Jacksonville, Fla. — Greg McGarity stood at the outlet of the tunnel leading onto EverBank Field, and there was lightness if not actual light. (The day had been overcast.) The athletic director was watching Georgia’s players, and those coaches who remained, celebrate a 24-17 victory in a homely but somehow endearing TaxSlayer Bowl, and he wasn’t just smiling. He was beaming.
A difficult period for Georgia football is approaching its end. The Bulldogs went out as 10-game winners. A staff undermanned by McGarity’s firing of Mark Richt and the disinclination of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and linebackers coach Mike Ekeler to work the bowl game distinguished itself at a most trying time. And a grateful AD positioned himself to congratulate and thank each and every Bulldog.
“I feel grateful for the way these kids have responded to adversity,” McGarity said, “and how they’ve conducted themselves down here all week … And the coaching staff put any personal disappointment aside and put the whole focus on the kids.”
At midfield, Bryan McClendon was being handed the TaxSlayer Bowl trophy. On the day Richt took the Miami job and announced he wouldn’t stay in Athens to coach the Bulldogs one last time, McGarity called McClendon, who was in Texas recruiting, to ask him to serve as Georgia’s interim coach. McClendon interrupted to ask, “Are you sure you’ve got the right coach?”
Most folks refer to McClendon as B-Mac. McGarity was calling him “Bryan.” B-Mac wasn’t certain if the AD had mean to dial Brian Schottenheimer. McGarity hadn’t. He’d gotten hold of the right man for this difficult assignment, and that man and his assistants did Georgia proud.
As for the game: Georgia had the better players, especially after Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was lost to a shoulder injury. But the Bulldogs went without a turnover and scored three offensive touchdowns for only the second time since September, and one of B-Mac’s receivers — Terry Godwin — had the game of his collegiate life. He made a splendid catch for one touchdown, and he threw off a reverse to Malcolm Mitchell for another.
The game got hairy at the end. Before you could say, “Hey, didn’t Georgia blow a 24-3 lead and lose to Tennessee?” the Nittany Lions were inching toward a tying touchdown in the final minute. The game came down to a last-gasp heave, and Bulldog Nation knows well that bad things can happen when Georgia defenders collide. But this was no answered Prayer at Jordan-Hare. Together, Lorenzo Carter and Malkom Parrish batted the ball to the turf.
Kevin Sherrer, pressed into service as defensive coordinator after Jeremy Pruitt left for Alabama, stood in a hallway much later and spoke of how strange the past weeks had been. “You’ve got a wife and kids at home,” he said of himself and his fellow coaches, “but we knew we had to give these kids the coaching they deserved.”
Then: “We get paid to do this. These players are on scholarship and get meal money. We had to take things on our shoulders, and that’s where it should be. Their worlds got turned upside down, and they’re still kids. We had to love ’em up and show them we had their backs.”
Afterward, McClendon — unbeaten as a head coach — allowed that he’d give himself one night to celebrate before heading to Columbia, where he’ll join South Carolina’s staff. Given that Georgia plays the Gamecocks next and every season, someone asked how coaching in that game will feel. “Wherever I’m working,” McClendon said, “I’m going to give it all I’ve got. I’m pretty sure the coaches who work here next year will, too. It’s hard to get a bad coach at the University of Georgia.”
The man who will succeed Richt on a permanent basis stopped by the stadium long enough to do a TV stint and halftime, and then Kirby Smart was gone to Tuscaloosa. He’ll run Alabama’s defense in the national championship game against Clemson. Said McGarity: “Our players want to play in the sort of (playoff) games they watched on TV two days ago.”
As the AD turned to go, he offered this closing statement: “Great things are ahead for us.”