Greg McGarity is avoiding amusement parks and costumed cartoon characters this week. He found his own “Happiest Place on Earth” in Orlando – roaming the aisles of a Barnes and Noble while clutching a gift card.
“I’m going to spend all of this,” he said by phone.
McGarity loves books, particularly anything on leadership. His favorite is, “Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck — Why Some Thrive Despite Them All,” by Jim Collins.
“There’s a section in there on productive paranoia,” Georgia’s athletic director said. “I think all ADs have a level of that.”
It is why, despite the generally positive feelings that surround the Georgia football program these days, McGarity isn’t nearly satisfied. In fact, when asked if he felt comfortable about the program’s turnaround and direction, he all but chewed up the word and spit it out.
“I don’t think you ever get comfortable,” he said. “There’s always something that needs improvement. You always have to find ways to get better. Comfortable? No. I don’t think that’s the word I would use at all. I don’t think anybody should feel real comfortable with any part of our football program, or any program.”
Step on the gas.
McGarity walked into a mess in August 2010. He replaced Damon Evans, who was fired following a DUI arrest. He started work a week before the first game of what turned into a 6-7 football season. He watched as the Bulldogs started the following year 0-2, as speculation grew about Mark Richt’s future. So much for easing in.
As Georgia prepares for the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska, the view has changed significantly. The Bulldogs fell five yards short of going to the BCS title game, losing the SEC championship to Alabama 32-28. Since going 6-9 to begin McGarity’s tenure, Georgia is 21-4. The four losses: two in SEC Championship games (LSU, Alabama), one in a bowl (Michigan State), one in the regular season (South Carolina).
What does Richt get for this? A pat on the back, mostly. He didn’t receive a raise in June. His new five-year contract kept the salary about the same ($2.8 million) but doubled incentive bonuses ($200,000 for an SEC title; $800,000 for the BCS). Richt also was allowed to walk away at any time. No buyout. In other words: You want to go? Go.
“There were some things important to Mark and some things important to me,” McGarity said. “Performance incentives are important. They sort of make all of us work a little harder. I’m not saying that’s the end all, but if you have the opportunity to maximize your potential, any competitive person will justify that.”
Step on the gas.
There’s little sense of satisfaction with McGarity. Don’t misunderstand. He’s pleased with the program’s turnaround. “Gratified,” was the word he used.
He is holding off giving a final grade on this season because, “We still have a final exam against Nebraska. I would just say thus far I’m extremely proud of the way our team and coaches have approached the season. I see tremendous potential for the program continuing to develop, if we have that same commitment and that same drive.”
He understands there’s still an unhappy segment of the fan base. But he refers to them as, “the society of the miserable. They’re going to vent when things are going really well and when they’re not.”
McGarity could have listened to “the noise,” as he calls it, but he didn’t fire Richt after that 6-7 season. He took notes. He asked Richt what he needed and provided support. The nutrition and strength-and-conditioning programs were revamped. When there was a subject that bothered McGarity in the middle of the night, he would wake up the next morning, go to work and ask Richt about it.
College and professional sports aren’t any different in this regard: It’s still about leadership, laying out a blueprint and problem solving.
The 2010 season “wasn’t acceptable,” McGarity said. “Not to Mark, not to anyone. What you saw from that point was perhaps a refocus, a lot of hard work. Mark has said this before, but when the team was 0-2 there wasn’t a lot of finger pointing. Credit goes to the staff and everybody in the program for not disintegrating. The proof is in the record.”
The loss to Alabama still stings. McGarity called it one of the three most difficult defeats he ever has been associated with. The other two: Georgia’s 27-23 loss to Penn State in the Sugar Bowl (1982 season). The Florida women’s tennis team’s NCAA championship loss to Stanford (after leading 5-3 in the deciding set).
“What made the Sugar Bowl loss even worse was the winning touchdown was scored by a player named Gregg Garrity,” he said. “No relation.”
That game was for a national championship. The defeat four weeks ago wasn’t, but the stakes were almost as big.
“You’re fortunate in this business when the great wins in this business outnumber the tough days,” he said. “It just seems the tough losses stay with you the longest.”
The losses mean there’s room for improvement. The losses, and even fear of losses, keeps you a little comfortable. Maybe even paranoid. Nobody should expect that to change.
By Jeff Schultz