When Mark Richt was shown the door in Athens, several thinkpieces lamented SEC schools’ changing expectations and demanded justice for a man who perennially kept UGA in the conference title race.
But what about the new guy? The one trapped between rebuilding a team in his image and reaching the lofty standard left by the previous regime, while simultaneously being haunted by the near-impossible task of turning his program into annual superpower?
Kirby Smart will need to coach his tail off just to match the legacy that Richt left — an average of nearly 10 wins per season over a 15-year stretch — let alone the one Nick Saban is still building.
A lack of championships was what got Richt canned, but 10 wins seems like a bit of a stretch for the current Bulldogs after their beat-down last Saturday in Oxford. (Though, it should be noted, a win over Tennessee on Saturday could put them in the East driver’s seat.)
That’s why a difficult year in Athens might actually be a good thing for Smart; it keeps moving that “seems like a bit of a stretch …” target lower and lower, until fans are actually OK with a seven-win or eight-win season by November.
“It’s his first year,” you’ll say. “These things take time to build.”
Never mind that Richt coached only one team that won fewer than eight games, and never mind that he’s already off to a roaring start with his new school in Coral Gables.
Whatever Smart accomplishes this year – 12 wins, seven wins, three wins — the Bulldogs will stick with him. They have no choice; they just dumped one of the most-successful coaches in school history for a chance at a title. Smart is the basket; Richt’s firing was “all of the eggs.”
Louisiana State is following this all-or-nothing blueprint. Whoever they bring in to lead the Tigers will need to not only win a national championship but win multiple titles to keep his job.
That’s a level above the pressure on Smart’s shoulders, but not by much.
If he puts together an SEC East winner this autumn, he’s essentially blown his grace year. That bar will get higher and higher until there is no other option but to beat Alabama — or LSU, or whichever team assumes the Tide’s mantle — consistently.
(Yes, Jim McElwain won the SEC East last year in his first season as Florida’s coach, but the Gators did not fire an all-time great coach to employ him. It served McElwain in a reverse way: Fans tempered expectations this fall because they were so pleasantly surprised by last year’s run.)
Georgia’s recent coaching move was based on a lofty goal: Maybe, maybe, maybe … UGA could be that gold standard that other schools are desperately trying to mimic. And that appears to be the only way Smart remains on the Bulldogs sideline a decade from now.
An eight-win season in Year 1 would be a crucial reality check. He would then have until Year 3 or 4 to build an elite team around his star quarterback before fans and pundits heat up the championship talk.
This is not to say winning is “bad.” Georgia certainly has enough talent to reach double digits and win the conference immediately. Losing football games to relieve pressure is counterintuitive; that’s not a goal anyone inside the Bulldogs’ facility has, or should have.
But, as Richt will tell you, security in the coaching world is all about expectations.
The lower the bar entering 2017, the easier it is for Smart to keep people happy.