In the grand scheme, the Kentucky loss should be a blessing. It should yield the sort of clarity needed when quality control has slipped. A coach can fool himself for a while, but when he loses at home to Kentucky after leading by 14 points, he has to acknowledge the obvious. Doesn’t he?
Even as he approached a game against the best team in the state his Georgia Bulldogs long ruled, Mark Richt still wouldn’t address the greater issue, at least not on the record. “I’ve never been one to focus on several things at one time,” he said Wednesday. This week he would speak only of Georgia Tech, saying, “My feeling right now is on the next game; it’s such a crucial game for our program.”
But there he’s wrong. Beating Tech might mean the difference between a bowl in Nashville and one in Shreveport, but winning at Bobby Dodd Stadium won’t cure the systemic ill. On the contrary, it might offer Richt another reason not to change, and if that’s the case, this would be the one time when beating an in-state rival proved injurious to a program’s long-term health.
Because Georgia must change to keep pace, not just with Tech but with Tennessee and Kiffin and Auburn and Chizik. (Forget Florida and Alabama and LSU — they’ve already lapped the Bulldogs.) And it isn’t a one-year blip, as apologists insist, but a trend. In the first five seasons under Richt, Georgia played for the SEC title three times, winning twice, and had a record of 52-13. In these past four seasons, Georgia hasn’t reached the conference championship game and is 36-14, having gone 2-2 against Kentucky.
Think hard about that last part. Vince Dooley lost four times to the Wildcats in a quarter-century of coaching. Ray Goff lost once to Kentucky in six tries, Jim Donnan once in five. Richt has now done it twice. It’s one thing to lose to Florida, as Richt has managed seven times in nine tries, something else again to lose to a basketball school.
Asked about the need for change in his program on the SEC teleconference this week, Richt instead dissected the Kentucky loss. “Turnovers were the story of that game,” he said. “If it was zero-zero in turnovers or we’d have won the turnover battle, that’s a different game.” And it’s true that Georgia had four turnovers to Kentucky’s none, but ultimately Richt seemed to concede the futility of his argument: “Of course, you can’t throw out the turnovers.”
And you can’t. There’s no reason Georgia should be giving the ball to a lesser team four times without once being able to snatch it back. There’s no reason Georgia should be next-to-last in the nation in turnover margin, no reason it should rank 116th among 120 teams in penalties. Richt and his staff have stopped coaching effectively and have begun to rely on recruiting to see them through, and when you lose to Kentucky you see why recruiting is never enough. (If it were, Ron Zook would be Urban Meyer.)
No matter what happens against Tech, Richt will have to change his staff and his approach if he hopes again to play in the Georgia Dome for anything more than a Chick-fil-A Bowl trophy. Is there one Bulldog assistant who has gotten the most from his charges? Mike Bobo? Jon Fabris? John Jancek? Stacy Searels? Dave Van Halanger? Willie Martinez?
Forget this staff’s perceived February successes; even Rodney Garner, the chief recruiter, has insisted: “I’m a coach who recruits,” and not the other way around. But even with the gifted freshmen on campus — Branden Smith, Orson Charles, Washaun Ealey, Rantavious Wooten, Aaron Murray, Marlon Brown — is there any assurance they’ll flourish under these coaches?
Mark Richt is a smart man. He has to realize declining results call for an upgrade in standards. He has to know the only way back to the pinnacle of the SEC isn’t to stay the course but to change the navigators. He has to grasp this. Doesn’t he?