Mark Richt’s teams use to have all the answers. Whether it was P-44-Haynes in Knoxville or 70-X-Takeoff in Auburn, his Georgia Bulldogs would win the sort of breathless games that stamped Richt as college football’s next great coach. But it has been a decade, and Richt hasn’t taken Georgia to the pinnacle — got close a couple of times — and nobody sees him that way anymore.
If you’re looking for what has gone wrong with this program, there it is: Mark Richt never quite finished the drill. Georgia was No. 3 in the final polls after the 2002 season and No. 2 according to the Associated Press after 2007 and No. 1 according to everybody in preseason 2008, but the Bulldogs could never do as Florida and LSU and Alabama did — they couldn’t get to the BCS title game and win.
And now they’re 1-4 and Richt isn’t the sleek young man just in from Tallahassee; he’s a 50-year-old who has been on the job a decade and who seems at a loss to arrest the slide. This isn’t to say he’s a bad man or even a bad coach, but it is to say that in college football the blame must always fall upward: There’s a reason head coaches are multimillionaires.
It’s convenient to say that Georgia in Year 10 under Richt resembles Florida State near the end of his mentor Bobby Bowden’s reign. Convenient, and also true. Attention to detail has slipped. Players appear to be coaching themselves. Players also seem incapable of conforming to team rules and community laws.
A college coach can override almost any embarrassment so long as he wins 10 games as a matter of course, but Richt’s team is but 9-9 over the past season and a quarter. And you simply cannot play .500 ball and have 10 players arrested in one offseason.
The belief here is that Richt will not be fired this season or in its aftermath. The belief here is also that Richt stands before us a damaged coach. There was no reason for Georgia to lose to Mississippi State or Colorado, no reason other than that these Bulldogs no longer expect to win. They’ve seen themselves caught and passed in the SEC. They’ve seen their gimmicks — the blackout against Alabama in 2008, the black helmets in Jacksonville last season — fall flat. They’ve seen teams with lesser talent being coached up.
There was a time when we would have expected Richt to solve any problem, but that time is gone. The slide of 2006 — four losses in five games — was halted by three rousing victories at season’s end, but come 2009 the Bulldogs were back in the same place, needing to beat Georgia Tech and win a bowl to salvage a season.
This winter Richt steeled himself and fired three-quarters of his defensive staff, but nothing much has changed. Tackles are still being missed. Coverages are still being blown. The whole operation comes off as disjointed, distracted, dysfunctional. It’s as if the Georgia Bulldogs awoke one morning and found themselves reinvented as the Kentucky Wildcats. (Who, not incidentally, beat UGA in Sanford Stadium last season for the first time since 1977.)
The effect has been stunning. How long since we’ve seen the Bulldogs so inept? (Even Ray Goff’s otherwise lousy 1990 team managed to beat Alabama.) It would be one thing if Georgia wasn’t good enough to compete, but nobody can seriously believe that a roster including A.J. Green, Justin Houston, Branden Smith, Aaron Murray, Orson Charles and Washaun Ealey is without talent. Ask Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen if he’d trade rosters with Richt. Heck, ask Paul Johnson.
Rule of thumb: If it’s not the playing, it must be the coaching. What worked for Richt for five years and two SEC titles has stopped working. (He lost 13 games those first five seasons; he has lost 18 in the four-plus seasons since.) This team of 10 returning offensive starters and the new 3-4 defense hasn’t won a game in a calendar month.
The optimum course would be for the man making the millions — that’d be Richt — to seize the wheel and steer this program back to excellence. But if he could, wouldn’t he have done it by now? It’s the age-old question: What do you do when you’ve run out of ideas?
(Take the guys swimming? Nope. Tried that already.)