Mark Richt’s tenure as UGA coach was mostly good, but never quite good enough. And for all the great things that can be said of Richt, there was a prevailing feeling that his UGA teams were consistently plagued by missing ingredients that prevented them from winning championships.
The expected hiring of Kirby Smart is an attempt to correct this. So here are a few ways that Smart needs to be different from Richt in order to find success at his alma mater:
1. Make UGA tougher
UGA employed three different strength and conditioning coaches during Richt’s tenure, yet the team never seemed to shake the criticism that it got pushed around too much. UGA wasn’t able to establish its running game against Alabama this season and couldn’t stop Florida from running the ball in 2014. These were familiar themes during the Richt era. Despite an apparently talented roster, Richt’s teams often failed to demonstrate dominance along the lines of scrimmage. This may be the most important issue for Smart to fix at UGA.
2. Avoid gimmicks
One of the unfortunate legacies of Richt at UGA was his reliance on gimmicks for motivation. Sure, the “Black Out” in 2007 against Auburn when the team wore black jerseys seemed to work great, but when the same trick was tried in 2008 against Alabama, the results were humiliating. Furthermore, when Richt brought back another version of the black uniform for the 2009 Florida game it got even worse — not to mention the excessive celebration after the first touchdown against Florida in 2007. Smart will serve UGA well by motivating his players through more conventional means.
3. Establish a sensible player discipline policy
When more than one player who was kicked out of UGA for a discipline issue later started against UGA at quarterback for another SEC team, as was the case for LSU’s Zach Mettenberger in 2013 and Auburn’s Nick Marshall in 2013-14, it’s obvious that UGA just wasn’t playing by the same rules as its competition with Richt at the helm. And while Richt should be commended for his attempts to hold UGA to a higher standard on the issue of discipline, at a certain point it only makes sense to match the policies that are in place for the other SEC programs. Smart shouldn’t tolerate excessive bad behavior, but he also should consider extending second chances more freely than Richt seemed comfortable doing.
4. Clean up mistakes
Many of the enduring images for UGA in Richt’s final years involved on-field blunders. There was the squib kick last season against Georgia Tech, the fake field goal that turned into a touchdown last season against Florida and the indecision in the final moments of the 2012 SEC Championship Game, just to name a few. Smart will be called upon quickly to erase the errors that plagued Richt’s teams as of late.
5. Make people fear UGA
In the final home game of the 2015 season, UGA struggled to beat Georgia Southern. The Eagles are just a Sun Belt team, and to make matters worse, GSU was an FCS team as recently as two years ago. However, the celebration that ensued from UGA players after that win suggested that they had beaten a foe of equal stature.
It was hard to watch that game and not come away with a sense that UGA had forgotten that it was supposed to annihilate a team like that without a second thought. And frankly, the same thing can be said for many of UGA’s SEC opponents as well. Richt’s teams just didn’t display the kind of killer instinct that made the other team feel like it had no chance of winning. That ability to intimidate has been a hallmark of the Alabama program, and Smart will be expected to bring that edge with him to UGA.
Of course, making these changes won’t be easy for Smart. He will be in his first year as a head coach and he won’t have his longtime mentor Nick Saban standing alongside him. Yet the hope for UGA is that in learning from Saban, Smart is ready to provide UGA with what it’s been missing.