"Turmoil Between The Hedges" - Lamenting the Mark Richt Era


By Peter Horn | @PeterCHorn

What if I were to tell you there was an organization whose CEO had been in place for 15 years, made more than $3.0 million per year and for the last half of his tenure, delivered a disappointing and deteriorating product while funding continued to pour in unabated? No, this isn’t a Ben Carson-endorsed miracle vitamin pyramid-scheme; this is the University of Georgia football program.

Mark Richt is a polarizing figure, but not in the traditional sense of the word. Fans are divided into one of two camps: those who seek to hold the coach accountable for his on-field results (or lack thereof), and those who view Richt’s success shaping high-character young men and his pearly white reputation as performance mitigants. The time has come to separate the coach from the man, and to reassess the program’s aspirations and how best to achieve them.

True, not everyone in the former camp is ready to see the coach ride off into the sunset (although it seems more and more of the Richt loyalists are shown the light with each passing Saturday afternoon), but they at least support their stance with logic. And as much as a growing portion of our fanbase does not want to hear it, there is a case to be made for another year or two under Richt. The much-discussed Indoor Practice Facility (IPF) is a surface manifestation of a deeper fundamental issue: under the previous administration, the UGA football program did not have the same level of support as its SEC rivals. Many would argue it still does not.

Despite a season in which Georgia lost to arguably its top three current rivals, the administration pushed chips forward on the table after 2014 in an effort to remove the program’s self-imposed limitations. The purse strings were loosened as coordinators received raises, Richt received a contract extension and Athletic Director Greg McGarity stated that he looked forward to helping Richt “move our program forward in all areas,” including the IPF which Defensive Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt had publicly, if not brashly, stated was a necessity.

With the governor removed from the engine, the question remains: is the right man behind the wheel?

At first glance, Richt’s tenure at UGA has been a model of stability and success. Averaging 9.7 wins per season without a trace of scandal—save for Richt’s self-reported violation for supplementing his underpaid assistants with his own money—rarely leaves a coach standing in the soup kitchen line. But as always, the devil is in the details.

In Richt’s first seven seasons, UGA boasted an 80% overall winning percentage, 65% winning percentage against top-25 teams and 63% winning percentage against top-15 teams on its way to collecting four SEC East championships and two SEC league crowns. In the last seven seasons it’s won the SEC East twice with no league championships while registering an overall winning percentage of 72%. During this time, its winning percentage against top-25 teams fell to 49%, and against top-15 teams, to 33%, nearly half its previous mark.

UGA Winning Percentage Under Richt

And the full story isn’t told on a spreadsheet. Sprinkled throughout the “L” column are monumental, program-deflating, national stage embarrassments that have become seemingly annual occurrences. The 2008 Alabama blackout debacle, the 2012 South Carolina bloodletting at Williams-Brice, last year’s inexplicable curb-stomping by the Gators in Jacksonville. The list goes on.

Football is a zero-sum game and the SEC is an admittedly tough place to conduct business. That being said, there are certain characteristics that have become associated with Georgia football teams that can only be explained by the common denominator standing at the helm of the ship: lack of attention to detail, costly mental lapses, lack of grittiness and killer’s instinct, poor clock management, an inability to outsmart opposing teams and a tendency to fold under pressure. In layman’s terms, they’re sloppy, they’re vanilla and they’re soft, and they’ve been that way for quite some time.

The SEC East has been historically weak for the last five years, during which time Georgia, with the aid of its division rivals, managed to pinball its way into two SEC East championships, ceding the last two to newcomer Missouri despite being the preseason favorite both years. As Tennessee and Florida both return from their respective down periods, it will become clear just how low of a ceiling this program has under Richt. And it seems to be getting lower.

Perennially the “sleeping giant,” Georgia sits on a hotbed of recruiting talent; the state of Georgia trails only California, Texas and Florida in terms of D-1 prospects produced. And while UGA recruitniks will forever claim the coaches should do a better job locking down the state’s borders from surrounding SEC and ACC poachers, they get their share of top recruits. At the start of the 2015 NFL season, UGA had the fourth most alums on NFL rosters of all universities. During Richt’s tenure, the top seven NFL player-producing programs accounted for 11 of the 14 national championships. I’ll let you guess which program on the list is the outlier without a national title.

Though it’s becoming more and more populated by tumbleweeds and the distorted shadows of the Bulldog nation’s broken dreams, those still in Richt’s corner are quick to point to the cautionary tale of Tennessee in the post-Fulmer years as an anecdotal “Be careful what you wish for” warning. Shouldn’t UGA be happy with 9-win seasons and an occasional Outback Bowl appearance? Haven’t you ever had a Bloomin’ Onion in January with the Tampa sun on your face?

And this is exactly the kind of defeatist attitude Georgia must purge from its program if it wants to become elite. It’s time to throw out all the participation trophies at Butts-Mehre Hall and ask the tough questions. What are you playing for? A no-scandal nine-win season that keeps donors just enough appeased so the checks keep rolling in, or a legitimate shot at a national championship? And if it’s the latter, does Richt at this point in his career offer the best chance to get there? Does he offer any chance to get there?

When Georgia trotted Faton Bauta out onto the field against the 11th ranked Florida Gators, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a harbinger of things to come. Call it an act of desperation, but when you know the incumbent cannot get the job done, the upside of the unknown renders the incremental risk moot. Would making a head coaching change risk a handful of blue-chip recruits and a couple losses in the near term? Sure, but if your aspirations are higher than the occasional SEC East title when your divisional rivals are in the gutter, the upside should be well worth the risk.

Georgia knows what it has in Richt. The question is, are they satisfied with the ceiling? If the answer is no, then a change must be made, because maintaining the status quo is the equivalent of a pooch kick up three points with 18 seconds left: playing it just safe enough to guarantee a loss.