process, staking out NFL owners’ meetings in hotel lobbies was a tedious, necessary part of the job. But there was never a boring stakeout when Rodgers worked the hall.

Three decades later, every memory involves a laugh, such as the time Rodgers quipped that Jacksonville didn’t deserve an NFL team because no one ever wrote a song about Jacksonville.

A born performer, Rodgers was a 5-year-old star at the Kiddie Revue at Atlanta’s old Fox Theater in the 1930s, dancing and singing in his tiny suit and top hat as the country emerged from the Great Depression.

As a scholarship athlete at Georgia Tech, he led the Ramblin’ Wreck to an unbeaten season in 1952; he threw a touchdown pass and kicked a field goal in a 24-7 Sugar Bowl victory over Mississippi. He was named Sugar Bowl MVP the next year, throwing three touchdown passes in a rout of West Virginia to close his college career.

Drafted in the NFL’s 25th round by the Baltimore Colts in 1954, he opted instead to finish his degree and enlist in the Air Force to fly F-105 jets. Then came assistant coaching stints at Air Force; Florida, where he was Spurrier’s quarterback coach; and UCLA. Kansas gave him his first head coaching job, and UCLA came calling not long after the Jayhawks’ Big Eight co-championship and Orange Bowl appearance to cap the 1968 season.

Rodgers’s wishbone offense and wide-open personality played well in Westwood. Addressing his Bruins before a game against Stanford, Rodgers said: “Men, the rest of your life the Stanford man is going to have the best job, make the most money and marry the most beautiful women. This is your last chance to knock him on his ass!”

While on the West Coast, Rodgers wooed a Hollywood star by marrying Livingston, a former actress, and mentored another in UCLA quarterback Mark Harmon. But he had no use for pretense or pomp, riding up on a Harley for his first day as Georgia Tech’s coach in 1974 and sporting a new perm to boot.

Though a natural cutup, self-deprecating humor was his forte. Reflecting on his coaching achievements in a 2018 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Rodgers said: “I proved everything a man can prove in coaching. I proved I could win with good players, [and] I proved I couldn’t with bad ones.”

From childhood, Rodgers called his parents by their first names, Franklin and Louise. Later in life, he insisted his grandchildren do the same and call him Pepper. To generations of football players and coaching assistants, he was Coach Pepper — or “Peppah,” as he pronounced it.

He had a Rolodex of football greats at his fingertips and checked up on his former players and fellow coaches often. He also checked in with reporters. Invariably, whenever I was bogged down on a long story and struggling to finish, my cellphone would ring at some point.

“Miss Liz … ” he would start. “I haven’t seen your byline lately!”

I was never quite sure whether he thought I had been fired or had fallen gravely ill. But I suspect it was just the coach in Coach Peppah telling me, in his way, to get off the bench and start writing.

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