Athens — He looked and sounded tired. What smiles there were, and there weren’t many, were forced and fleeting. Mark Richt met the media Tuesday in a role all but unfamiliar to him — as coach of a team under severe scrutiny.
Georgia has never before been 3-3 under Richt. Georgia has never lost more than four games under Richt. Never has Richt heard his athletics director say, as Damon Evans did Monday, that he has “some concerns” about the football team.
Someone asked about Evans’ statement. Said Richt, correcting the question’s use of the word “program”: “I think he said he had concerns about the ’season.’ I have concerns about the season. But we’re a very strong program. When you finish No. 10 in the coaches’ poll last year and No. 2 the year before and when you’re in the Top 10 six out of seven years … that’s not bad.”
That’s more than not bad — it’s exceptional. But it’s also yesterday’s news, as Richt conceded. “That’s the past. I understand that. But this season is not over. It is just not over.”
It isn’t. And anyone who would dismiss a Richt team needs to note what happened when the 2006 Bulldogs underwent a similar dip. They’d lost four of five, including games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. They’d fallen to 6-4 after starting 5-0. There were questions about the quarterback (true freshman Matthew Stafford) and about the defensive coordinator (Willie Martinez, then as now). And Georgia’s next date was at No. 5 Auburn.
The night before the game, Richt looked at his game plan — he was then the play caller — and declared it the worst he’d ever concocted. But he went with it because he couldn’t think of anything better. Georgia won 37-15. Then it beat Georgia Tech, which had won the ACC Coastal Division. Then it beat Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Said Richt, speaking of 2006: “It’s hard to measure a team’s ability to withstand pressure. A lot of teams and a lot of coaching staffs would have folded, but we never did. We didn’t make wholesale changes. We stayed the course. We kept grinding. You never know how close you are to success.
“I was pretty proud of that team — what we went through and how we finished. I might have been as proud of that team as any team I’ve been around.”
Richt isn’t going to quit on a season. He’s too skilled and too stubborn. The greater issue is whether Richt’s staff is as skilled as the head coach, and Richt himself seemed to suggest that personnel changes are “maybe what needs to be done” on Monday’s radio show.
But nothing significant, at least coaching-wise, is going to happen now. Richt isn’t going to go back to calling plays, and Tommy Tuberville isn’t going to show up in Nashville on Saturday and coordinate the D.
That said, Richt did hint that backup quarterback Logan Gray will be given a longer look against Vanderbilt: “I wouldn’t say that’s out of the question.” And Joe Cox? “I would say he’s still our starting quarterback.”
Being a .500 team halfway through the season is new for Georgia under Richt. “It’s tough on everyone,” he said. Then this: “We’re battling as hard as you can possibly battle to get things turned around.”
And that’s really the only way up: Keep pushing and hope something good happens soon. Without a hint of warning, it happened at Auburn in November 2006, and come January 2008 the Bulldogs were No. 2 in the land.
We learned three years ago not to write off this coach or his program. We’re about to see if Mark Richt is still the same coach, and if his is still the same strong program.