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Post Donnan deserves better

Thursday May 14, 2009

I admit I was a little surprised to see Kyle King unload on Jim Donnan this morning. Not many of us have especially warm feelings for the man as a coach or for the circumstances that led to his dismissal, but wanting to puke over the news of Donnan’s election to the College Football Hall of Fame seems a bit over the top.

Rehashing the Donnan era might seem as pleasant and relevant as revisiting the Gerald Ford administration, but since the door has been opened we’ll go through it. All of Kyle’s criticisms are familiar and valid, but that’s why Donnan was replaced. It’s possible to acknowledge the shortcomings of those five years while granting that, yes, Donnan did elevate the program. I can’t imagine anyone who was also at the 1995 Florida game calling the 2000 South Carolina game his low point as a fan.

Donnan’s comments about his time at Georgia that Kyle cites were, if anything, understated. “We did some good things [at Georgia]…I feel like we came into a program that was on probation and got it started.” We can’t even grant him that? It’s not as if he’s asking for a 2002 SEC championship ring (are they still available on eBay?).

Georgia under Donnan won more games than they had over the previous five years, and the four-year stretch from 1997-2000 saw the most consistently successful stretch of Georgia football since the amazing run ended after 1983. After coming in on the tail end of four straight seasons with six or fewer wins, Donnan began a streak of 8+ win seasons and bowl appearances which continues to this day. More importantly, Donnan’s recruiting efforts stocked the cupboard at many positions and provided a core of upperclassmen which would win two SEC East titles in Mark Richt’s first three years. Yes, I think it’s fair to say that Donnan helped to get Georgia’s resurgence started.

Of course it was Donnan’s inability to get the most out of that collection of talent that led to the coaching change. But the 2000 season was a great example of how Donnan had elevated the program and our expectations for the program from when he started. Instead of firing a coach for three consecutive seasons with six or fewer wins, we had grown dissatisfied with an 8-4 year that failed to deliver on the promise of a preseason top 10 ranking. The infamous “55 years” quote that serves as Donnan’s Georgia epitaph wasn’t a misjudgment of talent; it was justified enthusiasm over a roster we all knew was loaded.

Really, though, it comes down to this for me: Donnan, since leaving Georgia, has been nothing but a gracious advocate for the Bulldogs and deferential to Mark Richt. In his position as a member of the media, he’s managed to be frank and open when it comes to the Bulldogs without coming across as petty. He’s had plenty of chances to land the typical analyst cheap shots (especially when it comes to “meaningful player discipline”), but he’s even avoided those. In the eight seasons since his termination, Donnan has really only been openly critical of Michael Adams, and I don’t think he’s alone in those feelings.

Donnan’s detractors don’t have to throw a party over his Hall of Fame election, but they could do with a little bit of the grace he’s shown since he left campus.

On a somewhat-related note, I think Kyle, myself, and most of you reading this would agree that it’s a travesty that Erk Russell isn’t eligible for the College Football Hall of Fame due to the requirement “that one be a head coach for at least 10 years”. That’s a bug that needs to be fixed.

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