ATHENS — There’s some damage control going on at Georgia. Not openly really. It’s subtle.
Take Mark Richt’s radio call-in show Monday night, broadcasted weekly across Georgia Bulldogs’ radio network. In a normal week, the Bulldogs’ coach will field a dozen or so calls on the show. But not this week.
This week they took five callers. And the hardest-hitting question of those who rang came from “Darryl from Columbus.” He was able to get through the screening process to log his semi-weekly rant about the Bulldogs needing a dedicated special-teams coach. The rest of the queries were decidedly tame.
That was in stark contrast to the questions that populated the Georgia Bulldogs’ official Facebook page. Underneath a status update used each week to solicit queries for the coach to answer on the show were dozens of harsh inquiries. Questions like:
- “Why, when the game is important and the season’s goals are on the line, does his teams always show up unprepared, unsound fundamentally, and ready to quit at the first sign of adversity,” from Brad Bovaird of Fort Collins, Colo.
- Or, “Has any other coach in the history of Div I football ever had more top 10 recruiting classes, more NFL talent and won so little?” from Tim Fletcher of Atlanta.
- Or, “Why was Pruitt a 3 time champion prior to taking the Georgia job and now looks like a very average coach? Maybe the top dawg has something to do with that,” from Trey Harrell of Huntsville, Ala.
- “Mark Richt for USC head coach. He would not embarrass them. Please Pat Hayden, contact Richt’s agent! It would be tough to lose him but we would make due,” from Matt Miller, a military man.
None of those went answered.
But that doesn’t mean Richt is not hearing them. In the digital age of social media, year-round recruiting and legions of support personnel out there trying to “manage the message,” Richt at least gets a general idea of what is being said and written about him.
And he knows exactly what to do with it.
“We all have frustrations,” the Bulldogs’ 15-year coach said. “I just go back to the things I can control and I focus on that. … The things I can control is how we prepare for the next one. That’s what I think about, that’s what I focus on. I focus on our staff, I focus on our team and what we’ve got to do to win the next one.”
In this case, the next one is Missouri. The Tigers (4-2, 1-2 SEC) arrive in Athens as decided underdogs to Georgia (4-2, 2-2) and with an ongoing quarterback controversy. Their starter, Maty Mauk, was suspended indefinitely two weeks ago and is not on the depth chart for Saturday’s game between the hedges (7:30 p.m., SEC Network). So freshman Drew Lock, coming off a dreadful performance in a 21-3 loss to Florida last week, is expected to get his third consecutive start.
Of course, less than a week later, the Gators have since learned that they’ll be without their starting quarterback for the next year. Will Grier was busted by the NCAA for taking a banned substance.
And since this past weekend, Georgia is without its starting tailback and South Carolina is without its coach. All of which reinforces Richt’s attitude that there is no sense worrying about what has happened or what you think might happen. Best to focus on what you can do today.
“It’s just like in the middle of a ballgame,” he said. “If there’s a pick-six or a penalty or something that’s not really great, my goal is not go find the guy and ream him out. I may talk to him about it, but my goal is to tell him, ‘something bad happened, what are we going to do now, what are we going to do to win?’ That’s kind of how I treat the season as well.”
That’s all well and good within the athletic grounds, but the noise remains deafening beyond South Campus. Talk radio and message boards are clogged with “fire Richt” chatter.
And as much as the Bulldogs try to embed themselves in the bubble that is the Butts-Mehre football complex, the players are still hearing it. Sometimes the criticism is directed at their coaches and sometimes it’s directed at them.
Senior Jordan Jenkins called out one fan by retweeting a particularly mean-spirited comment this past weekend. The fan quickly deleted the tweet.
“Me, personally, I don’t ever act like I’m oblivious to the things that go on,” senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell said this week. “I don’t listen to everything people say, nor am I on social media searching for what people are saying.”
Georgia’s players get a little more defensive when it comes to their coach. The mounting criticism about Richt is that he’ll never get the Bulldogs back to a championship because his teams always lose at least one game they shouldn’t and tend to get blown out at least once a year as well.
Both cases were entered into evidence in the past two weeks. Georgia was thoroughly dominated by Alabama in Athens 38-10 on Oct. 3, then blew a 21-point lead against a Tennessee team that came in as an underdog with a losing record this past Saturday.
Players contend that fans’ ire is misdirected.
“Yeah, I hear it; I understand how they feel,” senior defensive tackle Sterling Bailey said of the Richt criticism. “But they have to look at it like this: The coaches aren’t out there on the field. They’re not out there making the tackles, throwing the pass, you know. So, I mean, just hearing the chant, ‘fire everybody,’ they don’t know how hard the coaches work and how hard we work. When you want to fire somebody so quick, it’s upsetting as a player.”
Said linebacker Jake Ganus: “I don’t listen to any of that. Coach Richt’s one of the best coaches in the game. It’s college football; anything can happen on any Saturday. So I don’t pay attention to any of that. We’re just focused on Missouri and what we can do better.”
Richt’s track record is tough to quantify. He’s the fifth-winningest active major-college coach in America (.737), the winningest of the modern era at UGA, has improved the Bulldogs’ performance against literally every rival it faces compared to the years before his arrival and is out-classing the school’s all-time winning rate significantly (.644).
Then again, the Bulldogs haven’t won an SEC championship in a decade now and the gap since the school’s last national championship is now at 35 years.
But the bottom line is this: Things would have to get a whole lot worse for UGA administrators or the athletic board to take any action. They just handed Richt a two-year contract extension through the 2019 season and an $800,000 a year raise to $4 million annually. Meanwhile, a ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for Dec. 14 on a new $30 million indoor practice facility and the 2016 recruiting class is currently ranked No. 5 in the country.
And the SEC East landscape has changed even since Saturday’s loss to Tennessee, thanks to Grier’s suspension. Suddenly the immediate future doesn’t look as bleak.
So the Bulldogs grind on in preparation for Missouri on Saturday.
“Everybody has injuries or guys banged up or they have got somebody who has got an issue off the field or whatever it is, so now you have to manage it and try to find a way to keep everybody focused on the job at hand,” Richt said. “And most every coach and player to a certain degree finds comfort in the grind of it, in the routine of it. This is what we’re going to do this day, this day, this day, this day, this day. In order to get all the work in, we have to do it a certain way. I think it’s a little therapeutic sometimes, too, when you’re licking your wounds a little bit.”
Said Ganus: “Obviously everyone saw (Florida’s quarterback was suspended) and we were like, ‘whoa, that’s big!’ But as a team we’re really focused just on Missouri.”