ATHENS – There was, until very recently, a very prominently-displayed picture of Mark Richt on a wall inside an entrance to Georgia’s football building. It was about 15 feet high. It’s been replaced now by a simple “G” logo.
The young men who played for Richt would walk by that mural nearly every day. These are days of immense change for them, in the middle of a coaching change engineered by the administration, but still with a game to go this season. And those players trudged back out to the practice field on Wednesday without not only Richt, but the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and one other assistant who had guided them all year.
“We’re still standing strong. Everything is about business when it comes to that. But it hurts,” sophomore safety Dominick Sanders said.
And by “hurts,” he didn’t mean football-wise. He meant emotionally.
Richt flew in last Saturday night for the team’s senior gala, and it ended up being an impromptu goodbye party to the new head coach at Miami.
“It was kind of hard on us. Me individually it was really hard just seeing him there, the last time being here as a Dawg,” Sanders said. “I know it affected me a lot, because he’s a really good man, and very passionate.”
It was Jordan Jenkins who was among the most vocally angry the night of Richt’s firing, saying “it ain’t right,” and “there isn’t Georgia football without Coach Richt.” Given the events of the past two-and-a-half weeks, Jenkins was asked where he was now emotionally. He brought it back to Richt.
“I’m proud of Coach Richt and just making the most out of his situation,” Jenkins said. “We’re all just happy that he’s back into coaching and he’s got the job at Miami.”
Jenkins then mentioned how the players gave the sign of “The U” to Richt at the meeting the night he got the job.
“That just goes to show how devoted we were, and how proud of Coach Richt that we were,” Jenkins said. “We recognized that he was leaving, we recognized that we had to accept it.”
Something else the players had to accept was the departure of Jeremy Pruitt, the defensive coordinator and secondary coach, who last week was hired by Alabama. This despite the “Keep Pruitt” social media campaign initiated by players.
That was just as difficult for Sanders, who had few major conference offers when Pruitt swooped in with one in January of 2014. Sanders ended up starting as a freshman and sophomore, becoming one of the leaders of the defense.
“It really hurts to see coach Pruitt leave. Coach Pruitt was probably the best coach I ever had,” Sanders said. “Taught me a lot on and off the field, as a man. It couldn’t get any better. The bond we had, it was very thick. He taught me a lot.”
Pruitt met with the players before he left but several players say he didn’t actually tell them he was leaving, even if the meaning was clear.
“This day and age the media kinda knows before the players,” junior safety Quincy Mauger said. “I remember the last time we talked to him he was just telling us to finish strong and in finals.”
Another sign of change inside the Butts-Mehre building: A video monitor in the atrium used to display the pictures and short bios of each of the nine assistants. It’s been replaced now by a simple photo of Kirby Smart on the bottom, and rotating pictures of standout players up top, including Sanders.
The defense will have the biggest transition over the next few weeks, with two of the four assistant coaches gone. Mike Ekeler, the inside linebackers coach and co-special teams coordinator, is anticipating another job soon. Kevin Sherrer, who had been the outside linebackers coach, will move to inside linebackers over the next few weeks while he also serves as defensive coordinator.
The offense has a better transition. Brian Schottenheimer, the now-former coordinator and quarterbacks coach, is the only assistant gone, though Richt also had a hand in the offense. John Lilly, the tight ends coach, will take over as play-caller, but he did that last year too.
“I feel like we’ve had a lot of time to digest since it happened,” senior offensive tackle John Theus said. “It’s something that we’ve been through before with OCs and DCs changing the last couple years. We’ve got a group of mature guys. Even the younger guys are mature. I think the guys are focused, and I think they are ready to go and get a win in Jacksonville.”
That doesn’t mean that moving on has been easy.
Sanders said he and his teammates have been talking to each other, trying to hold things together, and have as smooth a transition as people. Richt, in the speech he made to his players the night of his firing, told them that the next month would make an impression on their new coach, who turned out to be Kirby Smart.
“We just have to go from there and just welcome the new coach,” Sanders said, “And continue to do what we have to do to make him happy.”