Greg McGarity’s career will be defined by first major hire (updated)

Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity fired coach Mark Richt and is about to make the biggest hire of his career. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

This shouldn’t be viewed as a day of celebration.

Mark Richt is a good coach and a great man who elevated the Georgia program back to a level of prominence with two SEC championships in his first five seasons. Rare is the coach who is admired and respected by all, from the administrators to coaches to athletes to the kids who throw the towels to even the sportswriters who hurl the insults.

But something doesn’t have to be celebrated to be right. Georgia had hit a ceiling under Richt. There were too many embarrassing performances in too many big moments. Coaches who regularly win conference titles or win national title games get the benefit of the doubt. But the Bulldogs haven’t won an SEC title in 10 years and haven’t played for a national championship since Vince Dooley roamed the sidelines.

Benefit of the doubt: gone.

So, with the blessing of school president Jere Morehead, athletic director Greg McGarity fired a head coach with a .739 won-loss percentage Sunday. It was a polarizing decision because Richt had as many fans as detractors, from the cheap suites to the booster suites, and some were just fine with the way things were.

But there is one thing everybody can agree on: This is the biggest test of McGarity’s administration. He will be judged in the future by this hire and this hire alone.

McGarity returned to Athens in 2010 amid turmoil, replacing the fired Damon Evans. McGarity, a former Georgia tennis player, coach and low-level administrator, had worked in the Florida athletic department for 18 years and studied under Jeremy Foley, one of the nation’s best athletic directors.

But McGarity has never made a decision like this. Athletic directors tend to be defined by the coaches they hire in football and men’s basketball. He has done neither. His appointments have been limited to gymnastics, baseball, volleyball, women’s golf, soccer and women’s basketball. For what it’s with, none of the results have been overwhelming to this point.

McGarity has been thinking about this move for a while. A coach doesn’t get fired after four straight wins to close a 9-3 season unless the wheels were in motion weeks before. There was disenchantment a year ago when the Bulldogs laid an egg in Jacksonville over a mediocre Florida team, killing all hopes for an SEC title game appearance. When the same thing happened this season, it was over. Anything Georgia may say to the contrary is spin.

So let’s assume McGarity has a plan. Georgia is in a good situation. The Dogs are a well-funded and well-supported program in what generally is considered the nation’s most powerful conference. Even with a dozen other openings at FBS programs, this is the best job on the board. I’m including USC (the real one) in that for two reasons: 1) The Trojans are an iconic program and have won national titles but their administration is a mess and athletic director Pat Haden may be in trouble; 2) It is more difficult for head coaches to hire strong staffs in Los Angeles than in the South because of the cost of living.

For that reason, McGarity should shoot high. He should make Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher say no, even though Fisher has said he is staying in Tallahassee. He should check on Philadelphia’s Chip Kelly because the Eagles are circling the drain and Kelly may be returning to college.

Failing that, there are at least two viable options at the next level:

• Alabama defensive coordinator and former Georgia defensive back Kirby Smart, whom Richt nearly hired in 2010. Hiring a first-time head coach is always a risk but Smart has worked under Nick Saban for nine seasons. That makes for a strong resume. There is speculation in the agent fraternity that if Smart is hired, he could try to bring Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and Western Kentucky offensive coordinator Tyson Helton with him.

• Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. He has had great success at a difficult place to recruit and coach. Logic suggests he would jump at the Georgia job. McGarity also knows Mullen from their time together at Florida, where Mullen worked for Urban Meyer (2005-08).

It would be nice if Georgia could retain defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. But Pruitt and his abrasive personality have been at the center of dysfunction on Richt’s staff this season and it’s unknown if McGarity and/or the new head coach will want to keep him.

McGarity and his next hire need to be prepared for the obvious: The bar will be very high. All results from the new head coach will be measured against the record of the old coach. Success won’t be about eight-to-10-win seasons but SEC titles and competing for national championships.

McGarity may have made the right decision. But when a good coach is fired, the next coach needs to be great.

 

More on Richt:

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