ATHENS — Greg McGarity is big on catch phrases. You’ll find them posted all over his office and occasionally on his personal things. Like the coffee mug that sits on his desk in his office on the fourth floor at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.
“Life Is All About How You Handle Plan B,” it says in colorful hand-painted script.
A close friend gave it to the Georgia athletic director recently. It really hit home, considering the year McGarity and Georgia athletics just had.
It seemed the Bulldogs were constantly having to turn to Plan B in 2014. Like how to conduct a swim season without legendary coach Jack Bauerle, who was suspended and under NCAA investigation; like having run a $100 million operation without your CFO, Frank Crumley, who was forced to resign for having an inappropriate relationship with a married subordinate; like having to play a football season without Todd Gurley, the Heisman Trophy candidate tailback who had sold autographed merchandise on the side.
And to top it all off, McGarity had to deal with rumors about a sour relationship with football coach Mark Richt.
It was enough to add significantly to the 60-year-old McGarity’s ever-graying head of hair.
“The fall was just a blur,” McGarity said last week. “We were preoccupied with so many things, it was just difficult to focus on anything else other than those issues. So it was mentally fatiguing from an emotional standpoint.”
It was definitely the toughest stretch so far for McGarity, who was hired five years ago to the day as of Monday. After spending 18 years as the No. 2 man to Jeremy Foley at Florida, McGarity was appointed the Bulldogs’ new AD on Aug. 10, 2010. He succeeded Damon Evans, who had resigned amid personal controversy a month earlier.
For McGarity, the five years since have been a whirlwind. He has fired or replaced seven coaches — nearly half of the 15 in the department — has weathered storms of controversy and celebrated athletic successes.
“Time does fly,” McGarity said. “It seems like yesterday I was in Chicago interviewing. Here it is five years later, now we’re starting Year 6. So time really is flying.”
Evaluating the job McGarity is doing in this position is difficult to quantify and varies among the eyes of the beholder. He is managing a department that has grown significantly, from a budget of $84 million in 2010 to $117 million for the current year. This past year the Bulldogs finished 14th nationally in the Learfield Standings for all sports. That was second among SEC programs but below the school’s stated goal of being perennially in the top 10.
The Bulldogs have won national championships in women’s swimming and diving (2013 and ’14) and equestrian (2014) and 14 SEC championships in men’s tennis, women’s tennis, swimming and equestrian. But none of the championship banners have come from the high-profile, high-revenue sports of football or men’s basketball. And traditional powerhouse programs such as gymnastics and women’s basketball have experienced recent downturns.
“I like where we are,” McGarity said. “If you look over the last five years, we’ve made some strides in certain areas. But we have so much more to accomplish. We’re nowhere near where we need to be, in all areas, sports, staff, everything. But I think we’re evolving into a pretty successful program.”
It’s all about perception
At no time has there been such a split in perception than this past year. Georgia’s football team celebrated its ninth year of 10 or more victories in 14 seasons under Richt. The Bulldogs’ resounding victory over Louisville in the Belk Bowl was followed by a cavalcade of staff raises, personnel additions and facility improvements.
But a vocal segment of the fan base remained perturbed over a season that included losses to South Carolina, Florida and Georgia Tech, at least two of which can be traced to questionable coaching decisions.
And men’s basketball earned an NCAA tournament bid and won 20 or more games in back-to-back years for only the third time in program history. Yet in six years under coach Mark Fox, the Bulldogs still don’t have an NCAA tournament victory to their credit.
Perhaps the most debatable of moves McGarity has made so far would have to be the decision to fire baseball coach David Perno in 2013. The Diamond Dogs had enjoyed their greatest stretch in history under Perno’s watch as they made four College World Series appearances and won three SEC titles in an eight-year span. And when the program did encounter a downturn in the last three years of Perno’s 12-year tenure, it came on the heels of having not one but two players — Chance Veazey and Jonathan Taylor — suffer catastrophic injuries that left them paralyzed for life.
“Our program was in probably as unique and difficult a situation as has even been out there,” said Perno, who still lives in Athens and has yet to find another coaching job. “I read a quote from Greg in the paper where they asked him what was his toughest moment and he said Jonathan Taylor (getting paralyzed). Well, we had to go through that twice. I don’t know of another coach or team that had to deal with the kind of emotional stress we did.
“I say it in the most humble way I can possibly say it, but from 2001-2009 our program was really second to none in the country. From 2010-2013, you’re dealing with two starters suffering career-ending injuries — paralysis, life-changing tragic injuries. So I think it’s normal for me to think that was an unfair situation when you consider that.”
By all accounts, Scott Stricklin was a solid hire as Perno’s replacement. But he has yet to log a winning season in the two years since. Meanwhile, there has been a $12 million renovation to Foley Field and across-the-board increases in staff compensation.
“Dramatic difference in commitment since I’ve been gone,” Perno said. “That aspect of it is extremely difficult to put into perspective. It’s difficult to understand why that level of support was never offered to our staff.”
The other coaching changes McGarity initiated were in gymnastics, women’s golf, volleyball, soccer and track and field. None of those moves have paid dividends yet.
But it’s football that drives the passion — and revenue — at Georgia. And late last season rumors of a growing rift between McGarity and Richt grew to palpable proportions. Fan chat rooms and even the social media accounts of some otherwise reputable outlets were ablaze with gossip and speculation that McGarity was going to make a coaching change if the Bulldogs lost to Louisville in the Belk Bowl.
Georgia won handily, 37-14. But McGarity scoffs at the notion that game was in any way a referendum for Richt or his staff.
“I’m not really sure where that stuff comes from,” McGarity said. “There are only two people involved, Mark and myself, and I have no idea where that came from. … Mark and I, we’re fine.”
Indeed, Richt, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and most of his staff received substantial pay raises after the season. Numerous support staff have been added in the last six months. And not only is Richt going to get the indoor practice facility he long has expressed a need for, he is getting it exactly in the location he requested.
Not a ‘helicopter AD’
McGarity doesn’t claim to have a close relationship with Richt, or any of his 15 head coaches, for that matter.
“I’m not a helicopter AD,” McGarity said. “I am engaged, involved; but I do respect the coaching environment. I’m not in any meetings. I’m at practice, but I don’t want a head coach looking over his shoulder.
“By the same token, I have 15 head coaches that ultimately are my responsibility to hire and to manage. I think sometimes you can get too close to coaches. There are decisions you might make down the road and that might make it more difficult. I believe in having a professional relationship with all coaches.”
Evidently McGarity’s superiors believe he’s doing a good job. In May, UGA President Jere Morehead and the athletic association’s board of directors approved a contract extension and raise for McGarity that will keep him as the Bulldogs’ AD through June of 2019.
When he was hired five years ago, he intimated that he couldn’t see staying in the job for much more than 10 years.
“I don’t know. I’m fortunate to have a contract through 2019,” McGarity said. “It’s definitely the plan to serve through that commitment. That’ll be 10 years. But I’m not focused on that. I’m just focused on Year 6 and all the excitement that’s being generated right now.”