Richt has failed in too many big moments: It’s time for change at Georgia

Georgia coach Mark Richt has failed to elevate the program back to SEC championship level. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Coaches don’t get fired because they lose. Coaches get fired when teams don’t meet expectations. There are circumstances when a 5-8 record is good and an 8-5 record is bad.

The circumstances at Georgia suggest this: Mark Richt has failed. He should not be back as Georgia’s coach next season.

This isn’t because he is a bad coach or because the Bulldogs are likely to finish with a losing record (they’re 5-3 with four winnable games and a bowl left). It’s because they did not meet expectations – this season, last season and arguably most seasons since 2007, when Georgia went 5-0 against ranked opponents and finished 11-2. It’s because with no drop in resources or support from administration and with a never-ending tap of recruits, Richt has failed to build momentum and take advantage of a run-down SEC East Division.

Richt is a head coach with an offensive background and a specialty in developing quarterbacks. But right now, he oversees a program that has hit an embarrassing low at that position. He failed to recruit and/or develop a quarterback for a second straight season, mismanaged the position, wasted the luxury of a great running game and clearly made a poor hire in offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who has failed miserably as Mike Bobo’s replacement. Those decisions effectively submarined this season.

Writing this gives me no pleasure. Richt represents everything a college coach should be. He runs his program the right way. He cares about his players and staff and has the right perspective on the mission of college athletics, which probably puts him in the minority. He has endured more criticism than a man of his accomplishments should ever be subjected to. He brought two SEC championships to a school that hadn’t won any in 20 years. In later years, when too many of his recruits tarnished Georgia’s image with arrests ranging from frat-boy level tendencies to issues far worse, Richt shed the enabling ways he learned from mentor Bobby Bowden and implemented tough love.

For all that, he should be praised.

But there have been too many failed expectations, too many performances that can’t be excused. Georgia has played two ranked opponents this season, Alabama and Florida. It lost both games — one at home, one on a neutral site — by a composite score of 65-13. It also lost at Tennessee, whose only other wins this season have come over Bowling Green, Western Carolina and Kentucky.

The Dogs’ most impressive victory came over South Carolina, which is 1-5 in the conference and prompted its head coach to run toward the light of retirement.

This isn’t about one disappointing season. In my view, Richt started the year in a deep hole.

He never built on the relative momentum following the near upset of Alabama in the 2012 SEC title game, which would’ve punched his ticket to the national championship game. The 2013 team had quarterback Aaron Murray back for a senior season but suffered from injuries, defensive problems and inexcusable losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt. It finished 8-5 with a loss in the Gator Bowl.

In 2014, again with high expectations, Georgia had impressive wins over Clemson and Missouri and appeared destined for a conference title appearance. But then came the dread of Jacksonville, a 38-20 loss to a Florida team that was on the verge of firing coach Will Muschamp. (There is a win mandate at Florida, which has fired two coaches during Richt’s tenure.)

Sometimes, one loss says more than any win. Sometimes one loss leads even defenders to think, “Maybe everybody else is right.”

Georgia was 4-0 this season before hosting Alabama. It didn’t just lose, it was humiliated 38-10 on its home field. Manna for the critics.

I never understood the Georgia-will-always-be-Georgia narrative. I also never bought into the Richt-can’t-win-a-national-title refrain. Until now.

The screams for his exit haven’t been this loud since early in 2011. But this isn’t about screams, it’s about facts. Richt is 14-23 against ranked opponents since 2008. He hasn’t won a conference championship since 2005, despite athletic director Greg McGarity giving him everything he has wanted.

Coaching changes often come about only when donations or recruiting fall off. That’s not the case here. But if McGarity sticks with Richt, it will say more about where the bar is in Athens than how much he truly believes in his head coach.

McGarity resisted change when Georgia finished 6-7 in 2010, playing in a bowl it should never play in (Liberty), losing to a team it should never lose to (Central Florida). Then came the losses to Boise State and South Carolina to open the 2011 season. Richt’s future never seemed more in doubt. But then Georgia won 10 straight before being overwhelmed by No. 1 LSU in the SEC title game.

Richt showed something then, and in 2012. But I don’t believe he can bring Georgia back from this.

There is no reason Georgia, with its recruiting base and relative unlimited resources, can’t compete and win for championships. To believe the Dogs will turn it around next season would be to hinge hopes on a true freshman quarterback, Jacob Eason, and suddenly cohesive and well-functioning coaching staff. Those are dangerous assumptions.

If Richt resigns or is fired, it’s conceivable Eason changes his commitment. But one player can’t influence big-picture decisions. Recruiting isn’t the problem at Georgia. Coaching is.

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