Ten years is a long time in one job, and it typically inspires a look back at what happened and ahead to what’s next. After the Georgia Tech game and, hopefully, a lower-tier bowl bid, Mark Richt will complete his 10th year as the head football coach at my alma mater, the University of Georgia. Right now, there is no doubt that, at worst, he’s the 2nd best coach in the 118 years of Georgia football. The biggest question is whether he will be able to cement his legacy as the best coach in the storied tradition of the Georgia football program over the next 10 years.
In Defense of the Record
At 95-33 after the loss to Auburn, Georgia has won 3 out of every 4 games where Coach Richt has been on the sidelines. 2 SEC championships knocked the “lid off the program” in the first half of the decade. 3 Sugar Bowl appearances with 2 wins in seven years made Georgia a national power again. He’s done everything except bring a crystal football to the Butts-Mehre Building. National recruiting of players like Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, and A.J. Green made us top of mind for the best of the best. In 2001, we saw the potential and excitement he brought to the program. In 2002, we experienced the realization of the potential with an SEC championship with a team that was physical and skilled. In 2003, we had another opportunity to win a championship that a young offensive line would prevent us from winning. In 2004, we had a team set up for a championship run come up against an Auburn team that would finish 14-0 but be left out of the national championship game. In 2005, we won another SEC championship led by D.J. Shockley, but cracks especially on defense begin to show. In 2006, we took our lumps with a true freshman quarterback and win 3 big games at the end of the year. In 2007, we find our identity halfway through the season and ride a wave beating the Big 3 for the first time in the same year in 25 years to finish #2 in the country.
Thrilling wins such as the “Hobnail Boot,” “70-X Takeoff,” “The Celebration,” “Man Enough,” and the “Blackout” have made Georgia football relevant in the national conversation again. Until the last two years, Georgia under Mark Richt was feared in true road games. Big wins in tough places to play like Tuscaloosa, Knoxville, Clemson, Baton Rouge, and Auburn became commonplace. The Bulldog Nation expected to go on the road and win because of the demeanor and the quiet confidence of Coach Richt and the Georgia coaching staff.
Coach Richt has done all of this the right way. He doesn’t bend the rules by oversigning and “gray-shirting.” He doesn’t take scholarships away from players who don’t pan out to free up a scholarship for a high school kid. He doesn’t appear to recruit negatively against his competition and sells Georgia for its academic and athletic benefits. He gives a scholarship or two to walk-ons who have made a difference on their own dime for the program. Most importantly, he carries himself like a gentleman and lives his Christian faith on and off the field. If I had a son with five-star talent, I would want him to play for Coach Richt.
The Prosecution’s Case
While the first half of the decade and the 2nd half of 2007 were special, the Georgia program has shown cracks in its foundation since late 2005. The beginning of the downward turn in the program was January 1, 2006 in a game I will always call the “Debacle in the Dome.” The 2005 SEC champions lose what amounts to a home game in the Georgia Dome in the Sugar Bowl to West Virginia. My dad said that night on the way back to the hotel that Willie Martinez should be fired for the way the defense played that night. I had seen Mark Richt-coached teams lose games they should have won and be beaten in games where we were outplayed, but never had I seen a team that looked completely unprepared and fundamentally unsound. In 2006, we lost to Vanderbilt at home, and the last time that happened was in 1994 when I completely lost confidence in Ray Goff’s ability to turn the program around. In 2007, we looked clueless on offense against South Carolina and made Erik Ainge look like Peyton Manning in Knoxville before we made the end of season run culminating in the annihilation of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. In 2008, after starting the season ranked #1 for the first time in the program’s history, we lost three marquee games on national television and haven’t been the same since. In 2009, we win 8 games again but fall woefully short of expectations with a bowl trip to Shreveport thrown in for good measure. In 2010, with a favorable schedule, we find ourselves needing a win against the North Avenue Trade School to be bowl-eligible. The lid that was knocked off in 2002 appears to be screwed back on tightly again.
While no one has consistently beaten Florida over the last 20 years, Coach Richt’s 2-8 record against Florida is frankly abysmal. We have lost to them when we have had the better team (2002, 2003 & 2010), when we have had bad luck (2005), when we have been evenly matched (2001 & 2006), and when we have been taken to the woodshed (2008 & 2009). We beat them barely in 2004 after Jeremy Foley ended the Ron Zook experiment the week before and handled them in 2007 when we got in their heads. We have every advantage they do with talent base, facilities, and academics with a better tradition. At a minimum, Coach Richt should be 5-5 against the Gators in his career, and this record is the primary reason he is feeling the heat.
The nagging question the Bulldog Nation appears to have about Coach Richt and his leadership of the program is whether he still has the desire to win big at Georgia. Richt was able to take advantage of low points at other programs (Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn) to build up a record and a lot of political capital early in the decade. Alabama now has Nick Saban and a crystal football, Florida has Urban Meyer and two crystal footballs, and Tennessee and Auburn ran off successful coaches who were resting on their laurels. LSU has continued to win with the Mad Hatter on the sidelines. Both South Carolina with Steve Spurrier and Arkansas with Bobby Petrino beat Georgia this year with teams that were better prepared. A person could easily make the case that the dean of the SEC coaching fraternity finds himself in the bottom tier of the SEC’s pecking order.
The Bottom Line
The last 3 years have been completely unacceptable. The epic failures against Alabama, Florida, and Georgia Tech in 2008; the complete defensive implosion of 2009; and a 5-7-win season this year have placed Coach Richt officially on a very warm seat entering 2011. Coach Richt’s name has come up as candidates for Colorado’s newly open position and for Miami’s position if the “U” parts ways with Randy Shannon at the end of this season. Would he leave Athens to go to a lower pressure job (Colorado) to rebuild a program or to a job at his alma mater where he could win big again (Miami)? Coach Richt has steadfastly maintained that he wants to retire in Athens, and I want him to as well.
If Coach Richt stays, he needs to knock the lid back off the program soon. Here are a few things that I think need to change:
- It’s time to become physically and fundamentally sound again – We don’t appear to be physical at the point of attack on either side of the ball. It’s probably time to change our strength and conditioning program from the top down. We continue to play fundamentally unsound football especially at key moments. We probably need to increase the amount of full contact in the spring, fall camp, and during game weeks.
- It’s time to revisit our offensive philosophy – I am a firm believer in our offensive strategy of a true pro-style offense. Elite quarterbacks who have a desire to play at the next level want to play in our scheme. David Greene, D.J. Shockley, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Murray, and, hopefully, Christian LeMay spurned schools that run the spread to be tutored by Richt and Bobo. My main problem is that we tend to be overly conservative. We should have opened the playbook with Murray from the beginning of the season.
- It’s time to restore discipline in the program – While most of the off-the-field issues have been of the “boys will be boys” variety, the lack of discipline has shown itself on the field over the last few years. Penalties and turnovers at inopportune times have hurt the team. The staff appears to be serious about fixing this.
- It’s time to rebuild the fence around the state’s high school talent – Early in the decade, no one came into Georgia to take top talent out of the state. Georgia signed the best players available and left the rest for the other schools to fight over. The loss of players like Greg Reid, Allen Bailey, and Cameron Heyward to out-of-state schools is not acceptable. We must sign the top in-state players currently uncommitted.
The Look Ahead
2011 was already shaping up to be an important year in Athens. McGarity and Adams will probably be giving the staff an implicit “significant improvement” message in a few weeks. The intensity of the season just got turned up with the addition of Boise State to open the season in the Georgia Dome in the Chick-fil-a Kickoff Classic instead of a home game with Louisville. The likely loss of A.J. Green and Justin Houston to the NFL will make life harder for Bobo and Grantham, respectively. The continued maturity of Aaron Murray will have the potential to pay dividends in 2011. I want Coach Richt to get it turned around as a proud Georgia alum and fan. I want to see him succeed because we need to prove a nice guy can finish first.
I would like to read your opinion in the comments below.