Nine hundred words in defense of UGA’s Greg McGarity

A sign of the times.

Nobody wanted to be the man who fired Mark Richt. Even if some/many Georgia fans were insisting he needed to go, the reality of an abrupt severance with a beloved coach was bound to set off a backlash. At 12:37 p.m. Sunday, Greg McGarity – the man who fired Richt – became the most hated man in Georgia.

The way around that was for McGarity not to fire Richt, which no longer was an option. The athletic director had been distressed by the Bulldogs’ losses to Florida and Georgia Tech in 2014. He wanted more and better in 2015. He got the same, only worse. Georgia again went 9-3. Georgia again suffered an embarrassing home loss (this time to Alabama, not Tech). Georgia again was routed by Florida. Georgia again failed to win the SEC East.

This did not, to borrow Vince Dooley’s unmet challenge to Ray Goff in 1995, constitute significant improvement. To McGarity, it was confirmation of a simmering suspicion – that Richt, for all his strengths, could no longer deliver a championship. This AD’s charge to every Georgia coach is to play for championships. Can you hold the leader of your highest-profile program to a lower standard?

McGarity could have waited another year to see what happened with the heralded recruit Jacob Eason, but what if Georgia was 9-3 and an SEC East also-ran again in 2016? Would Richt be yet given another mulligan because Eason was but a freshman? Borrowing a political stratagem, Florida AD Jeremy Foley likes to say that what should be done eventually must be done immediately. Not for nothing did McGarity work alongside Foley for 18 years.

At 12:37 Sunday, Georgia announced its parting with the second-best coach in school history. What happened immediately was that any frustration with Richt was washed aside by righteous indignation: A good man had been done wrong! #FireMcGarity!

And here we ask: Fire him for what? For doing his job?

He was hired to do the best for Georgia sports, an entity about which McGarity knows as much as anybody alive. He grew up in Athens. He played tennis for the Bulldogs under the legendary Dan Magill. He worked in the athletic department under Dooley, another legend. Nobody wants Georgia to win any more than McGarity. That he decided Georgia’s best chance to win big in football is with another coach could turn out to be a poor choice; nobody should suggest it was a choice made lightly, or in bad faith.

Nobody wanted to be the man who fired Richt, but McGarity took that hit. Nobody wanted to be the man who sat next to Richt at that valedictory press conference, but McGarity did and looked bad for doing it. But what was the alternative? Having Richt sit by himself would have been weird. Answering questions as to why he’d fired his coach and who might replace him would have been, with Richt sitting at his right hand, crass. McGarity took that hit because he was trying to do right by the second-best coach in Georgia history.

Even before the events of the past week, some Georgia fans had come to loathe McGarity, viewing him as a ditherer who didn’t support Richt. (We note that Richt was given $1.35 million for new offensive assistants and hired Brian Schottenheimer and Rob Sale.) Part of that comes with the job: An AD is an administrator who never gets to run off the field with his arms raised in triumph, not that McGarity would be so inclined. He’s a shy man. He’s no orator. But he’s not stupid, and he’s not heartless.

Surely McGarity spent the past year hoping Richt would win the SEC again and remove all doubt. Who wants to boot the nicest man in a cutthroat industry? But after the Halloween loss in Jacksonville, McGarity had all the pertinent information. (He might insist that the final decision wasn’t made until after the Tech game, but the gears had been grinding for a month.) Believing what he believed, there was no other course — not if he was true to himself and his mission.

Unless something comes unstuck, Georgia will introduce Kirby Smart as its new coach soon after Alabama wins the SEC title. This should go a ways toward calming the waters: Smart is a Bulldog and has been the No. 1 assistant at the best program in the land. He’s not the Richt as we came to know Richt, but he’s the Richt of December 2000. This is a very good hire with sky’s-the-limit potential.

So: Still want to fire McGarity? Still want to jettison the AD who, barring the unforeseen, will bring to Athens the guy some/many Georgia fans have said for years they really wanted? Still want to dump the man who plunged into a difficult process and streamlined it so that an agreement with Richt’s successor was in place not 36 hours after that awkward media briefing?

If he’d dithered in the past, McGarity didn’t at the biggest moment of his professional life. He dared to fire Richt. He moved sprightly to land a man wanted by many schools, South Carolina among them. McGarity might still be the most hated man in Georgia, but it would appear the tennis letterman has served an ace.

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