Whether you consider it silly pot-stirring or a legitimate question, the topic is unavoidable. I suppose the fact that we’re even batting this question around gives it some sort of validity because it’s certainly not something we’re used to dealing with every season.
If you want to twist a Georgia fan up in knots, get them going about Mark Richt. Everyone starts out with the same disclaimers: genuinely great guy, glad he’s our coach, couldn’t ask for a better representative of the University, won’t forget that he brought SEC titles back to Athens. But then opinions really start to diverge.
As Matt Hinton reminds us – absent a national title – these are the glory years for Georgia football:
Since 2000, he’s ended the Bulldogs’ 20-year SEC championship drought in 2002, added another conference title in 2005, led a struggling team out of a midseason slump to a No. 2 finish in the final polls in 2007 and won at least 10 games six times. The Bulldogs finished in the top 10 four years in a row from 2002-2005, the longest streak of the decade in the SEC and matching the Herschel Walker years from 1980-83 as the best run in school history.
How on earth could anyone be displeased with that track record? You might or might not buy into all of these, but critics have countered with a number of points:
- Georgia is just 10-10 against the SEC East since 2006.
- That divisional record includes home losses to Kentucky and Vanderbilt and 1-3 marks against Florida and Tennessee.
- The Bulldogs are 2-7 against Florida under Richt and haven’t even been competitive since winning in 2007. Through 2006, all of the losses were at least in close games.
- Georgia’s contributions to the NFL Draft, particularly on defense, have dropped off since 2006.
- Unless it happens this year, the best trio of offensive skill players to play on the same team at Georgia (Stafford, Moreno, and Green) will leave Georgia without any of them playing for a conference title.
- Off-field incidents continue to plague and embarrass the program.
What’s underlying the concern is the changing stakes in the SEC and the fear that a window has closed. Georgia won three SEC East titles in Richt’s first five years, but they’ve struggled to return to the Dome since while three other teams have emerged to split the past four national titles. There’s an uneasiness that even if the program regained the talent level and attitude of Richt’s earlier years, would it be enough to compete with entrenched national powers at Florida and Alabama?
We noted in the wake of last year’s jarring loss at Tennessee that what might’ve once been a defensive problem or kick coverage problem had become a program problem. There were few areas working well, and just changing an assistant or two wasn’t going to be an automatic fix. Mark Richt had to get his program back.
David Hale does a good job of framing the key questions, so I’ll close out by responding to those directly:
Have all the offseason moves left you with as much confidence in Richt as you ever had? Or did two years of stubborn insistence on a largely unsuccessful approach shake your belief?
I’ve been impressed with nearly every offseason move. The hirings all made sense. Grantham has given the fans plenty of red meat. The program has become more aggressive and effective on the recruiting trail despite all of the negativity. I’m not particularly bothered by the off-field stuff (other than it leaving Georgia thin at QB). My confidence in Richt has never been shaken to the point of needing such a shot in the arm, but there’s no mistaking that just the air of change has improved spirits among the fans. We’ll see how long that lasts once the product gets on the field.
Clouding the question of Richt’s future is the sad reality that, even after nine seasons, many Georgia fans still don’t have a sense of Richt. They mistake his demeanor for meekness – we saw all of those who insisted that he didn’t have the stomach to make the tough decisions following last season. They question his desire to match the obsessive Saban and Meyer both on the recruiting trail and on the field. They cling to the notion, disproved time after time, that seniority rules over merit. They mistake a sincere culture of loyalty with one of complacency and unaccountability.
Sorting through that fog makes it tough sometimes to get down to actual problems. Hale devotes some time to what might be a certain stubbornness from Richt. I don’t buy that Richt was aloof or bull-headed about making changes following the 2008 season; he made it clear that his decision to fire three coaches was “made over the course of time” and not “not a one year knee-jerk reaction to this season.” If you think that’s being too deliberative, fine, but it does imply that Richt was aware of and thinking about issues with the program long before the 2009 season took a nose-dive. Richt himself admits some flaws and instances of the staff trying to outsmart themselves, and correcting that aspect of the culture is as important as shaking up the staff.
Will you stick by Richt if Georgia finishes 8-5 again this year, but does it with a more fundamentally sound D, a better approach to kickoffs and a duo at tailback that understands how to play the position?
I don’t outright reject the possibility of another 8-5 season. The defense will take some adjustment. We’ve seen that even Vanderbilt and Kentucky are ready to pounce on a sign of weakness. You can bet that everyone on the schedule from Mississippi State to Tennessee to Georgia Tech sees the opportunity to take their shot at a program that might be doubting itself a little. You only have to look over at Foley Field to see how the wheels can come off a season when negative momentum starts building. In fact, as Hale notes, the job the team did pulling it together at the end of last season against two big rivals is one of the underrated stories from a year ago (and is what keeps us from adding Richt’s first losing record to the ledger).
At the same time, it would be devastating to go 7/8-5 against this schedule. You’re trading Oklahoma State and LSU for lesser opponents. The home schedule is extremely favorable. Five losses against this schedule would include some very, very bad losses as well as losses to rivals that don’t sit well even in the best of years. Think about which five teams on this year’s schedule you’d accept losing to. Improvement in relatively obscure areas like kickoff coverage won’t mean much if the offensive line doesn’t live up to billing or if Georgia’s highly-rated starting quarterback isn’t ready for prime time.
That said, I do think the moves that have been made will lead to the wins that will make this discussion seem ridiculous in hindsight. Allowing myself that kind of optimism for this season, that should be my last word on Richt’s future for a long time.