ATHENS — Welcome to the big time, Georgia football fans.
Reporting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 16th, 2004, I labeled that day as “Bloody Friday in UGA Athletics” for the news story I filed. Why? Because that was the day, many months after he’d been designated Vince Dooley’s successor as athletic director, that Damon Evans fired nearly every person in the Bulldogs’ senior athletic administration.
That is NOT what we witnessed on Jan. 4, 2019.
It might feel that way for the most fervent of Georgia football fans. What took place this Friday is not helpful to the Bulldogs’ bottom-line cause for the 2019 season, but it is not necessarily a negative development. This is not good, hard-working people losing their jobs for the sake of change like we saw in 2004. It is, however, the price of doing business at the current altitude Georgia is flying.
At last count — and if you were following this Friday, you know what a flurry this was — we have six front-line players leaving the football program. In chronological order the Bulldogs on Friday lost quarterback Justin Fields (transferring to Ohio State), tight end Isaac Nauta (entering NFL draft), split end Riley Ridley (NFL), flanker/kick returner Mecole Hardman (NFL), tight end Luke Ford (transferring to Illinois) and running back Elijah Holyfield (NFL).
If you’re into recruiting, that’s 28 stars of talent leaving Georgia’s locker room. That’s a blow, folks, no matter who might be “the next man up.”
Head coach Kirby Smart put his best spin on it with the release of a statement early Friday evening.
“We wish the best to Mecole Hardman, Elijah Holyfield, Isaac Nauta and Riley Ridley as they pursue their careers at the next level,” Smart said through UGA Sports Communications. “All four of these juniors contributed significantly to our success during the last two seasons and we look forward to them making the best out of their shot at the NFL. As with all our players, we also will encourage them to complete their degrees to get prepared for the next chapter of their lives.”
The movement we witnessed Friday might not be limited to players. Don’t be surprised if we see some coaches leave is all over as well. Tennessee, which has gone well over a month now without filling its offensive coordinator vacancy, is said to be eying Georgia’s Jim Chaney. Chaney’s three-year contract is due to expire at the end of the academic year. He had to share coordinating duties with James Coley this past season, as well as move from coaching quarterbacks to tight ends, and I;m told still has property on a lake up in East Tennessee.
Also, Georgia clearly has one of the best offensive line coaches in the nation in Sam Pittman. With Alabama’s offensive line coach Brent Key recently leaving to join Geoff Collins at Georgia Tech, don’t be surprised if the Crimson Tide turns their eyes toward Pittman. No way that Georgia would give up Pittman without a vicious fight, but it’s awfully hard to out-compensate Bama.
All this activity at Georgia on Friday underscores two things: One, it shows how special it was what happened when”the Big Four” — Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy — decided to come back to play with the Bulldogs in 2017; and, two, what a tremendous job Nick Saban has done keeping Alabama atop college football’s loftiest peak for so long with players and coaches always coming and going.
There once was a time when transfers, draft early-entry, and coaching movement were a rarity. But such ingress and egress is increasingly commonplace, especially around successful programs. Everybody’s seeking their own slice of the pie, players included.
Can’t blame them for that. For years college football student-athletes were a trapped and exploited labor pool constricted by the NCAA’s archaic rules regarding amateurism and transfers. But as money has come pouring into the game from lucrative television contracts and coaches’ salaries continue to escalate at a breakneck pace, it has become increasingly hypocritical to tell the persons responsible for providing all the actual entertainment that they’re not permitted to go somewhere they believe might suit them better.
That goes double after that we witnessed last week. Manny Diaz abandoned his just-secured head coaching job at Temple to take a better one at Miami, and right after the early-signing period. That’s why all players need now is a reason enough to check one of the boxes on the NCAA’s transfer form and they’re good to go. Like it or not, Fields and Ford both were able to check a box.
As for the Georgia players with professional aspirations, who can fault them of that? There’s nothing more American than being able to seek a good wage doing what you do best. It comes with risks both ways, staying or going, and as Nauta so eloquently explained, nothing’s guaranteed.
But when the game you play can reap millions and the ability to play it comes with a limited shelf life, who’s to say these guys shouldn’t be leaving now or could have benefited later? And we can never be sure of what’s going on back home or in the classroom. Sometime needs and circumstances trump logic.
Some people in chatrooms Friday were calling it “The Fields Effect,” as if it was the unexpected reaction of some high-profile players to the newly-departed quarterback not getting a fair shot at Georgia. I don’t buy that.
Friday definitely was not a good day for Georgia as far as the football program’s selfish pursuits go. But players have selfish pursuits, too, and they don’t always run lockstep with those of the university or the head coach.
Yes, this whirlwind of postseason activity has come with a cost for Georgia. I’d say about one New Year’s Six bowl game so far. That said, I believe Smart has handled all the developments about as well as he could. I felt like he bent over backward — almost to a detrimental degree — to keep Fields happy and try to keep him in Athens. And, in the end, sending lots of underclassmen to the league is a positive thing for your program.
So you can bet Smart will be out there in the next couple of weeks trying to talk more 5-stars into coming to UGA to fulfill their NFL dreams. And this time next year, we can probably expect more of the same.