I wasn’t in favor of dismissing Mark Richt. I recognized that the investment in the program at the end of the 2014 season was going to take some time to begin to pay off, and I believed that Richt had earned the right to coach through that period.
The past few weeks have been a heavy case of deja vu. I remember standing in the parking lot tailgating for the Belk Bowl and the rampant rumors of retirement and whether the bowl game was a referendum on Richt dominated the conversation. With that game in hand, it looked as if Richt had “won.” The program received an infusion of staffers, reorganized the strength program, and it went out and spent money on an offensive coordinator – money that it oddly wasn’t willing to offer outgoing coordinator Mike Bobo. Even if these investments were made grudgingly after a semi-public showdown between Richt (with Pruitt as a proxy) and the administration, it still looked as if Richt had bought himself some time.
Yet less than a year later, here we are again. The program again stumbled in October, but by winning out (even if by the narrowest of margins), it looked as if Richt had steadied the ship. But there was still unrest under the surface. For different reasons, neither coordinator was on solid ground. The horrible experiment and gameplan for Florida with the division title on the line seemed to be the breaking point, and not even four straight wins to end the season could reverse a decision that had been set in motion weeks ago.
A justifiable decision
Even those of us who might disagree with the move must admit that there’s solid reasoning for it. It starts with titles, and there have only been a couple of division titles in a weak SEC East since 2005. Georgia’s performance against ranked teams – those it would consider peers – has dropped off in recent years.
Richt’s desire to become more hands-on with an offense and its quarterbacks was palpable in his Monday press conference, and it was no coincidence that some of the more mundane details that a CEO-style coach must manage were some of Richt’s weaker points as a coach. Roster management has long been an issue, and it was rare that Georgia’s best offenses synced up with its best defenses. Special teams, a strength of Richt’s first few teams, developed maddening inconsistency.
One of the more important administrative details a head coach must handle is assembling a staff. You can go all the way back to the decision to elevate Willie Martinez to defensive coordinator. You can point to the tumultuous years with Todd Grantham. Most recently Brian Schottenheimer proved to be the wrong choice to replace Mike Bobo – even those who expected Richt to stick around did so with the understanding that there would be more changes to the offense after just one failed season with Schottenheimer. A series of poor hires after 1997 brought down Jim Donnan much more quickly, and once again the composition of the staff proved to be a key factor in the downfall of another head coach.
A high bar
It isn’t just that Mark Richt had a career winning percentage of 74% or nine (and possibly ten) 10-win seasons. He’s dominated several of Georgia’s biggest rivals. His success against Tennessee and Auburn was more in line with Georgia’s historical performance against Georgia Tech, and he took the Tech series to a whole new level.
- Tennessee: 10-5 (UGA historical winning pct 48.8%)
- Auburn: 10-5 (UGA historical winning pct 50.5%)
- Georgia Tech: 13-2 (UGA historical winning pct 62%)
Fans might be accustomed to Georgia winning two out of three against UT and AU and nearly every Tech game now, but it would be a noticeable decline if any of these series returned to “normal.” (Though of course the new coach still has work to do to bring the Florida series back in line.)
Some of the more predictable reactions to the news have come from outside the program – the media and fans of other teams claiming to be shocked or even offended that Georgia would part ways with such a successful coach and great man. Those crazy Georgia fans with their unreasonable expectations. Let’s not pretend that many of these same pundits and reporters haven’t been pushing Mark Richt Hot Seat stories for so long and with such frequency that it became a running gag. Be surprised that Georgia finally pulled the trigger or be sad for the man, but don’t kid us that a move you’ve discussed and debated for over six years is suddenly beyond the pale.
Richt made it a point to draw from and highlight Georgia’s rich football tradition. Some of it was very visible – the Dawg Walk became the focal point of the game day experience. Other actions were less public but just as important. He brought back honorary captains to connect current players with some of Georgia’s greats. He made a big deal out of the Governor’s Cup and took that rivalry with Tech much more seriously than some fans might. Other new coaches, whether out of insecurity or ego, make a clean break to avoid being overshadowed by the past. Richt used Georgia’s legacy to help grow a championship program.
For the wins and losses, complaints and praise, it’s moments like this that defined Georgia football under Mark Richt and why many fans are having a hard time taking the news.
No one does it better than Georgia. Mark Richt made sure of that.