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Returning to his alma mater and the role of play-caller and offensive coordinator has suited Mark Richt well.

Loving what’s happening for Georgia with Kirby Smart — and with Miami’s Mark Richt

Chip Towers

ATHENS – A battle was being waged on my personal Facebook page earlier this week. For once, it didn’t involve opposing opinions about our president or the people who ran against him last year.

No, this scrum was among Georgia football fans – in-fighting, if you will — and they were going back and forth in a pretty heated argument about Mark Richt vs. Kirby Smart. It has been kind of debate for a while, but apparently it intensified over the weekend with the Bulldogs’ loss to Auburn and Miami’s win over Notre Dame.

Kirby Smart UGA Missouri
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart tips his caps to fans after beating Missouri 53-28 in a NCAA college football game to remain undefeated on Saturday, October 14, 2017, in Athens. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Specifically, some folks are thrilled that Georgia’s former coach is enjoying so much success in his new job at Miami, where he landed after the Bulldogs fired him. Others were attempting to devalue what Richt has done so far in leading the Hurricanes to a 9-0 record and a place among the nation’s Top 4 teams in the College Football Playoff Rankings. Georgia, you’ll note, dropped from 1 to 7.

So the argument quickly devolved into whether or not Richt should have been fired from Georgia at all, about whether Smart was a better coach and a debate over which approach to leading a football program was better. Generally, Richt’s philosophy was described as being focused on turning his young players into great men, with winning being a secondary motivation. Smart, it was argued, ascribes to more of a national-championship-or-bust philosophy out of the mold of Nick Saban. Winning them all is what it is all about for him and nothing else.

These polarizing positions were debated ad nauseum on my timeline. I never weighed in. I will here, though.

Clearly, both approaches can work. I think they ARE both working. And I believe it’s possible to root for both of these guys.

Well, at least until they go head-to-head in a college football playoff game. That, by the way, is still a distinct possibility. Of course, both of their teams have to get there first.

But both will. If it doesn’t happen this season, it will in the near future. Maybe a few times.

As for Smart, he has come a long way toward convincing me that he is going to win big at Georgia. That was the expectation when UGA’s power brokers began to make the moves to get Richt out and get Smart here in 2015. Smart, then Alabama’s defensive coordinator, was moving quickly toward taking the South Carolina job, which had come open during the season. The Bulldogs knew this. They needed to take drastic steps to get him, lest they sit by idly and watch him go instead to an SEC East rival.

That was understandable, but it came with inherent risks. Though wildly successful as Saban’s right-hand man while the Crimson Tide contended for national championships every year, Smart did not have head coaching experience. Therefore, nobody could be sure how Smart might do, especially with so many other Sabanites not necessarily lighting it up as head coaches.

In Richt, UGA had a known commodity who had won at a high rate and at a high level relative to the school’s history. But you could see in 2015 that perhaps his best days at Georgia were behind him. For whatever reason, though his teams often knocked on the door to national championships, the Bulldogs could never walk through. His demeanor and coaching style had worn thin on some fans, as they tend to do with long-tenured coaches. I dare to say that some had grown tired even of Richt’s Christian credo.

But there is no denying how beneficial the transaction has been for both parties.

Never mind Georgia’s de-pantsing this past Saturday at Auburn. The No. 7-ranked Bulldogs (9-1, 6-1 SEC) are still a formidable team in 2017, and way ahead of schedule as far as Smart whipping them into championship contention. Say what you will about anything they’ve done this season, or what you think they might do in the coming weeks, the fact of the matter is Georgia’s destiny is completely in its own hands. Anything is possible once it lines up against Alabama or Auburn on Dec. 2 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Either way, Smart is in line for SEC coach of the year, and national coach of the year depending on how things go from there.

Richt’s going to be on the national ballot, too. I’m not sure how anybody who watched Richt’s work at Georgia for 15 years can’t enjoy seeing what he’s doing at the U. Clearly, returning to his roots as a play-caller and coordinator has rejuvenated Richt and done wonders for Miami. He is at his best with a playsheet in his hands and a headset over his ears.

The Hurricanes are going to be favored over Virginia this Saturday and Pitt the next. Then they’ll get a shot at Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. I sincerely hope they get through clean.

If both Georgia and Miami do, odds are good they’ll meet in the playoffs. And if neither do, you can bet the four remaining bowls of the New Year’s Six – Chick-fil-A, Cotton, Fiesta and Orange —  will angle to pit these two teams together. I sure would.

That’s a bowl game I’d definitely pay to see. Wouldn’t you?

For me, this is not as much about winning an argument as to which program got the better coach or whose way is better. Moreover, what has happened with these respective teams is a validation of the decisions these schools made and, on a larger scale, why these moves are sometimes necessary to kick start a stalling Power 5 program.

As we’re witnessing, all this upward movement has occurred in Year 2 of these coaches’ administrations. That also happens to be when Richt’s Georgia program took off 15 years ago, and when Saban got it going at LSU and Alabama, and Urban Meyer at Florida and Ohio State, and Bob Stoops and Pete Carroll and Jim Tressell, and so on.

On that note, that’s why we should all probably pay close attention to these hires that are about to take place throughout the SEC. Florida and Tennessee are actively looking for coaches right now, Arkansas is expected to join the search soon (if it’s not already) and Texas A&M and Ole Miss might be soon to follow.

But forget those guys for now. Georgia and Miami have the best story in the country brewing right now. It’d be the perfect final chapter if they could somehow meet in the last game of year.

That’s what I’m rooting for.