ATLANTA — If the Georgia Bulldogs somehow win a national championship Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, perhaps they should consider sending a ring to Faton Bauta.
In reviewing how it is that Georgia got here — to its first appearance in a College Football Playoff championship game in Year 2 under coach Kirby Smart — it’s with Bauta that the story must begin.
Bauta was the third-string quarterback on the Bulldogs’ 2015 team. Well, he was third team for most of that season. There was one game in which he was named the starter. In a desperate move made by a desperate head coach, Mark Richt tabbed Bauta to start against No. 11 Florida in Jacksonville, Fla.
Richt recently confirmed he made that decision unilaterally. It turned out to be a mistake.
Bauta threw 4 interceptions that day, and Georgia lost 27-3 to the Gators. To say the Bulldogs’ fan base was incensed would be an understatement.
Particularly upset was a subset of people who give a lot of money to the school and its athletic programs. Many of those people were on the phone to each other, to UGA President Jere Morehead, to athletic director Greg McGarity, to athletic and university administrators, even to Gov. Nathan Deal.
Their message was clear: “We want a change in football.”
By the time the Bulldogs returned to Athens, Richt’s fate apparently had been sealed.
Simultaneous to all this, South Carolina happened to have an opening for a head coach. Steve Spurrier resigned on Oct. 13, and the Gamecocks already had begun to narrow their focus on a certain defensive coordinator at Alabama. In fact, at that point it was fairly well known in the industry that Smart was ready to make the jump to be a head coach, and South Carolina was looking like a good place to make that start.
Knowing this, Georgia suddenly found itself in a competition. If the Bulldogs were ever going to bring the talented young coach back to his alma mater, it would have to happen in that season.
This story is based on interviews with people who were involved with, familiar or directly affected by the decision to change coaches in 2015. Most did not want their names used because they are still in the industry. It’s also based on reporting and interactions the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and DawgNation reporters had at the time of Richt’s dismissal.
A Smart decision
For the record, McGarity disputes that Georgia was ever in a “race” with South Carolina to land Smart or that it hastened the decision to part ways with Richt.
“I have no idea where that’s coming from,” said McGarity, who arrived in Atlanta on Saturday night for the championship game. “I’ve read it after the fact, but I just kind of laughed at it.”
But McGarity also said that he alone made the decision to fire Richt on the drive back to Athens after the Bulldogs defeated Georgia Tech in the last game of the regular season on Nov. 28, 2015. In fact, that’s what he said at the joint news conference to announce that Richt had been relieved of his head coaching duties and offered the opportunity to remain on staff in an undetermined role. But protocols and procedures are required to part ways with the state’s highest-paid employee, including the approval of the president and the athletic board.
McGarity did agree that the dominoes for what was to eventually happen — Richt being fired and Smart being hired as his successor — began to fall nearly a month before that, and that the tipping point was that Florida game on Halloween afternoon in Jacksonville.
“You’re talking about a young man starting the Florida football game who had never started a game before,” said an influential booster who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He really didn’t have an equal chance. His chances were slim and none in that type of atmosphere and environment. … A number of people were disappointed about that. I will say [Richt] continuing on as the football coach was in jeopardy at that point.”
Members of the coaching staff certainly felt that way. It was evident upon their return to Athens later that night and also in the weeks that followed.
“Once we got back, there were a lot of signs,” said one of the assistant coaches on Richt’s staff. “I don’t know if Coach Richt realized it, but it was so obvious to the rest of us. Nobody was coming around. People didn’t seem particularly happy when we won. … But I literally remember standing there on the sidelines against Florida thinking we’re getting fired somewhere in this stadium right now.”
They were, just not officially for four more weeks.
Lost in the narrative that was Richt’s final season was that his team won the final four games, five if the TaxSlayer Bowl is included, although Richt was not a part of that one. By then he already had landed the job at Miami, his alma mater. But a skeleton staff of six coaches, led by interim head coach Bryan McClendon and with John Lilly and Kevin Sherrer as interim offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, led the Bulldogs to a 24-17 win over Penn State and Saquon Barkley.
In the meantime, the Bulldogs were not having to negotiate murderer’s row. Their wins came against Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech, teams that were a combined 24-26 that season. The best victory was a 20-13 road win over Auburn, a team Richt thoroughly dominated during his 15-year tenure in Athens.
But with the exception of the Kentucky contest, the other three were tight. And Richt’s exuberance and the team’s celebration after the Bulldogs barely escaped FBS upstart Georgia Southern in overtime in Athens further incensed many of Georgia’s power brokers.
“We were excited and ecstatic and everybody was patting each other on the back when we just got by Georgia Southern [in overtime],” a longtime donor said. “Come on, are we down that far? So that certainly had a lot to do with Greg’s decision.”
On board with Bulldogs
Having Smart already lined up helped. Nobody had signed any documents or shook any hands at that point, but with his influential super-agent Jimmy Sexton pulling levers, there had been enough back-channel, back-and-forth between third parties for Georgia to be sure that Smart would be able and willing to accept the school’s head coaching job if it were to be available at season’s end.
A comment from current Georgia wide receiver Tyler Simmons, who first committed to Alabama in November 2015, confirms that Smart already had settled on a career change.
“By this time, he knew he was going to get a head coaching job,” Simmons said then. “He just didn’t know where yet. He told me beforehand, ‘If you commit [to Alabama], if I get a head coaching job somewhere else, I’m coming for you.’ ”
Georgia had pursued Smart before. In fact, Richt himself had made a run at having Smart join the Bulldogs as defensive coordinator a few years before. But Smart, acting on the advice of Alabama coach Nick Saban, was advised not to return to his alma mater in a lateral move. If ever he was to go there, it should be only as the head coach, Saban told him.
And Smart was starting to get more and more opportunities to be a head coach. As Saban’s defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, Smart had been a major factor in the Crimson Tide winning four national championships within a seven-year period. Major programs were starting to take notice.
Smart interviewed for the Auburn head coaching job in December 2012 and, by most accounts, was the favorite. But the Tigers’ leadership balked when Smart asked to stay with Alabama through its BCS national championship matchup with Notre Dame. Auburn eventually hired Gus Malzahn from Arkansas State.
Likewise, Smart being able to stick with the Crimson Tide through their College Football Playoff run of 2015 was an important consideration for him accepting Georgia’s offer. The Bulldogs agreed, and Smart was introduced as their new head coach on Dec. 6, 2015. He accepted a 6-year contract that paid him $3.75 million per year and asked for assurances that UGA would continue to improve its facilities, increase the size of his support staff and payroll and increase the budget for recruiting.
He split time between the two jobs until Alabama defeated Clemson 45-40 to win the national championship on Jan. 11, 2016. At first light the next morning, Smart flew to Athens via private jet with wife Mary Beth and his kids on board, along with Mel Tucker, who Smart hired as Georgia’s defensive coordinator, and Glenn Schumann, a support staffer who became Georgia’s inside linebackers coach.
“We were interested in the long-term results,” McGarity said of agreeing to share his new head coach with Alabama. “In the short term, it meant a lot to Coach Saban and to Kirby, and it was the right thing to do. We have respect for our conference peers, so we saw no reason to not agree with those requests.”
Right where they want him
You’ll certainly hear nobody from Georgia complaining. Smart has led the Bulldogs to a 13-1 record – its best since Richt’s second season in 2002 – and has Georgia in position to win a national championship for the first time in 37 years. The Bulldogs last won a national title in 1980, when Vince Dooley was the head coach and Herschel Walker was the star tailback. Both of those individuals will be sitting together in a suite at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to watch Georgia take on the same Alabama team that made Smart such a hot coaching commodity in the first place.
The 42-year-old Bainbridge product and UGA football letterman brought many of the systems and training methods to Athens that he learned from Saban at Alabama during the previous nine years to help elevate Georgia from an 8-5 season and Liberty Bowl bid last year to the College Football Playoff championship game one year later.
While Smart remains grateful to Saban for the experiences and advice he received in Tuscaloosa and Miami and Baton Rouge before that, he wanted it made clear Saturday that he has his own philosophies and style as a coach.
“I’m a different person than Nick,” Smart said at CFP Championship Media Day. “I’m different in recruiting. But that’s OK. I’m OK with who I am. I’m comfortable with that. I’m not trying to emulate him. He’s got his own [way], and I’ve got mine.”
Whether or not the Bulldogs win Monday night, it appears they are set up for success. In addition to a $31 million indoor practice facility opened after last season, construction is underway on a $63 million locker room and recruiting lounge addition at Sanford Stadium. Not coincidentally, Georgia currently has the top-ranked recruiting class for 2018 following a class that carried a No. 3 consensus ranking in 2017.
As for Richt, he’s going OK, too. The Bulldogs’ 15-year head coach, whose head coaching career started almost to the letter like Smart’s, save the creation of a playoff, had Miami in the playoff picture until late in the season. The Hurricanes were undefeated and rose as high as No. 2 before losing their last three games to finish 10-3.
Richt declined comment for this story other than to congratulate the Bulldogs and Smart, whom he still calls a friend, on their run to the title game. Richt and his staff recruited many of the players on Georgia’s senior-laden roster who have made major contributions to this season’s success.
“This game is definitely not about me,” Richt said via text message. “It’s about the players and the current coaching staff. I am proud of the players, and I’m happy for all the Georgia people who are able to enjoy a moment like this. I’d like to leave it at that.”
As for Bauta, he is no longer playing football. Bauta graduated and left Georgia with a year of eligibility remaining after the 2015 season. He followed Mike Bobo to Colorado State, getting a couple of starts early in the 2016 season. He is now back home in New York and hoping to launch an NFL coaching career, according to his high school coach, Jack Daniels.
“If you ask me, I think he should have been starting earlier,” Daniels said of Bauta. “I think he should’ve been given a chance before that. That was too tough of a team and a situation for a quarterback to make his first start.”
On that last part, a lot of Georgia people agree. The kid deserves a medal. Maybe a ring.
Reporter Seth Emerson contributed to this report.