What went wrong for Mark Richt at Georgia

Mark Richt was fired Sunday after 15 seasons at Georgia, winning more games for the school than anybody other than Vince Dooley.

ATHENS – I was there the first time Mark Richt formally met Greg McGarity. The latter had just held his formal introduction press conference, and his highest-paid and most well-known new employee was waiting in a greeting line, just like everyone else.

I asked Richt if he had time for a quick interview about his new boss.

“I don’t wanna lose my spot in line,” Richt said.

And he was serious. There aren’t many schools the level of Georgia where the football coach isn’t truly the boss behind the scenes. Georgia was one of them, and five-and-a-half years after that initial meeting, McGarity finally made his move.

There was talk that it would have happened within a few months, but McGarity kept Richt after that disappointing six-win season in 2010. He also held his fire after an 0-2 start the next few years, and over the years dodged the rabble of unhappy fans and boosters.

How does it finally get to the point of firing the second-winningest coach in program history (by total wins) and the winningest (by percentage) who by all accounts was well-liked and conducted himself in a classy manner?

The decision is a very debatable one, and whether it was right or wrong will probably take years to judge. But there were a series of things that happened over the past five years, some in Richt’s control, some not, that were ultimately his undoing:

–  Brice Ramsey instead of Deshaun Watson: It wasn’t so much that Richt and Bobo chose Ramsey instead of Watson – there was nothing stopping them from signing both – but they were too slow to see Watson as a fit in their offense and potential starter. Georgia did eventually go after Watson – I distinctly remember Bobo sitting with him throughout a Georgia basketball game a few years ago – but Clemson got the earlier commitment and Watson stuck with it. Now Watson is the starting quarterback for the No. 1 team in America, and Ramsey is the backup quarterback for a struggling offense.

Georgia’s spending: It’s not just the lack of an indoor facility. Until this year – when UGA increased the recruiting budget to more than $1.3 million – Georgia’s main recruiting rivals were usually spending way more in that department. A big chunk of that goes to off-field staffers who do a lot of the recruiting grunt work, allowing the full-time coaches more time for evaluation and in-person recruiting. Georgia was finally on a level field for about the past year. But it was too late for Richt, who could have pushed for it more behind the scenes or publicly, but chose not to.

– Mike Bobo’s departure: Yes his play-calling, quarterback coaching and overall management of the offense was missed. But so was his presence behind the scenes: By the final few years of his tenure Bobo had emerged as the critical yin to Richt’s yang. Bobo was a proud Georgia native and former player, as well as his staunch supporter, who could say just the right thing to a staffer. Bobo and Pruitt were also very good friends.

– Offensive injuries: Yes, every team has them, but look at the skill position talent lost to knee injuries over the past four seasons: Leading receiver Michael Bennett the week of the South Carolina loss in 2012, followed by receiver Marlon Brown a few weeks later. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell the first game of the 2013 season, followed by Todd Gurley (sprained ankle), Keith Marshall, Justin Scott-Wesley and others, and quarterback Aaron Murray the final few games of the season. Gurley’s suspension and then ACL tear last year, not to mention Mitchell taking until midseason to return. And Nick Chubb’s season-ending injury the first play of this year’s Tennessee game.

– Attention to detail: It showed up most in special teams and in big games, as Georgia would make critical errors that led to things going bad quickly. This year the Alabama and Florida games were both tied early as the first quarter neared an end but, with the help of special teams touchdowns, they were routs by halftime.

– The Faton Bauta decision: It wouldn’t have been that bad to elevate your third-stringer (who had no real game experience) for the biggest game of the year if it had resulted in a different, more dynamic, gameplan. But it didn’t, and Bauta threw four interceptions.

– The 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes: Oh there was some good talent in there that has been productive (including Gurley, Jordan Jenkins and John Theus in 2012). But the 2012 class was also too thin, with only 17 enrolling. And the next year’s class, while it had 34 signees, too many of those guys were gone from the program within a year or two. Only 19 remain from that class, only a handful as starters. Those two recruiting classes should have comprised this year’s seniors and juniors. Instead this year’s team relied on young players in a lot of spots.

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