It’s a laughable notion, the idea of the UGA straight-up firing head coach Mark Richt after this season — since the Bulldogs don’t harbor realistic chances of claiming the SEC East title or partaking in the Dec. 5 conference championship in Atlanta.
And yet, there are a litany of speculative reports in the current news cycle, ascertaining that Richt can no longer keep his players focused from week to week, or that he has lost the two-tiered support — emotionally and financially — of the football program’s most prominent boosters, benefactors and so-called power brokers.
Apparently, to the point of no return.
Without a doubt, the Bulldogs (5-3, 3-3 SEC) have floundered in conference action this season, incurring a humiliating home drubbing to highly-ranked Alabama (Oct. 3), blowing a 21-point lead in a loss to Tennessee (Oct. 10) and simply being overmatched against No. 11 Florida — falling 27-3 last Saturday.
All in a 28-day span.
That time frame also covers an eminently forgettable 9-6 victory over Missouri on Oct. 17, in which Richt bore the postgame-victory look of a man whose dog just died … or someone who had an 8 a.m. root canal scheduled for the next day.
Quite simply, it might have been the roughest single month of Richt’s career — only the third time in his 15-year tenure that UGA had suffered three or more losses in a four-game span; and that includes the stretch early in 2010 (primarily without A.J. Green), when the Bulldogs dropped four straight to South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Colorado, by an average defeat margin of eight points.
But that’s still no reason to fire the second-winningest coach in school history (141 victories, recently surpassing Wally Butts) and his overall success rate of 73.4 percent.
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Before playing the hypothetical game of “Who” would potentially replace Richt (two SEC titles) before next season, let’s address “Why” it’s such a hot-button issue right now.
Even with Saturday’s loss in Jacksonville (hardly the purest form of neutral venue when facing Florida), UGA still owns three wins over the Gators in the last five meetings; and it’s not like there’s a stench of shame that accompanies succumbing to the resurgent Gators (7-1, 5-1 in SEC) — who are still in play for the conference championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
So, why the faux outrage among the Dawg fan base — and the surrounding media — in terms of wanting Richt out of the picture?
a) Has Richt lost so-called “institutional control” of the UGA program, in terms of exhibiting extreme tolerance to players leading reckless lives off the field?
b) Since 2001, has Richt ever endured back-to-back losing campaigns in SEC action?
No, although the 7-9 run from 2009-10 was a little tense.
c) At UGA, has Richt experienced any sustained downturns in the dog-eat-dog world of high-stakes recruiting?
d) By extension, are the Bulldogs having trouble churning out blue-chip and underrated prospects at the NFL level?
e) Have nationally renowned coordinators (offense/defense/special teams) been shying away from the UGA football brand in recent years?
f) And does UGA have the infrastructure (talent/depth/recruiting chops) to forge a substantial turnaround next season?
Heck yeah! (We’ll address this bit later in the piece.)
Which brings us to the aforementioned “Why” question: Why all the noise concerning Richt’s future in Athens, Ga., with a large cluster of folks clamoring for change at the top?
The simple answer: The University of Miami vacancy.
In the late 1970s/early 1980s, Richt was a backup quarterback with the Hurricanes, playing behind future Hall of Fame member Jim Kelly. There’s even a great video clip from 1982 – good luck finding it on YouTube now — of Richt tossing a spot-up-duty touchdown on “The NFL Today” (starring Brent Musburger, Irv Cross, Jimmy “The Greek,” et al), back when the groundbreaking CBS show aired college highlights from the previous day.
Also, on Oct. 25, school officials summarily fired head coach Al Golden, just 24 hours after Clemson mauled Miami 58-0 in south Florida — the largest blowout defeat in Hurricanes history.
So, doing the math, it makes sense that Richt — who turns 56 next February — would be the top candidate on Miami’s wish list, as the school walks the fine line of seeking a return to its glorious past (the Hurricanes either won or shared five national titles from 1983-2001) … but not necessarily embracing the inglorious connotations from that prodigious era (high-profile arrests, renegade tactics on the field, etc.).
Just like it makes some sense for UGA’s anti-Richt contingent (read: check-writing boosters) to perceive a window of opportunity here, in terms of passive-aggressively hoping that enough heat on Richt — media denouncements and/or fan dissatisfaction — would somehow motivate the UGA coach/Miami alum to come full circle with his college career.
But it won’t happen like that, and here’s why: No one wants to be the face of a Richt dismissal in Athens. Especially with The Next Great Hope hitting campus in the fall.
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From 2006-08, otherwise known as the Matthew Stafford Era, the Bulldogs racked up 30 total victories, three bowl triumphs, one rout of Florida and a No. 2 national ranking in 2007 — setting the stage for UGA’s No. 1 preseason ranking the following August.
Stafford, a Dallas, Texas native and eventual No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft (Detroit Lions), is universally hailed as Richt’s most important offensive recruit of his 15-year tenure. But that could change down the road, if quarterback Jacob Eason — a 5-star blue-chipper from Lake Stevens, Wash., and virtual Stafford clone (elite-level arm/charismatic figure) — can lead the Bulldogs to unprecedented heights over the next three or four years.
Which brings us to this: What would be Eason’s “loyalty level” to UGA in 2016, if Richt wasn’t at the helm? It’s not like Eason represents some homegrown star from the Atlanta suburbs, who’s been dreaming of donning the red and black since childhood.
No, in many ways, Eason’s a typical teenager (random thoughts and actions) who’s making the cross-country trek to Athens … as a leap of faith in Richt’s favor.
Conversely, Eason isn’t just another prospect with reasonable upside. By all accounts, he could have chosen any major college and was presumably promised the moon in every corner of the country. As such, he likely had the power to dictate terms to Richt in one regard:
In exchange for coming to Athens, Richt might have agreed not to recruit an elite-level quarterback in the respective classes for 2015 and 2017, essentially guaranteeing that Eason would be positioned to start as a freshman — similar to Stafford in 2006.
(If memory serves: Stafford made his inaugural start against Mississippi State in October, after logging snaps in UGA’s first seven outings as a freshman.)
It’s a relatively standard deal with All-American quarterbacks, prized throughout the country. For example, in his pursuit of Drew Henson — the No. 1 quarterback prospect for the class of 1998 — Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr supposedly sidestepped other blue-chip passers for the classes of 1997 and 1999, theoretically insuring Henson the chance to start as a freshman (1998 — the year after Michigan shared the national championship with Nebraska).
Of course, during that period, neither Henson nor the Michigan coaches could have known that a first-ballot Hall of Famer was already on the Wolverines’ roster: Tom Brady, one of only three starting quarterbacks with four Super Bowl rings and quite possibly the greatest passer in NFL history.
The larger message here: Let’s not denigrate Richt for entering this season with some instability at quarterback. Help is on the way … presuming the coach stays.
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Losing sucks, no doubt about it; and for that, Richt certainly doesn’t warrant a free pass from a once-wonderful campaign that has quickly gone down the major-bowls tube.
But is that really grounds for dismissing one of the most successful SEC coaches of this century? Digging deeper, who could possibly fill Richt’s shoes on short notice — especially with Southern Cal, South Carolina, Minnesota, Hawaii, Maryland, Illinois, Central Florida and Virginia Tech already advertising vacancies for 2016?
Yes, on paper, UGA has a supreme advantage over the above programs — save Southern Cal — in terms of prestige, prominence, recruiting proximity, existing talent and deep-pocketed boosters.
But if that final component were irrefutably true, the 2015 Bulldogs wouldn’t have to make the 45-mile voyage to Flowery Branch on inclement-weather days, as a means of practicing at the Atlanta Falcons’ indoor facility; and by extension, Eason and the 2016 Bulldogs would have a completed indoor home on campus (construction set to begin next year).
Here’s another money issue: If Richt already has an annual salary that calls for approximately $4 million through 2019, would the next UGA coach — in 2016 — merit a payday which exceeds his popular and principled predecessor? And if that wasn’t the case, how would the Bulldogs sell their feeding-frenzy public on the notion of “change” being a good thing — with a less expensive coaching hire?
(To be fair, that’s essentially the same blueprint of how UGA landed Richt in 2001, after a successful offensive-coordinator run at Florida State.)
After all, not every school nails its choice immediately after the exodus of a lauded coach; and that includes UGA, which followed up the Vince Dooley Era (201 victories, four SEC titles, one national championship from 1964-88) with Ray Goff (46-34 overall record) and Jim Donnan (40-19).
Plus, there’s no natural successor, or heir to the UGA throne, in Richt’s stead. As such, Dawg officials would be obliged to follow two paths in their search:
1) Entice an established coach of a national power to come to Athens, at a price tag that would easily surpass Richt’s current demands; and in most cases, these name-brand figures typically use the “threat” of leaving as leverage for a salary bump at their current school.
2) Pursue the small list of hot up-and-comers, such as Tom Herman (currently at Houston, formerly the offensive coordinator at Ohio State), Justin Fuente (potentially has Memphis on track for a ‘New Year’s Six’ bowl) or Dino Babers (working wonders at Bowling Green, similar to Urban Meyer a decade ago), among others.
The juicy irony here: Jeremy Pruitt (a prominent coaching disciple of Nick Saban) and Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (UGA alum; successful stints at LSU and Texas; also a Saban disciple) would have been “ideal” candidates for the UGA job in 2016 — if the former had never accepted the UGA defensive coordinator job two years ago (mixed results to date) … and if the latter hadn’t struggled mightily as Florida’s head coach from 2011-14.
In his four-year tenure with the Gators, Muschamp sloughed to a 28-21 overall mark, which included back-to-back SEC campaigns of 3-5 and 4-4 and a 1-3 record against Richt.
Of course, if UGA had knocked off top-ranked Alabama in the 2012 SEC title game — achingly falling short of a landmark victory — we wouldn’t even be acknowledging the crazy, present-day notion of Richt falling out of favor in Athens.
In that idyllic scenario, the Bulldogs would have presumably trumped a good, but hardly elite Notre Dame squad in that year’s BCS championship game. As a chain reaction, in 2015, even the haughtiest of UGA fans would have been optimistic enough to mutter the following sentence throughout October:
Just wait till Coach Richt gets a chance to work with Jacob Eason next year!
- UPDATE: Jacob Eason’s father told DawgNation on Tuesday night that he doesn’t think Mark Richt or this coaching staff “is going anywhere,” but even if it does his son will likely still play for the Bulldogs as long as they keep the same type of Pro-Style offense.