What once seemed inevitable remains an unanswered question. In 2002 or 2004 or even 2008, Mark Richt was primed to guide his program to a national championship. But he’s about to enter his ninth season as Georgia’s coach and the Bulldogs haven’t gotten there yet, and only once in 11 years has the BCS title been taken by a coach who’d been in place that long — Bobby Bowden of Florida State in 1999.
That Richt is a good coach is beyond dispute. He has won at least 10 games in six of the past seven seasons. He has led Georgia to three SEC East titles and two conference championships. He recruits at the highest level and just saw two Bulldogs taken among the top dozen in the NFL draft. Georgia has finished in the top 10 of at least one major poll five times and in top five twice. But it hasn’t won, or even played for, the BCS title.
Last season was supposed to be the breakthrough. Georgia had finished No. 2 in the AP poll after the 2007 season and was ranked No. 1 last August. It wound up 10-3, and if ever 10-3 could be considered a rank disappointment this was the time. At season’s end the coach made much of the 10-win season in light of so many injuries — and the Bulldogs did have a bunch — but for the first time under Richt it was possible to look on UGA and think, “That team wasn’t very well coached.”
And now Richt has a new quarterback (and figures to have another new one in 2010) and his team has been given almost no chance to win the East, where Florida reigns, and the question occurs: Have we seen the best of this gifted coach? Or is Richt, who has done much already, capable of more?
To be fair, Richt hasn’t failed so much as he has been unlucky. LSU won the 2003 BCS crown with one loss a year after one loss cost Georgia a berth in the championship game. LSU won the 2007 title with two losses after emerging from a league that also housed Georgia, which likewise had two losses. Sometimes you have the right team at the wrong time.
But last year’s glaring issues — the rash of penalties and the defensive collapses in Georgia’s three losses — have made some among us wonder if Richt is too nice to finish No. 1. He has vowed to be stricter regarding discipline this time, and it must be noted Georgia didn’t face the same problems with players being arrested this summer as last. And he has promoted John Jancek to co-defensive coordinator alongside Willie Martinez, whom Richt has never once criticized.
Still, it’s worth noting that Steve Spurrier needed six seasons at Florida to win a national championship, and it didn’t happen until he hired Bob Stoops from Kansas State to coordinate the Gator defense. And Mack Brown took Texas to the BCS title in his eighth season in Austin only after importing Gene Chizik from Auburn to lead the Longhorn D. Something similar might need to happen for Georgia and Richt to take the final step.
But would Richt, for whom family and fraternity are of massive import, ever demote or fire Martinez? Is keeping a longtime friend who’s a solid coach — solid as opposed to inspired — more important to him than taking a risk that might (or might not) lead to a greater reward?
We know Mark Richt can coach football. What we still don’t know after eight years of watching is whether he’s pragmatic enough to be a national championship coach.