Should Georgia go 1-11 this fall, Mark Richt wouldn’t just be in trouble — he’d be gone. But that’s thing: Georgia isn’t going to go 1-11, and at this moment Richt is in fine fettle, job-wise and otherwise. And it is, truth to tell, harder to imagine the Bulldogs headed to Shreveport again anytime soon than it is to foresee them winning the SEC East.
And that’s all Richt needs to do to coach Georgia another 10 years: Win big again.
The notion was driven home at the annual convocation of the Bulldog Club of Greater Atlanta on Monday night. The masses didn’t brave a thunderstorm to file into the Cobb Galleria with teeth gritted. No citizen of Bulldog Nation wants Richt to fail. He is liked and respected by his constituency, same as it ever was.
The only problem Georgia fans have with Richt is that he hasn’t won a championship since 2005, and even that differentiates him from his predecessors. Folks liked Ray Goff — he was a Bulldog born and bred, you’ll recall — but grew skeptical of his coaching acumen. The same folks believed Jim Donnan knew his X’s and O’s but never quite warmed to him personally. And neither could deliver a title.
Richt has — two of them, in fact. There are no questions about his bona fides. There’s only the question that tracks every coach in every sport: What have you won for me lately?
No fool, Richt knows what has (and has not) happened. Of 2010, he said Monday: “It’s a big year.” Then this: “I do think it’s got the team excited and feeling like they have something to prove. We want to get back in consciousness of college football — with the voters. That’s a big thing with our sport designed as it is.”
That’s a major concession a coach whose program had become a Top 10 staple — whose 2008 team was ranked No. 1 in preseason — to make: That Georgia these past two seasons hasn’t been Georgia-good. The good news is that UGA under Richt hasn’t ever stayed down long. Coming off 8-4 in 2001, it went 13-1 and took the school’s first SEC title it n a quarter-century. Coming 8-4 in 2006, it went 10-2 and finished No. 2 in the land.
There is, lest we forget, a deep reservoir of pride that runs beneath the Red & Black. Even with all the headlines of summer — arrests and suspensions and a pending NCAA investigation and Damon Evans’ resignation –this isn’t a program that sees itself as a throw-rug. And the season that commences Sept. 4 offers the chance for a large measure of redemption.
Said Richt: “The players feel the buzz. The coaches do, too.”
Speaking of coaches: Richt did something remarkable last winter. He fired most of his defensive staff, including a coordinator who was among his best friends. Bulldog-watchers weren’t sure he would, but he did. This told us that, for all the perceptions of loyalty as a weakness, this coach is steely enough to put his program first. And that’s what you’d want in a coach, is it not?
There were no shock-the-world revelations dispensed Monday night: Richt lauded Todd Grantham, his new defensive coordinator; said Aaron Murray, the new quarterback, “has ‘it’ “, and offered a hearty endorsement of Chick-fil-A’s spicy chicken sandwich. (Which shouldn’t be interpreted as coach lobbying to appear in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.) He even got a bit testy when someone mentioned Gator “dominance.”
Richt: “We need to get you in the locker room to fire the guys up.”
Richt wasn’t a Bulldog born, but from Day 1 in 2001 he has known what it means to coach these Bulldogs. He sees himself as the steward of a program that was beloved before he arrived and will be after he steps aside. He knows what Bulldogs want, and it’s more than just to win — it’s to feel good about winning.
“We want our fans to be proud,” Richt said. Then this: “We want to be proud.”