ATHENS – The final home practice of the season had ended Tuesday, and Mark Richt acted like somebody just surgically removed a bowling ball from the top of his cranium.
He smiled. He cracked jokes. He probably hadn’t been this relaxed since word first leaked of some NCAA investigation into A.J. Green back in July.
“It’s the last day,” Richt said Tuesday, almost giddy. “It’s kind of like just before the first day of summer when the kids can’t wait to go on vacation. What they don’t realize is the teachers are even more excited than the pupils. I’ve got four days now where hopefully I don’t have to do anything. That would be awesome.”
Can you blame him?
It’s not that Richt isn’t looking forward to Georgia’s final game, the Liberty Bowl against Central Florida. But mostly he is looking forward to this season officially being over. Losses, suspensions and arrests have worn on him (it’s worth noting Richt’s qualifier: “… where hopefully I don’t have to do anything.”)
The season can’t be fixed. It can, however, be dropped into a waste basket.
Richt recognizes the problems. It’s why he churned part of his coaching staff last year and recently demoted his strength and conditioning coach. Defense is an issue. Mental and physical toughness — definitely issues. The Dogs are losing too many games late and too many games on the road, which used to be a staple under Richt.
Resolve, resilience — those are just words now.
Richt: “We played close games but close doesn’t get it done. We talk about finishing the drill, but we certainly didn’t live up to that.”
He won’t wait until the spring to talk to his players about next season, or until the day after the Liberty Bowl. The 2011 season, he said, starts when the scoreboard clock in Memphis hits 0:00.
“Here’s how I look at next year: When we play the [bowl] game, and it’s over, and we’re in the locker room, I’m going to thank those seniors for everything they did, and hopefully they’ll have a smile on their face,” he said. “Once I tell the seniors thank you, I’ll talk to the juniors and I’ll say, ‘OK, from this moment forward, it’s on your watch. This is your team. What are you going to do with it?’ We’ll immediately start talking about next year.”
And then this: “When the game’s over, we’re turning the page.”
Does this sound like a man ready to move on?
Of course, Richt recognizes that it’s really he who’s on watch next season, more than the returning players. He has been questioned in Athens like never before. A segment of the fan base wanted him out. Since winning two SEC titles in his first five seasons, he has seen other programs pass Georgia. South Carolina just won the East. Only three schools – Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Mississippi – won fewer conference games this season than the Dogs.
Georgia’s 3-5 record – the same as the recently imploded Tennessee. Nobody expected that, least of all Richt.
When athletic director Greg McGarity reaffirmed before the Georgia Tech game that he wasn’t going to make a change. I’ve stated before, that’s the right call. Richt has built up enough credits in 10 years that he deserves an opportunity to turn this around. If he can’t do it next year, then the subject is certain to be revisited.
Richt knows this. But he feels good about quarterback Aaron Murray. He feels confident the defense will improve. He thinks changes in the strength and conditioning program are “going to make us better.”
A win in the Liberty Bowl would be nice, Richt said. But it can’t wipe out the last several months — and he is so ready to move on.
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