Winning doesn’t educate. Winning endorses. Human nature holds that a winner doesn’t ask, “What can I do better?” but says instead, “Why change what works?”
Mark Richt is human. Even in the disappointment of 2008 — Georgia started as preseason No. 1 and landed in the Capital One Bowl — he had his talking points down. And when the Bulldogs beat Michigan State on Jan. 1, 2009, to finish 10-3, he trotted out TP No. 1: Six 10-win seasons out of the past seven was “pretty stinkin’ good.”
In his self-defense, Richt missed the obvious: That something was rotten in the House of Bulldog. All you had to do was screen a video of Richt’s 2002 team followed by one of the 2008 aggregation to see the difference. In 2008 Georgia had more talent but wasn’t as good.
The 2009 season will go down as the worst under Richt, but it many ways it was the best thing that could have happened. As the losses mounted — blown out in Knoxville by a Tennessee team working under a new coach; blown out again in Jacksonville; beaten at home by Kentucky for the first time since Herschel Walker was a sophomore at Johnson County High — it was clear the rot had spread. It took an upset of Georgia Tech for the Bulldogs just to finish above .500, and by then there could be no more pretense.
We’ve known all along Richt is smart. We weren’t sure how demanding he is. Firing three of his four defensive coaches provided the answer. As much as Mark Richt enjoys fellowship among his coaching staff, he enjoys winning more.
We don’t yet know the names of the replacements. We know the Bulldogs head into the Independence Bowl with a defense coordinated by Rodney Garner, the lone holdover, and some grad assistants. (Now watch Georgia shut down Texas A&M. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?) But no matter what happens in the game, there’s cause to believe there’ll be no more Shreveport jaunts in the Bulldogs’ immediate future.
It’s possible Richt could hire someone less adept than Willie Martinez as coordinator. It’s also possible — theoretically, anything’s possible — the sun could rise in the West tomorrow. What’s more apt to happen is an upgrade at the position that can galvanize a program more than the arrival of any five-star recruit.
Steve Spurrier had won four SEC titles and reached a national championship game, but it was only after he hired Bob Stoops to coordinate his defense — a defense that had just yielded 62 points to Nebraska in said championship game — that the Evil Genius took his national title. Mack Brown had posted five consecutive 10-win seasons at Texas, but it was only after he hired Gene Chizik from Auburn (which had just gone 13-0) that the Longhorns were able to win a BCS title. Yes, defensive coordinators matter.
Defensive coordinators matter even more than offensive coordinators. A team that scores on every possession but can’t stop anybody feels vulnerable. (Yes, Georgia Tech, I’m thinking of you.) A team that knows it can stop somebody feels invincible. Offensive success is a function of skill and technique. Defensive success involves physical domination. Georgia used to play that brand of ball — ever heard of Erk Russell? — but had come to dominate nothing under Martinez.
That could well have changed by the time Georgia plays its first post-Shreveport game — Sept. 4, 2010, against Louisiana Lafayette. Even though Bud Foster chose to stay at Virginia Tech and Vic Koenning wound up at Illinois, there are good men out there who will see Georgia as the place to make a name by making a difference. There’s no reason to believe Richt won’t find one.
The tough part is behind him. It took some doing for this coach to convince himself that change wasn’t an option but a necessity, but finally he did it. When you’re accustomed to 10 wins and nice big bowls, nothing slaps you harder than a trip to Shreveport. This wasn’t the destination anyone associated with Georgia wanted, but it was, in the grand scheme, the destination Mark Richt’s program needed.