It may be great to be a Georgia Bulldog on a Saturday night, as the old saying goes — particularly after a win over the in-state rival Yellow Jackets — but it definitely was no fun being a Georgia Bulldog Sunday afternoon.
I wasn’t as shocked as some when the news broke around lunchtime that UGA was parting ways after a decade and a half with the second most successful head coach in the history of its football program, despite a 9-win regular season record. As much as I liked Mark Richt personally and admired the way he operated under the school’s restrictive standards and the obviously caring way he treated his players, I recognized that the program had reached something of a plateau under him in recent seasons.
As both a person and a coach, I was tremendously proud to say Richt represented my alma mater. His concern for his players, even years after they’d left UGA, was genuine and heartfelt.
However, I could see both sides of the debate that had been ongoing among fans and college football analysts concerning his future coaching the Bulldogs.
On the one hand was the pretty convincing argument that, while Richt obviously had elevated the UGA program during his tenure, the past three seasons indicated he had taken it about as far as he could.
Jacksonville, in particular, seemed to be Richt’s Waterloo. Getting outcoached last year by Will Muschamp, who had been an abject failure at Florida, was bad enough. But the controversial decision this year to start the third-string quarterback in the season’s biggest game made it look like Richt and his staff had run out of ideas. At least, good ideas.
And so, the argument went, wasn’t it better to go ahead and make a change at the top now, in the wake of not just disappointing results but also amid reports of dissension and dysfunction on his staff, rather than possibly face the same decision a year from now?
On the other hand, my appreciation for Richt had me leaning toward those making the case that he deserved a chance to see what he could do with the highly ranked recruiting class he was assembling. I really thought he’d get another year to try to right the ship.
I can understand the concern some had that there might not be as many desirable candidates to replace Richt a year or two down the road or, more specifically, that one particular candidate — UGA alum and long-time Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart — might no longer be available after the current rash of coaching openings at major programs are filled.
But, let’s face it, whether you’re talking Smart or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen or whoever winds up taking the job, there are no guarantees that making a change at the top is going to produce the much desired conference championships (and shot at the national championship) that Richt’s detractors made the centerpiece of their evaluation of his recent years in Athens.
Meanwhile, a frequent refrain from those who opposed a coaching change was, “Look at what has happened to Tennessee since they got rid of Phil Fulmer,” and there’s no getting around the fact that, in firing a coach who frequently had 10-win seasons, UGA’s athletic bosses are setting the bar so high that we may have to go through this uncomfortable process more than once before we reach the promised land. (Hopefully, we won’t be wandering in the SEC wastelands for 40 years before doing so.)
Maybe Kirby Smart is the guy to get us there; maybe not. One thing’s for sure: athletic director Greg McGarity’s own career at his hometown university is riding on this awfully big roll of the dice in firing Richt and finding his successor.
I fully concede that Richt wasn’t the perfect head coach. He wasn’t really as single-minded in his focus or as much a detail guy as Nick Saban. He never did learn to manage the game clock, and the lack of priority he put on the special teams aspect of the game particularly bothered me.
It’s only fair to note, however, that Richt didn’t really get the financial support and resources required to win big nowadays until McGarity finally opened up the checkbook in late 2013-2014.
And, while I know others thought Richt had an inability to get his teams ready for “big” games, I saw enough victories over major opponents to know that he was capable of such achievements. Even if the result fell just short, Georgia certainly was ready for Bama when they met for the SEC championship.
And no one who saw how emotional Richt was after the big win over LSU in Athens a couple of years ago (which came days after the death of former Bulldog Paul Oliver) could question that he did really care intensely about not just winning such games but for his players as well.
The bigger problems, and the ones that ultimately brought Richt down, I think, were a tendency to under-recruit in some key areas (generally the offensive line and, most recently, receivers and quarterbacks coming off the Aaron Murray era) and the problems the coach had in recent years filling key spots on his staff.
Thanks to ultimately disappointing promotions and hires like Willie Martinez, Todd Grantham and Brian Schottenheimer, Georgia was unable to capitalize on a rather lengthy down cycle in the SEC East that should have seen the Bulldogs make it to the conference championship game another two or three times.
The cost of fixing the staff problems also might have been a factor in dumping the head coach. Replacing Schottenheimer (and possibly defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt) while keeping Richt would have been very expensive — not only in paying off their contracts, but any replacements of note undoubtedly would have demanded multi-year deals with buyouts.
There’s no doubt, however, that Richt leaves the UGA program much stronger, and operating at a much higher level, than when he found it. Some consider the UGA coaching vacancy an even more desirable job than Southern Cal’s, and that certainly wasn’t the case the last time Georgia went through this.
I hope Richt’s successor is able to win it all. But, more than that, I hope he’s able to do it while maintaining the high standards Richt showed on and off the field.
Maybe that’s not possible. It troubles me to think that whoever does finally have what it takes to bring UGA the trophies it desires might not be nearly as admirable a person as Richt, but that may just be a reality of contemporary college football. Look at who has won the national title in recent years.
That, ultimately, is why Sunday’s news out of Athens filled me (and many other Dawgs fans) with a profound sadness. It was the sort of day I had hoped never to see again at UGA.
Let me know what you think about the end of the Mark Richt era. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.
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