The big question: How important is football to Georgia now?

Georgia football-Kirby Smart-Jere Morehead
UGA President Jere Morehead has authorized expenditures in support of coach Kirby Smart's football program.

“I know our competitors are not gonna say anything bad about the coaching staff here. They’re not gonna say anything bad about the people here because it’s a great place. But what they’re gonna say — and that they’ve always said is — how important is football to Georgia if they don’t have an indoor practice facility? Well, they won’t be able to say that anymore.” – Jeremy Pruitt, Nov. 18, 2014

Event 1

As Jeremy Pruitt prepared for the moment that would shake up UGA athletics, he knew what he was about to do. Georgia’s football team had just conducted a half-hearted practice in its half-baked indoor facility, dodging windows and walls in the process, and Pruitt was exasperated.

It was the week of Georgia’s game against Georgia Tech, three seasons ago. Pruitt, the defensive coordinator at the time, normally was reluctant to speak to the media. But this time he walked out with a purpose.

“This is gonna be the last team [that Georgia doesn’t have a real indoor facility] because those guys upstairs, they’re serious,” Pruitt said. “They’re trying to figure out the fastest way they can get us one. And as soon as they can figure out how it can be done, they’re gonna be doing it. And I want the recruits to know that they’re not gonna suffer because of it.”

The only problem was it wasn’t quite true. A design study had been approved a few months earlier to “explore” building a real, full-length facility, and an architect had been hired. But things were not going to move as fast as Pruitt said.

Three years later, Georgia officials bristle at the idea that Pruitt was the one who got the $30.2 million indoor facility built. Indeed, the long-sought building would have arrived eventually either way, they say.

But what was startling was the larger message that Pruitt invoked: “How important is football to Georgia if they don’t have an indoor facility?” To many, the indoor facility, or lack of one, symbolized a bigger question.

That was 2014. It was not the last Georgia football team to try to improve each day without an indoor facility. The 2015 team didn’t have one. Neither did the 2016 version.

Indeed, this 2017 team, which takes the field Saturday against Appalachian State in its season opener, will be the first team to benefit from a place to practice indoors. And it’s not the only new benefit.

In the nearly three years since Pruitt spoke, a lot has changed.

Event 2: The Alabama debacle

There was a subtext, not very hidden, in the lead-up to the game on Oct. 3, 2015. It pitted Alabama, the championship-winning and free-spending program run by the iron-fisted Nick Saban, against a Georgia program that prided itself on the way it operated.

The most stringent drug policy in the SEC. A coach in Mark Richt who was widely admired for his character and who let players transfer wherever they wanted. Fiscal prudence by the administration.

“Georgia football has tried to do things the right way. UGA is more to me than just football,” Richard Tucker, a Board of Regents member of Georgia’s university system, told USA Today that week for a piece titled: “Is Georgia football caught between winning and winning right?”

Alabama’s rout of Georgia in 2015 showed many at UGA how far the program had to go and spurred many to think there should be a coaching change. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Dink NeSmith, a former Board of Regents chairman, also was quoted in the USA Today piece, whose writer referred to Georgia as the “conscience of the SEC.”

“Do I like losing? Hell no, I want to win every one,” said NeSmith, president of Athens-based Community Newspapers Inc. “But I’m not willing to sell my soul to the devil just to say we won. There’s a certain pride, without being condescending, where we try to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Georgia entered the game unbeaten, with a higher ranking and as the home team. It didn’t matter. Alabama, the 1990s-era New York Yankees of college football, embarrassed Georgia, the equivalent of that era’s Boston Red Sox, 38-10.

Minds changed then. Minds that had been leaning toward wanting a change were pushed further in that direction. Some people saw the need for a coaching change; some saw the need for a culture change. In Kirby Smart, they saw both.

The changes: Coaching and financial

It wasn’t just the Alabama game. In October 2015, Richt’s team blew a 21-point lead and lost at Tennessee, barely beat Missouri and got thumped by Florida after the ill-fated decision to start third-string quarterback Faton Bauta.

Richt was fired after 15 seasons. Kirby Smart was the healing choice as a Georgia graduate and former All-SEC safety, but also Saban’s right-hand man and defensive coordinator. Smart had seen what worked at Alabama.

Smart changed the transfer policy, making it stricter. Ditto for the media policies. And he lobbied more vocally, behind the scenes, for needed facilities, support staff and other financial increases. Richt wanted those things, too, and the purse strings had started to loosen near the end of his tenure. Since Smart arrived, the wallet has opened even more.

The largest athletic facility project in years, the $63 million Sanford Stadium west end zone renovation, is underway. It was approved earlier this year. The football team finally will have new game-day locker rooms, and the Bulldogs will have a recruiting area at the stadium.

Georgia broke ground for the indoor facility shortly after Smart was hired, becoming the last in the SEC to get one. So in that way, the thinking already had begun to change at UGA. As recently as December 2013, athletics director Greg McGarity had expressed ambivalence about building an indoor facility.

McGarity declined comment for this story. In an interview in December 2013, he said:

Jeremy Pruitt (left) spoke up about UGA’s lack of an indoor facility, something Mark Richt wanted, too. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

“You can count on your hands how many times we would have needed it this year. You can probably count it on one hand. Two days against Tech. Probably the first day of bowl practice. So that’s a significant investment for something that is used infrequently.”

That contrasted with a coaching staff that believed it would use one a lot more. Then-assistant coach Mike Ekeler said in late 2014: “I mean, it’s crazy. It’s amazing we don’t have one. It’s absolutely crazy. It’s absurd.”

McGarity and UGA’s administration opted to go forward with the facility in 2014, and plans were put into place.

So far this preseason, the team has gone inside five or six times. The weather forced the Bulldogs inside twice; the other times were scheduled. The coaches like to practice inside every few days to give the players a break from the summer heat. This season could show if there is a correlation between the indoor facility and wins and losses.

Smart also could benefit from an increased financial commitment to football, some of which preceded his arrival. Consider:

  • Coaching salaries increased in Richt’s last two seasons, especially the final one: Pruitt (even after the indoor facility rant) got a raise from $850,000 to $1.3 million in 2015. Brian Schottenheimer, in his one year at Georgia, made $950,000, or $375,000 more than offensive coordinator Mike Bobo earned in his final year before taking the Colorado State job. That has continued under Smart; five of his assistants earn $525,000 or more.
  • The football support staff earns collectively just less than $3 million, according to figures disclosed earlier this summer.
  • Then there was the recruiting budget: Georgia budgeted $1.34 million in 2015, up from $717,091 the previous year and $581,531 in 2013. Alabama, on the other hand, spent well more on recruiting than Georgia in 2013. The Crimson Tide, with Smart as defensive coordinator, spent $983,721 on recruiting in 2013.
  • In the most recent fiscal year, Georgia’s football program spent $31.3 million. That’s up from $26.15 million two years ago, a figure that ranked seventh in the SEC. Alabama spent $51 million that same year and $56.2 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.

There is still a ways to go, as some point out.

“I think [Smart] is going to do great,” legendary Georgia and NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton said. “But he won’t do great unless the administration is totally supportive.”

Tarkenton was asked if he thought the administration was supportive enough.

“I think it is, but if the alumni base doesn’t get off our collective asses and give money to this program and support this program, then we won’t compete against Alabama,” Tarkenton said. “To compete against Alabama, we’ve got to give Kirby the resources. And we’re starting to do that. But we’ve got a long way to go there. We really do.”

A change in thinking?

Tucker, the Board of Regents member, is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his freshman year at UGA. He spoke to USA Today before the 2015 Alabama game about Georgia football trying to do things the right way.

Two years later, Tucker said nothing has changed from his perspective. He’s supportive of Smart but also still supportive of what UGA says its athletics mission should be: Recruit high-character athletes who “have the academic wherewithal to succeed” at UGA. From what he can tell, Smart is doing a good job with that.

“I don’t think anybody that I know of, who’s been in any leadership position in the university system or the University of Georgia, is saying, ‘Let’s water down anything,’ ” Tucker said. “Let’s get the best people we can to fit our student-athlete role at Georgia. It appears we’re doing that. Now whether we’re successful remains to be seen.”

Tucker also supported the upgrade in facilities.

“We were sort of lagging behind our other conference competitors, relative to the indoor facility, which has been planned and talked about for a long time. It’s finally a reality,” Tucker said. “And this west end zone project is needed. The athletic association is doing a great job of raising money and spending money to spend for its student-athletes. …

“Our facilities haven’t always maintained pace with our aspirations. And now they have.”

NeSmith, the former Board of Regents chairman, said two years ago that he didn’t want UGA to “sell its soul” to win championships. He hasn’t changed his tune, either, but seems glad the spending has increased.

“Like it or not, big-time college football is an all-out arms race. The over-the-top spending is just part of the game,” NeSmith wrote in an email. “I have been a Kirby Smart fan before he was named the Bulldogs head coach. As a Georgia alum, I want two things: 1) Win more championships. 2) UGA to be a leader by setting an example of how to win the right way, with honor. Go, Dawgs!”

Is Georgia unique? Can the Alabama blueprint be put on Georgia? Should Georgia aspire to do things the right way, even if that gets in the way of winning?

Frank Ros, a member of the 1980 national championship team, is a successful businessman and donor to UGA athletics. Ros said UGA has the basics in place – a great alumni base, recruiting base, the right athletes and a “strong” administration – to succeed.

“You’ve got to be who you are,” Ros said. “But, at the end of the day, there’s no reason why the University of Georgia can’t compete for the national championship in all sports every year.”

Ros, whose son was a football recruit, said he once met with Saban. From that conversation, his takeaway was this: Saban knew what he wanted and was going to make sure he got it.

“I think Kirby learned that and understands that you have to advocate on behalf of what you want, in a way that is convincing to the administration,” Ros said. “And I think you’re seeing some of that happening now.”

Georgia athletics, 2017

Some things have changed. Georgia has become more like Alabama over the last four years. Pruitt, a longtime assistant at Alabama who spent two seasons at Georgia before returning to Alabama, initiated some of that. And Smart has continued it.

The spending increases. The support staff. The transfer policy now won’t allow players to transfer within the conference or to any team on Georgia’s schedule.

But other things haven’t changed yet. The tough drug policy remains intact, for one, and Smart has spoken out forcefully in support of it.

Smart also has shown that, like Richt, he wants his players to be about more than just football. Last Monday, while other teams ignored the eclipse, Smart arranged for his players to get the required glasses and filmed and released a video of the team watching. Smart also hasn’t been afraid to show his human side.

Kirby Smart learned at Nick Saban’s side and saw what worked. He has brought much of that culture to Georgia.

But Smart is also his own man. His degree says Georgia. He spent a year working for Richt and admires him.

Smart will do what it takes to win. But those who have heard him speak at private fundraisers see someone who is trying to blend the Alabama and Georgia ways to try to get the best of both.

“I’m one of those who, yeah, you look at your competition, but you don’t let them determine what you do,” Ros said. “You better have a strategic plan, and you better have goals and aspirations, and you work toward those. … You set your own road map. And, you know, Georgia has been very successful. Now what’s happened is Alabama has been extraordinarily successful. …

“Mark did a great job. Now Kirby is pushing the envelope, making sure that we continue to evolve as an athletic department and football program. It’ll be interesting to see what happens this year.”

Staff writer Chip Towers contributed to this story.


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