Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Coach, you are the key. You have got to keep it going.

Thursday November 15, 2007

This weekend’s final home game of the season (is it that time already?) is our annual opportunity to recognize and honor the senior class. Since 2004, Georgia is 37-11 with an SEC title. They have beaten every other SEC team. While the 2002-2005 group still sets the standard these days, it’s still been a very good and successful run for this senior class.

Coach Richt has requested that fans be in their seats 20 minutes before the game on Saturday. It’s kind of sad to have to remind people to be on time and in red, but this week’s Senior Day deserves the extra attention. It’s our last time to enter the shrine until next year, and who doesn’t want to stretch that experience out until the last postgame note from the Redcoats echos around the stadium?

This has been a particularly interesting group of seniors. It’s relatively small, numbers-wise. There aren’t many NFL draft picks among the class. Many of the team’s stars are younger players. Some of the better seniors like Fernando Velasco and Brandon Coutu play positions that are usually out of the spotlight.

On the other hand, you can’t tell the story of this season without acknowledging some very big senior contributions. For some, like Thomas Brown and Sean Bailey, it’s the story of potential and promise realized. For others like Marcus Howard, Kelin Johnson, and Mikey Henderson, this season is about the payoff at the end of a long career of hard work. Velasco’s stabilizing presence anchoring the young offensive line hasn’t received nearly enough billing.

This season also provides some stark reminders that the journey isn’t always smooth or linear with a Hollywood ending. Kregg Lumpkin played well since his freshman season but has battled injuries right up to the end. Brandon Miller was one of the nation’s top defensive prospects but has spent much of his career fighting for playing time.

The senior class has stepped back into the public eye for their role in last week’s black-out. They handled the tough job of keeping the secret with which Richt trusted them back during the summer. Their request early last week got the black-out rolling. But in a way, it might be something that the seniors didn’t do that became one of the biggest developments during this season.

Fans can point to several factors in Georgia’s turnaround during the course of this season, but most will agree with (in no particular order) 1) an improved offensive line, 2) the emergence of Moreno, 3) Stafford becoming more consistent down the field, and 4) Richt’s unprecedented dip into the motivational bag of tricks.

Richt’s breaking point came in Knoxville,

On Oct. 6, in the closing seconds of a 35-14 loss at Tennessee, Richt stood on the sideline at Neyland Stadium and said to himself, "Never again." He never wanted to experience that lack of emotion and energy in a game. So he made a conscious effort to emote those qualities himself from that point forward.

Sensing a vacuum, Richt stepped into a role that had previously been the domain of players. Jon Stinchcomb’s tirade at halftime of the 2002 Auburn game is perhaps the clearest example. D.J. Shockley was another player who exuded presence and was a natural leader as a senior. This time, Richt took it upon himself to be the catalyst for change, and now the team looks to him. As a player said at halftime during the Florida game, "Coach, you are the key. You have got to keep it going."

It’s no condemnation of the seniors to talk about a void of leadership. Many of them were (and still are) individually fighting for places on the depth chart, and that has to come before someone can worry about lifting up teammates. The personality traits and presence it takes to push a team of highly-skilled peers has nothing to do with football skills or quality of character. The point here is that a coach has to play to his team’s strengths and adapt to its weaknesses. As Richt’s role in the past month has shown, evaluating those strengths and weaknesses goes far beyond athletic ability.

It would have been easy for Richt to stay the course, and many of us (myself included) would have pulled out his resume to defend him and trust that somehow things would work out. He could have also placed the burden on the players and challenged one of them to be responsible for rallying the team. Instead he took responsibility for becoming the motivational focus for the team.

It’s still a work in progress and a learning process for Richt. After a month of "cutting loose," to use his term, the pendulum might be swinging back in certain areas. For instance, Richt has evaluated his approach to the officials:

Since I’ve kinda cut loose a little bit in some areas, I cut loose a little bit in that area. I probably went a little overboard on that, so I’ve just been convicted (?) that I don’t need to do that anymore, so I will be strictly polite and gentlemanly from here on out….If I do talk to (the officials), it’ll be in the proper tone and I’m just gonna calm down on the official thing.

As Richt refines his personal intensity and motivational approach, there will also be the opportunity for players to take some of the responsibility back on themselves. There is no shortage of young players who will be returning in meaningful roles next year. Stafford will be an upperclassmen, and it will be the third year in the program for players like Moreno and Rashad Jones.

But even if the load shifts back onto team leaders in the coming seasons, hopefully the transformation of Richt will have some lasting effects. "It is just a lot more enjoyable being around here," said Sean Bailey. That’s true not only on the practice field but also in the stands. The Munson-driven worry and negativity is loosening up, and Georgia games are fun. Recruits see Athens as the place to be. I totally see Richt’s reasons for pulling back in certain areas like officiating, but there have been a lot of things worth keeping from this experience.

One Response to 'Coach, you are the key. You have got to keep it going.'

Subscribe to comments with RSS

  • Excellent post Groo! I hope this new attitude sticks – not just from CMR, but the entire team. They’re having fun, and playing with heart. We’ve now seen what happens when you combine that with talented players and execution of skill.
    Go Dawgs!