ATHENS – As former Georgia quarterback David Greene remembers it, Mark Richt’s first season as Georgia’s coach in 2001 was marked by players and coaches still trying to figure each other out, players trying to learn a new system, and people being mentally and physically exhausted well before the season was over.
Then came Year 2: a five-win improvement, an SEC championship, a Sugar Bowl victory, and what ended up being the best season of Richt’s tenure at Georgia.
“Year 2, everybody kind of knows what to expect,” Greene said. “They understand what coaches expect. The offense and defense and special teams, you’ve got a nice foundation and you’re kind of building off it. I think that’s why you see so much growth in Year 2, especially when you’ve got the right pieces in play.”
Indeed, it’s not at all unique in college football. The second year of a head coaching tenure, which Kirby Smart is about to begin at Georgia, is often wildly successful.
Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and Gene Chizik all won national championships in their second year at schools. Other coaches have seen big jumps in Year 2 at some stops, including Nick Saban, Pete Carroll and Will Muschamp.
“It definitely happens a lot,” said ESPN analyst David Pollack, another star on that 2002 Georgia team. “It’s confidence. It’s familiarity with the coach. It’s knowing expectations and rules. Because here’s the thing: When a coach comes in and changes, there’s always griping and moaning. Because it’s not the way it used to be. And just like with you at your work, you like it the way it is. You get accustomed to it.
“So when you make a change, there’s griping and moaning. There’s not complete buy-in. It takes a little bit of time to realize, OK this dude’s got my best interest, he’s going to push it, this is what he’s going to expect, these are his parameters.”
In just the past two decades, there are four examples of coaches winning it all in their second year at their school:
- Meyer won the national championship his second year at Florida, after going 9-3 his first year in Gainesville. At his previous stop, Utah, Meyer went 12-0 in his second year, after going 10-2 his first year. Now Meyer is at Ohio State, where he hit the ground running with a 12-0 first year, a 12-2 record in his second year and a national title in his third season.
- Stoops went from 7-5 his first year at Oklahoma to 13-0 and a national championship the following season. Stoops holds some parallels to Smart: Both were longtime defensive coordinators with no head coaching experience before being given the head job at a major program. Both lost five games in their first year.
- Tressel won the 2002 national championship at Ohio State, a year after a 7-5 debut season.
- Chizik won the national title in his second year at Auburn, after finishing 8-5 the previous year. But that Year 2 success also coincided with the one season that Cam Newton was on Auburn’s campus.
Plenty of other coaches – some who ultimately soared, others who ultimately were fired – had a big Year 2.
- Muschamp’s best year as a head coach came in Year 2: After going 7-6 in his debut season at Florida, the Gators went 11-2 and played in the Sugar Bowl in 2012.
- Saban went from 6-7 his first year at Alabama to 12-2 and the Sugar Bowl. His team won the national championship the next year. When he was at LSU, Saban went from eight wins his first year to 10-3, a division title and the Sugar Bowl. (It took longer at Saban’s first major coaching job, Michigan State, where he was 6-6 his second year, and stayed there until his fifth year, when the season ended with a 9-2 record.)
- Carroll, who took over at Southern Cal in 2001 and finished 6-6 that year, saw his team post an 11-2 record and win the Pac-10 championship.
What about Georgia history? Richt wasn’t the only one to make a big second-year leap.
- Jim Donnan also saw a huge improvement in Year 2: After the program finished 5-6 in 1996, Donnan’s second team at Georgia went 10-2.
- Then again, Vince Dooley went from 7-3-1 in his first season (1964) to 6-4 in his second year. In the third season, Dooley’s Bulldogs finished 10-1 and won the SEC championship.
Greene, who follows the program closely now, said he sees similarities between Richt entering his second year and now Smart doing the same. Both were assistants on national championship teams under legendary coaches —Richt at Florida State under Bobby Bowden and Smart at Alabama under Saban — so they know what it looks like to be at the top.
“I could see from both of them in their first years at Georgia they are extremely hungry to get better, and to get to a championship level,” Greene said. “You could certainly see it with coach Richt when he got to Georgia, and now you do with Kirby. He wants it as bad if not more than any coach in college football right now. He eats, sleeps and breathes football. He loves it, and he’s a Georgia guy.”