ATHENS — Georgia coach Mark Richt spoke from his heart and talked passionately when he was asked some tough and pointed questions at his weekly news conference Tuesday. But as much as he meant what he said, what he said wasn’t entirely true.
“What we’ve done to this point really doesn’t define us as much as what we do from here on,” Richt told a large press gathering in the team meeting room at the Butts-Mehre football complex.
But the reality is, what the Bulldogs did in the month of October — three mostly embarrassing losses in four games — has and almost certainly will define the 2015 season. And what they do in the last four games against opponents with a combined 17-16 record is not likely to do much to alter perceptions. Or fates.
To be clear, change is coming at Georgia. It might not be today or even this week, but it’s coming. And we’re not talking about just the quarterback position or the offensive line.
Georgia’s issues at the moment are chiefly with the offense, but it goes beyond that. There is general dysfunction and dissension not only within the team but also within the football staff.
Richt has been issued a directive to fix it, according to several people familiar with the situation. His ability to do that over these final four weeks of the season — as the Bulldogs play Kentucky on Saturday and Auburn, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech after that — will determine not only the futures of some of the coaches on his staff, but Richt’s as well.
Richt, a veteran of 15 SEC seasons, is aware that the heat is on.
“Some jobs you might have a bad day at the office and maybe three people know,” he said. “We have a bad day at the office in our line of work and millions of people know and millions of people have an opinion. And a lot of people know football; a lot of people think they know football, you know. So there’s a little bit of everything.
“There’s actually some pretty good constructive criticism out there. But it’s kind of obvious. I mean, we know it, too.”
First and foremost, Richt has to get the offense back on track. Known as one of the most prolific offensive football programs in the SEC and in the country the past several years, UGA has failed to score a touchdown in the last two games. That hasn’t happened since the end of the 1969 season. It’s been 29 offensive drives since Georgia reached the end zone.
The Bulldogs’ offense accounted for just 9.75 points a game in October, a month in which it went 1-3 with losses to Alabama (38-10), Tennessee (38-31) and Florida (27-3). They won the Missouri game 9-6 on three field goals.
The Bulldogs hired longtime NFL offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer in January to succeed Mike Bobo, who left to take the head coaching job at Colorado State. Georgia is currently averaging 29.4 points per game. That’s ninth in the SEC and a significant reduction from last season, when they led the league with 41.3 points per game.
Meanwhile, they’ve played three quarterbacks so far and enter the season’s ninth game unsettled at the position. Richt said Tuesday that Faton Bauta, Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey are each competing to start Saturday against Kentucky.
“It would be nice to get more stability at that position, but it just hasn’t played out that way,” Richt said.
Georgia’s offense certainly has been impacted by injuries. Star tailback Nick Chubb, a Heisman Trophy candidate early in the season, was lost to a knee injury on the first play from scrimmage against Tennessee on Oct. 10. But the Bulldogs still have two former 5-star recruits in their backfield in Sony Michel and Keith Marshall. Yet Georgia hasn’t had a 100-yard rusher in the last two games after logging one in 19 straight contests before that.
More importantly, Georgia returned four of five starters on the offensive line and they have remained mostly healthy all season. However, they have been thoroughly dominated in recent games against Florida, Missouri and Alabama. Their poor performance has come under Rob Sale, the first-year offensive line coach who was hired from McNeese State (at four times his previous salary) to succeed Will Friend, who accompanied Bobo to Colorado State.
The ultimate responsibility for the offensive failings fall on Schottenheimer. Parting ways with him wouldn’t be cheap. After this season, Schottenheimer will have two years remaining on a contract that pays him $950,000 a year. So if he is not retained, it will represent a nearly $2 million mistake.
And while Georgia’s defense has played relatively well — the Bulldogs are fifth in the SEC in total defense (321 ypg) and second against the pass (183) — defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is not above reproach. According to people close to the program, Pruitt increasingly has been the source of friction not only within the football office but throughout the athletic department.
Pruitt denied having run-ins with fellow coaches, as has been asserted, but declined comment.
Richt was asked Tuesday if he had been dealing with disharmony or dissension on his coaching staff. He did not forcefully deny it.
“Not really,” he said. “You know … there’s always things that happen in the heat of the battle and all that in every game. I think if you put a microphone on everybody, if you’ve got a play-caller upstairs and you’re calling a game and every word was recorded, you know, there would be like people get hot about this, that or the other. But it’s just typical game-day type stuff. But we’ve had no issue there.”
Obviously, any and all dysfunction falls at the feet of Richt. One of his strengths — being easy to work for — is turning into a weakness, say some sources close to the program. They worry that Richt has not moved quicker to quell the dissension, or to make structural moves to fix the offense, such as moving Schottenheimer to the press box during games, or taking over play-calling himself, or giving it to someone else on the staff. Richt called plays the first six seasons of his tenure before handing off those duties to Bobo.
Richt received a two-year extension this past January, along with an $800,000-a-year raise. That means he is now due to make a little over $4 million per year through 2019. But that in and of itself wouldn’t prevent the Bulldogs from making a change.
First of all, in an effort to make UGA’s major contracts mutually beneficial, Athletic Director Greg McGarity in 2012 began the process of waiving buyout clauses for Georgia’s veteran head coaches. In exchange, the athletic association was able to decrease the amount of their payouts in the event of a dismissal. The details of Richt’s recently agreed-upon deal were not immediately available, but the previous one called for him to be paid just over $1 million per season for each remaining year on his contract, or about 25 percent of what he’d earn if he stayed.
McGarity on Tuesday declined to make any comment on anything having to do with the football program.
“We are getting ready for UK,” he said, referring to Kentucky.
Meanwhile, Richt’s support has dwindled considerably among individuals who are intimately connected to the program through financial support and/or past or current service. The level of discontent is “very high” among that segment in wake of the Florida game, one such person said.
That said, there is no immediate movement afoot to initiate a change at the top. Among those who most loyally support the program, Richt is given credit for his 15 years of mostly good work and exemplary representation as the face of the football team. They take into account the fact that Richt has won at a higher rate than almost any other coach UGA at a time when SEC football is more competitive than it has ever been.
Richt has won 74 percent of his games and two SEC championships, while playing for five. In the 15 years prior to Richt’s arrival — spanning the tenures of Jim Donnan and Ray Goff, and the final three years of Vince Dooley — Georgia won 64 percent of its games with zero SEC championships.
But the question is whether Richt has plateaued. And the results of October make fans worry it’s getting worse.
To be clear, there is no booster at Georgia with the kind of influence that T. Boone Pickens has at Oklahoma State, or Bobby Lowder once had at Auburn. Don Leebern previously had that type of influence at UGA and could reassert it at any moment, but apparently is not interested in doing so at this time. Meanwhile, the UGA athletic board has a couple dozen members, but its recent history is to be in lockstep with McGarity.
This decision will ultimately come down to opinion of one man, and that is President Jere Morehead.
By all accounts Morehead, who was promoted to president from provost the summer of 2013, has been a staunch supporter of Richt, and has long admired the coach personally and for how he conducts the program. Two years ago, Morehead was riding shotgun with Richt in the coach’s Ford pickup truck as they drove together to an alumni function in Gainesville. Since Morehead took over, there has been more administrative support for Richt’s program, including raises for assistants and the recent commitment to build a $30.2 million indoor facility, which breaks ground in December.
But as the opinion of Richt has shifted among those in the general fan base and the major-donor set, so has it likely shifted among those of political assuage. With that in mind, Morehead almost certainly has heard and absorbed it. How it has affected Morehead’s view is hard to say; he’s much closer to the vest than his outspoken predecessor, Michael Adams.
Timing also could be a factor regarding a decision. There are currently 10 head coaching openings in FBS right now, including major ones at Virginia Tech, South Carolina and Southern California. The best candidates for such high-profile positions — such as Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, a UGA alum — are already being contacted and wooed by those programs. Could Georgia afford to stand idle if it was about to lose a potential heir?
In the light of the events of the last month, coaching changes are imminent. You can’t do what the Bulldogs did in October and continue with the status quo. The question is how many will ultimately be effected, and if it will see the end of Richt’s tenure after 15 mostly-successful years.
Whatever the case, Richt made it clear Tuesday none of it is going to change how he conducts himself in the season’s last month.
“The biggest thing is to focus on the people that really know and understand the game, number one, that know and understand this team, number two, and be mostly concerned with what it’s going to take to have success moving forward,” Richt said. “… That’s how you’ve got to handle adversity in a season and that’s how you’ve got to handle adversity in life, in my opinion. You have to decide what are you going to do now. What we’re going to do now is we’re going to focus on our jobs, we’re going to fight like mad, and we’re going to do it together. That’s what we’re going to do.”