The AJC did a good job this morning of breaking down issues that have contributed to Georgia’s 4-4 season. I thought Jeff Schultz made the central point when he wrote that Mark Richt didn’t suddenly become a bad coach after winning two SEC championships (2002, 2005) and playing for another (2003). When football teams have a bad season like this, the head coach has to be willing to look at everything and everybody in the offseason. In the final analysis, it really comes down to five questions that Richt musk ask and answer:
1. Despite what the recruiting services say, is Georgia recruiting the caliber of athlete that allows the Bulldogs to compete for the SEC championship? A big part of coaching that fans rarely talk about is the ability of a staff to evaluate talent and make decisions on players. If you are signing the players you want but still getting bad results, then maybe you have a problem in evaluating talent. Example: A couple of years ago the Georgia staff had to make a decision between running backs Caleb King and Jonathan Dwyer. King has been an average player at best for Georgia. Dwyer went to Georgia Tech and became the ACC Player of the Year.
Bobby Bowden once told me that the only reason he signed quarterback Charlie Ward was because the late Wayne McDuffie stood on a chair in a staff meeting and screamed that the Seminoles had to take the skinny kid out of Thomasville. Ward led the Seminoles to the national championship in 1993. Those kinds of decisions over the long haul can make or break a program.
I remember that when Jimmy Johnson was at Miami, his recruiting classes rarely made the Top 25. But the players he put on the field could run like the wind. That’s because Johnson was great at evaluating talent.
2. Is Georgia coaching the players it has up to their full potential? Steve Spurrier told me a long time ago that players tend to play the way they’ve been coached. If they play sloppy, then they’ve been coached sloppy. Excessive penalties and turnovers are a sign of some sloppiness in the program. It must be addressed and Richt must decide if his current staff is capable of fixing the problem. Sometimes head coaches must shake up the staff to send a message to everybody—players, trainers, water boys and other coaches—that mediocrity won’t be tolerated. It’s tough to do. But the great coaches do it when necessary.
3. Is the offseason conditioning program what it should be? I don’t know the answer to this but the question has to be asked. I do know that after Florida won the national championship in 2008, coach Urban Meyer told me that he had instructed his strength and conditioning staff to put the Gators through one of the toughest offseason programs ever. Why? “Complacency,” Meyer said. “We want them to understand that they cannot, for one minute, take credit for what last year’s team did. If they want to compete for another national championship, they have to earn it.” I talked to a number of Florida players who said they got the message.
Jeff Schultz wrote about the edge that some teams—like Florida and Alabama—have and the fact that Georgia doesn’t seem to have it. If you have good players, then that edge is created in the offseason workouts. Again, it’s a tough question because Georgia’s strength and conditioning people are considered to be some of the best. But you have to ask.
4. Do I need to have a conversation with my athletic director about scheduling? Fans don’t want to hear this. They want you to play eight SEC games, four big-time non-conference games, and win them all. That is simply not the way the world works. I think it’s great that Georgia went out and played Oklahoma State on Sept. 5. But the fact of the matter is that while Georgia was opening the season with seven straight opponents from BCS schools (with four of them on the road), Florida was tuning up for its first SEC game by playing Charleston Southern and Troy. Sure, Alabama played Virginia Tech but that game was in Atlanta, a short drive away. And before Alabama played its first conference game it also faced Florida International (2-6) and North Texas (2-6). It’s a good thing that athletics director Damon Evans wants to spread the Georgia brand all over the country, but you also have to look at what your competition is doing and be realistic about what you are asking players to do.
5. Does the head coach need to step up his game? First of all, I don’t buy the idea that Mark Richt has to change his basic personality. You have to be who you are. Mark Richt’s personality was embraced when he was winning SEC championships in 2002 and 2005. I can’t tell you how many Georgia people have told me with pride that: “He’s the perfect coach for us. This guy will never embarrass us.” Now that Georgia is having a bad season, Richt’s “nice guy” status comes into question. The thinking seems to be that a nice guy can’t compete with Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and Lane Kiffin. I simply disagree. The truth is that Richt has an edge to him when he gets mad that few people outside the program ever see. He might want to show that a little more often.
But what the head coach can do, after he has evaluated all of the other areas in the program, is look in the mirror and decide if he needs to change his approach on a more fundamental level.
Bear Bryant faced such a crossroads in 1969 and 1970 when he had back-to-back teams that only won six games. People started saying Bryant was too old and that the game had passed him by. After the 1970 season Bryant told his staff that Alabama was switching to the wishbone offense and that everybody had to get with the program or get out of town. Starting in 1971 Alabama went on an 11-year run where the Crimson Tide won 116 games, nine SEC championships and three national championships.
In 1974 Vince Dooley’s defense was so bad that he actually told some friends that he would get out of coaching if he couldn’t get it turned around soon. Dooley made some adjustments and Georgia went to the Cotton Bowl in 1975 and won the SEC championship in 1976. And you know what happened in the early 80s.
The point is that the great coaches adjust and adapt when the tough times inevitably come. After this season is over, Georgia’s Mark Richt will face one of those times.
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