ATHENS – Mark Richt attracted both praise and criticism Tuesday when he bristled at an uncomfortable question posed to him during his weekly news conference. Does he believe he’s coaching for “his professional life” Saturday when his Georgia Bulldogs face Georgia Tech in Atlanta, he was asked.
“My focus is beating Georgia Tech right now,” Richt said tersely. “That’s my answer to you.”
The truth is, what Richt thinks doesn’t matter. And whether he beats Georgia Tech might not matter either.
What’s does matter is what Greg McGarity and Jere Morehead think. As UGA’s athletic director and president, respectively, they’re the ones who will decide Richt’s professional fate in the coming days. And they’re not talking.
Well, at least they’re not saying anything.
“As I have said throughout the season, all of our efforts are focused on the next game, which is the Tech game this Saturday,” McGarity has told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Repeatedly.
Morehead did not return messages seeking comment. But there are plenty of other people talking on this subject, and they’re not just Joe Bulldog down at the corner pub.
There are conversations taking place among many inside the halls of power throughout the state. The job Richt is doing and the general state of the football program at the University of Georgia is being discussed among regents, among elected state officials, among athletic board members and among influential alumni and donors. And they, in turn, are talking to McGarity and Morehead.
What they say does matter and is being taken into account. And, to be clear, there is a decision being made.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and DawgNation.com reached out to people this week who are in positions of knowledge and influence when it comes to the inner workings of the University of Georgia and its athletics association. Some declined comment and some spoke only in broad generalities. But others spoke candidly on the condition of anonymity.
This much is clear: There is a lot of dissatisfaction about the leadership and direction of Georgia football.
“There are five or six members of the board of regents that are extremely disenchanted with the state and condition of the football program at the University of Georgia,” one person with direct knowledge said about the situation.
That view may seem harsh to some observers as the Bulldogs (8-3, 5-3 SEC) enter the Georgia Tech game with a chance to win at least nine games for the 11th time in 15 seasons under Richt. Beating the Yellow Jackets would give Richt a 13-2 record against the team many consider UGA’s biggest rival. The Bulldogs had lost three in a row to Tech before Richt’s arrival in December 2000.
Meanwhile, Richt is out-pacing every other coach in UGA history in terms of winning football games. He has won 73.8 percent of the time during a period when college football is more competitive than ever. He also has led Georgia to five SEC championship games – only LSU has been to as many – and two SEC titles. The school hadn’t won one in 20 years when he won his first in 2002, his second season on the job.
But it has been 10 years since Richt’s last SEC championship. And the consensus is that Georgia has under-performed in the last few years while the league’s Eastern Division was ripe for the taking. Missouri (two) and Florida have won the past three. The Bulldogs were the predicted favorite in each of those seasons.
Meanwhile, it could be argued that the Bulldogs have beaten no opponent of significance this season. Three of the eight teams Georgia has beaten, the coach either quit or was fired. Of the teams it won against, only Southern University (6-4), Auburn (6-5) and Georgia Southern (7-3) have winning records.
But there are more specific complaints about the way things have gone this season. Some individuals contacted complained about the pregame “skirmish” that ensued against Alabama in the season’s fifth game. They were further embarrassed when the Crimson Tide later took advantage of some major fundamental breakdowns — a blocked punt for a touchdown started the onslaught — in what ended up a lopsided 38-10 defeat.
The next week, Georgia blew a 21-point lead against Tennessee, fueled by a costly special-teams turnover. And several were angered by the Bulldogs’ colossally failed experiment of starting third-string quarterback Faton Bauta in the biggest game of the season against Florida. Bauta, who had never started and played only sparingly before, played the whole game and threw four interceptions in the 27-3 loss.
By the end of October, Georgia had fallen from unbeaten and a No. 6 national ranking to unranked with three losses.
Even last week’s win over Georgia Southern drew criticism. The Bulldogs won 23-17 in overtime, but they obviously struggled to do so. And to have expressed such joy and exhilaration against an inferior in-state program that only recent moved up to the Sun Belt Conference did not sit well with longtime supporters.
“I love to see them win but, Saturday night, beating Georgia Southern in overtime, and we’re excited about it? Please,” said one major donor. “This is the University of Georgia. Who did we beat this year? Vanderbilt? Kentucky? And we’re excited about beating Georgia Southern in overtime?”
Also, there have been validated reports of dissension and disharmony on Richt’s coaching staff. That’s understandable considering the struggles of the offense under the direction of first-year coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The Bulldogs are averaging nearly 13.6 fewer points and 78.3 fewer yards this season than they did last year under Mike Bobo.
But it’s not that easy of a call. Richt is well-liked and respected not only by many of the fans but regionally and nationally. He has a reputation for graduating his players, for developing their character and for setting them up for success after college either in football or other professions.
Richt has always recruited at a high level for Georgia, and many of the nation’s elite recruits come to Athens because of Richt’s presence. The Bulldogs’ 2016 recruiting class is currently ranked No. 6 and includes the No. 2-rated quarterback in the nation in Jacob Eason. Eason, a pro-style quarterback from Lake Stevens, Wash., has been outspoken about his desire to play for Richt. And Richt made it a point to make a rare, in-season recruiting trip to visit Eason the weekend of the win over Auburn.
“My gut’s telling me we’d be better off sticking it out for another year to see what happens with (tailback Nick) Chubb back, a new quarterback and the recruiting class that’s coming in,” said one emeritus board member. “You can’t count on freshmen much, but that’s what I would do if I were the AD. Now if we go down to Atlanta and lay an egg, I’m going to cross over. But if we finish 9-3 amid all the adversity, and Coach Richt has had more adversity than most, I don’t think you can make a change.”
To be sure, Richt has encountered much adversity. For the second consecutive season he lost his marquee tailback to injury. Chubb was lost to a season-ending knee injury on the first play from scrimmage against Tennessee, the sixth game of the season. Last year the Bulldogs had Todd Gurley for only half of 12 regular-season games, first due to suspension and then due to injury. He lost quarterback Aaron Murray at the end of the previous season. Richt also lost A.J. Green to four games due to a controversial NCAA ruling in 2010.
All of which are just more factors that make this less than an apparent decision for McGarity and Moorhead.
“It looks like it’s about a 50-50 split,” said one person with direct knowledge of discussions. “Fifty percent of the group just likes Mark, his character and all the other things that out-weigh the downside of what’s going on. … On the other hand, I know there is a lot of disturbance out there, a lot of concern. But I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Those that chose to speak to the AJC on the record were generally non-committal with their opinions and deferred to the athletic director and president.
“Greg McGarity is the athletic director and he evaluates every head coach at the end of the season and I don’t think anything will be different this time,” said Mack Guest, a letterman and an emeritus board member who just rolled off the group’s executive committee. “That’s why Greg gets paid the big bucks. We’re excited and looking forward to beating Georgia Tech. As I recall, we owe them one. We sure helped them last year.”
Said Sonny Seiler, board member emeritus and owner of the school’s line of mascots: “I think we’ve had a good season, not the best in the world, but I’m satisfied with where we are now. But we’ve got to win the rest of these games. And we should. But the Tech game is scary.”
Said Dr. Thomas Hopkins of Griffin, a member of the board of regents: “I don’t have a position on it. Around the table, we (regents) just say we’re glad we don’t have anything to do with hiring and firing coaches. That’s just not what the board of regents does. We entrust those duties to the president of the university and the athletic director.”
But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an opinion about it and that they wouldn’t share it. Several have.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have another game to prepare for. In light of last year’s 30-24 loss to the Yellow Jackets in overtime — which included a maddening decision by Richt to squib kick at the end of regulation — Georgia Tech has the complete attention of the coaches and the players.
But they all know there is more on the line than just state bragging rights.
“Everybody knows this is a cut-throat business; you’ve got to win,” said Kolton Houston, a senior offensive lineman from Buford. “I think everybody in our program knows we’ve got to win not only for everybody to keep jobs but we want to try to get 10 wins this season. Not many teams get 10-win seasons; it’s actually pretty rare. So to come out with another 10-win season would be pretty good for us.
“Not that my opinion matters, but I’m with Coach Richt all the way.”
By all accounts, that puts him among about one-half of Georgia’s constituency.