Moments after Isaiah Crowell put on a Georgia hat and announced, “I’m gonna be a Dog,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity picked up the telephone and called Mark Richt.
“I was in my office and phoned Mark and said, ‘OK, you can relax a little bit now,’” McGarity recalled. “He said, ‘It was a great day.’ Then I told him, ‘Take a little bit of time off.’ We had a [standing] meeting scheduled for Friday but I told him, ‘There’s nothing [we] need to talk about. Just go and get away from it for a little while.’ He deserved a break.”
Great recruiting classes don’t come with guarantees. Nor do staff changes and new strength and conditioning programs. But if Mark Richt manages to turn around a Georgia football program that has been on the decline and is coming off its worst season in 14 years, he can start by thanking his boss.
Amid cries from alumni, fans and media to fire Richt, McGarity has stood behind his football coach. McGarity’s belief has been that Richt proved himself early in his career, so he deserved an opportunity to fix the problems. That’s not an easy position for an athletic director to take, particularly in the SEC.
The Richt that we saw on Wednesday on national letter of intent day didn’t remotely resemble the one on display for most of the season. He looked happy, excited — even in a relative state of bliss.
At one point, Richt told a crowd of Bulldogs fans in the Butts-Mehre building, “I feel like a brand new head coach.”
Looking for a sign that things can improve in Athens? There it is.
This isn’t merely about one recruiting class. (Even McGarity chuckles at the obsession with “stars” and “rankings,” saying: “It’s an inexact science.”) It’s about Richt feeling full support from McGarity, being given everything he has asked for and possibly even having a relative wake-up call, understanding that changes were needed.
Regardless of the theories as to why, this much is certain: Richt has not been as effective as he once was. He has been beaten down by the losing. Some even believe that he has lacked the focus and edge he once had. That could have trickled down to his players.
“I feel revived as a coach,” he said. “Coaching football at this level can wear anybody out. A lot of the reason I talk about that rejuvenation is because of Mr. McGarity coming in and the way that he has just constantly been talking to me about, ‘What can we do? What do you need to succeed?’ We’ve been implementing a lot of things that we feel like we need to have success. That’s exciting for me.”
McGarity said one grand recruiting class is just a part of the big picture. It doesn’t change anything going into next season. It doesn’t alter expectations or increase (or decrease) the pressure to win. This is still a program that has gone 5-9 in its last 14 SEC games and is trying to find its way back to relevancy.
Asked if he noticed Richt being worn down this past season, McGarity said: “I think any time things don’t go as you planned, it does wear on you. It beats on you. Nobody here was accustomed to going 1-4. Every coach feels pressure. This is college athletics at the highest level. I don’t have to go in and tell people what they have to do. They know.”
McGarity is staying clear of numeric mandates. He says he’s merely looking for an obvious change in direction.
“The expectations are the same for every program from day one: Be competitive. Be in the hunt for championships,” he said. “I want to see constant improvement. I want to see improvement every day in every part of the program.”
Richt has been given that chance.
By Jeff Schultz