I don’t know about you, but my head is still spinning from the strange few days the Bulldog Nation has just experienced.
It started out with the abrupt announcement of Mark Richt’s “mutual understanding” with Greg McGarity, followed by their awkward tag-team press conference, where the coach exuded classiness while the athletic director squirmed like a perp put under hot lights as he declined to explain why he got rid of the Dawgs’ suddenly ultra popular head coach.
For one brief moment, Richt seemed to be torn between enjoying retirement and getting back into “hands on” coaching, and McGarity was not very convincingly trying to portray the search for a successor as “wide open.”
Within a couple of days, though, Richt had moved to “the U” as his alma mater’s new head coach (so hurriedly that he paired a UGA belt with his new orange-and-green Hurricanes tie on his first day). Practically at the same time, it became clear that Georgia was only waiting for Alabama to get past Saturday’s SEC Championship Game before announcing Sunday that, as predicted by many, the Tide’s defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart, is UGA’s new head football coach.
Meanwhile, most of Georgia’s coaches first were pulled off the recruiting trail early in the week before the powers that be did a quick 180 and told them to return to operating as usual.
Whew. The situation changed so fast that the sadness many of us felt over the way the Richt era in Athens came to an end quickly gave way to anticipation over the return to UGA of an alum considered the hottest head coach prospect in the country. By this weekend, even fans who initially would have preferred the Dawgs to aim higher and bring an established head coach to Athens (rather than going for another assistant-on-the-rise) were expressing excitement over the advent of the Smart era.
(Going back to that press conference early in the week, despite the impression of a wide-open search McGarity was trying to give, all indications are that Smart was his target from the start and that a desire to lock down the Bama defensive coordinator before South Carolina or any other rival could lure him away from Tuscaloosa was one of the factors in the timing of Richt’s demise.)
Now, all we’re left to fret about is who will Smart hire as his offensive coordinator; whether star quarterback recruit Jacob Eason will stick with his commitment to UGA, flip to Florida or follow Richt to Miami; and how Bama’s College Football Playoff hopes might interfere with recruiting by the new coach.
Of course, the Junkyard Mail “in” box was bursting at its digital seams this week as readers angrily lamented the dismissal of a good man and successful coach, elatedly celebrated the demise of an underperforming coach, and worried about what the Dawgs’ roster and recruiting class will look like when all the dust has settled.
Here’s a sampling of some of the most representative comments I received over the past week …
SCJack writes: The happenings of [last] weekend and your beautifully written article invoke levels of melancholy I’ve not felt since my father’s passing nor our University administration’s insensitive handling of Coach Dooley. However, for those of us who have lived long enough to understand that life’s major theme of change will prevail, your article [last week] concerning Coach Richt brings sheer solace to our hearts and minds. Thank you for your openness and sensitivity; hopefully AJC’s management values the gem you are to the Dawg Nation. Old Dawgs living in South Carolina need your brilliant and nonbiased insight into Georgia football, so please don’t retire for a while yet!
I appreciate the kind words. Hopefully, Richt’s soft landing in Miami will help those saddened by his dismissal in Athens to move on and get ready to cheer on the Dawgs under their new coach.
William Strickland writes: Bill, I, too, am having a hard time with the decision to fire coach Mark. Even though I feel it is time for a change, part of me feels dirty to even say those words. I grew up in Athens, once ate a pre-game meal at the table with Herschel Walker and Tim Crow (I was 8 years old), and played football at Clarke Central under coach Billy Henderson. I Live in Illinois now but bleed “Red and Black.” It is hard to let go of such a good coach and even better person. A man of Mark’s character and beliefs is almost impossible to find in today’s society, much less in the cut-throat world of college football coaching, where value is mainly place on the “W” and “L” column. I hope that the coach that replaces him can take our team to the next level, but I hope that it can be done with the level of integrity laid out before him.
Amen to that. Winning at any cost should never be the Georgia Way.
Troy Key writes: I appreciated your thorough remarks concerning the dismissal of Coach Mark Richt. I do not believe Georgia will find a better coach nor will they rise to an immediate championship level under anyone else. Dawg football is now dead to me. … This shows the true colors of the program going forward and that isn’t how I want to invest my energy. I live in Katy, Texas, and the SEC Network was a miracle gift to me and my family. No more! Again, thank you for your measured and wise comments.
Here’s hoping you can get past your disappointment and keep on cheering for the Dawgs.
At the other extreme of UGA fandom, Wes Niehaus writes: Hi Bill. Your “sentimental” column about Mark Richt is one of the reasons UGA always falls short. You need a guy who is “single-minded,” intense, and detail-oriented to win the big games nowadays. Richt had his chance to win more at UGA and he failed. This team in 2015 sucked. It’s the worst 9-3 team I have ever seen. UGA did not beat one good team this year. … Do you really think 2016 under Richt would have been any different? I live in Jacksonville. What I really despised about UGA under Richt was they played terrible so many times against UF when so much was on the line. It’s one thing to lose, but UGA just laid down and gave it away so many times here under Richt. UGA can do better, Bill. I think this is a great step in the right direction.
You’re right that, even when they won, Richt’s Dawgs rarely looked their best in Jacksonville. Maybe Kirby Smart can turn that around.
Wes Niehaus also writes: Richt was one of the worst game day coaches I have ever seen. He padded his record against lesser teams. Richt was passive and too nice and did not hold players accountable for their lazy play. Special teams were a joke. I watch team after team kick the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs — not Georgia. Let’s hope [Smart] lives up to his name because UGA under Richt was the dumbest coached team I have seen.
While I admired a lot of things about Richt as UGA’s coach, I agree that some of his sideline decisions left much to be desired.
Bennett White writes: Whether I want to admit it or not, I understand that the change was necessary, but I don’t have to like it. It truly [was] a sad day for UGA and college football. My oldest son and I were discussing Richt’s predicament last week and I told him that if I had a son playing college football, I would want him to play for Mark Richt. I think Nick Saban said it correctly: “What has our profession come to?” I guess to answer that, I can quote Vince Lombardi: “Winning is not the best thing, it is the only thing.” This is truly what college football has come to at least in the SEC. It makes me sick. … For me and my family, Mark Richt is UGA football. If he is not here, what is the use…. I can assure you that I will always be a Dawg fan unless they are playing a Mark Richt-coached team.
I understand how you feel. I liked Richt, too. However, if Georgia ever plays Miami while Richt is coach, I’ll be pulling 100 percent for the Dawgs. To me, loyalty to your school/team transcends personalities. That’s why I never could understand those “fans” who wanted Georgia to lose one of its last four games this season because they thought that might hasten Richt’s departure. (Turned out it didn’t matter.) On the contrary, even when I haven’t liked UGA’s coach (the Jim Donnan days), I still wanted them to win every game. To me, it’s all about the Red and Black, not who’s wearing the headphones on the sidelines.
Judy Taylor writes: I, too, am filled with a great sadness. Despite the problems Richt always seemed to have with the clock, his feeling that a special teams coach wasn’t necessary, and his almost perpetual lack of emotion on the sideline … in spite of all that, he’s class through and through, and a good, godly man. One I’ d want my son or grandson to play for. I really agreed it was time for a change. But it’s with a sad, sad heart.
I heard from quite a few fans who love Richt but admitted they thought it was time for a change.
Mike From the Class of 1970 writes: Bill, for your column about Richt’s firing, my sincere and heartfelt thanks. We who are grieving really needed it, and l’m certain that nobody else could have said it as well.
Thanks. Glad it helped.
Mobile Dawg writes: Personally, I want what is best for the program, and giving someone else the opportunity to lead us is the right call for me. [But] I wish McGarity had handled it differently; Richt deserved to go out on his terms. We don’t know if Richt in fact forced McGarity’s hand, but it put Coach Richt in a bad spot not knowing this was going to happen, publicly proclaiming he was heading out recruiting after the Tech game. Mark should have been briefed and prepared for this, given his tenure and stature as our leader and coach, and allowed to step down without the dog and pony show created by McGarity. I believe McGarity may suffer for this decision and become the fall guy should the new hire not work out, but that goes with the territory.
You make a good point. The transition was not smoothly handled, and, for McGarity, a lot is riding on how things work out with Smart.
Not a fan of the Smart hire is Allen, who writes: Hi Bill, I transferred to UGA as a junior and played on the scout team in Coach Dooley’s second year. I am 70. Your column is always excellent, but [last week] it seemed to take into account all points of view. I, too, am saddened to the core and just can’t seem to shake it. When one hears the report that the insiders think this [was] all about Kirby Smart , that is cause for alarm! … I can understand the decision, but, as Jim Donnan has made clear, if you do not have a seasoned new replacement in your back pocket when you make the move, you are in deep trouble. … To bet the program on a favorite son that has been clothed in Saban’s robe is folly. Thanks for all you mean to UGA !
We’ll just have to wait and see on the Smart hire. But one thing’s for sure: Georgia didn’t hire a seasoned replacement for Donnan, but the man they did hire certainly ended up being an improvement!
Jim Parry writes: I thought Kirby Smart was our best bet at this point in Georgia history. Kind of still in disbelief over the Richt firing. Just plain sad. Hoping Kirby gets a high-powered, pro-style offensive coordinator to satisfy and hold onto future QB commits Eason, Hockman, and others in the mix. And keep the rest of this recruiting class intact. Maybe even show off his recruiting prowess by adding some more high school stars that weren’t previously considering UGA. Only time will tell with how this change works out. We’re all praying it’s a home run … or should I say “touchdown”! I read a little bit about Tyson Helton as a potential OC. Sounds like it could be a phenomenal fit. Think he had a 4,500 yard passer, along with a 1,500 yard running back. That’s stout. Imagine developing Eason with that guy?!
I don’t know enough about Helton to offer an opinion on him, but I, too, hope Georgia winds up with someone who can get the offense back to operating at a high level like it was under Mike Bobo.
Dave O’Connell writes: Hi Bill, I’d say Dan Mullen [was] the proven and documentable ideal candidate. Objectively speaking. But when you factor in the tribalism so rampant in the Bulldawg Nation, Smart edged him out. In fact, the AD seems to have fired Richt in part for tribal reasons … so SC would not get him! As in Dante’s Inferno, where the sign over the door to hell says, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” the sign over the door to the Bulldog Nation HQ says: “Abandon all reasoning powers, common sense and objectivity all ye who enter here.” But that’s one of the reasons why we are Bulldog fans!!!
Dave, you win the literary reference of the week award!
JRP writes: Kirby looks like a very good hire, but one thing troubles me. How complicit was he in Bama’s acceptance of that [player] that Richt kicked off the Georgia team? Is Kirby going to be a “whatever it takes to win” coach, or will he do things the right way as Richt always did?
Only time will tell, but I’d say it’s a good guess that the decision for Alabama to accept former Dawg Jonathan Taylor, who’d been dismissed from the UGA team after being charged in Athens in a felony domestic violence case, was made much higher up the Crimson Tide food chain than Smart.
Finally, Carrol Dadisman writes: Bill, This old Bulldog and avid UGA fan has read everything I could find about Mark Richt and the Georgia coaching situation. … Your blog does the best job of any of capturing all elements and expressing my mixed emotions and expectations about the situation. So, thanks for your excellent analysis and expression of feelings that many of us share. I have enjoyed your Junkyard Blawgs for years and hope to read many more.
That’s much appreciated! For those of you who might not recall where you know Dadisman’s name from, he’s the retired publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat and author of the excellent book “Dear Old U-G-A,” published by The Red and Black in 2013.
That’s all for now.
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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.