It was at Auburn in 2002 where Mark Richt lifted the lid, to use to his metaphor of the breathless moment, from the Georgia program by clinching the SEC East. It was at Auburn four years later where Richt broke the first drought of his career as a head coach, upsetting the nation’s No. 5 team. And now, four more years on, it is to Auburn where the Bulldogs go, trying to rise above .500.
Think of the three Auburn games, four years apart, as referendums. In 2002 Richt was the People’s Choice. (Indeed, when he spoke at the Touchdown Club of Atlanta the Monday after the famous victory, the folks there — or at least their caterers — baked him a cake.) In 2006 he was the proven steward of a championship-caliber program. But here it is 2010, and we need ask: What is Mark Richt today?
Seven SEC teams are ranked in this week’s Associated Press poll, the Georgia Bulldogs not among them. The team that under Richt finished in the Top 10 six times in seven seasons didn’t crack the final poll in 2009 and hasn’t been ranked since Week 2 this year. The program this coach restored to eminence has slid back into irrelevance.
The road to Atlanta the first Saturday in December no longer runs through Athens, Ga. It took Richt four seasons and eight games of the fifth to suffer his 11th loss as Georgia’s coach; should the Bulldogs lose in Auburn on Saturday, they’ll have lost 11 times in 15 months.
Once the coach every other SEC school wished it had, Richt is now the coach Georgia fans aren’t sure they want. It’s a disquieting revelation: Nobody dislikes Richt as a person, and even his critics would concede the Richt of 2010 suffers most when viewed alongside the younger Richt. But football, like politics, isn’t a realm for standing still. You move forward or you fall behind.
Georgia has become a laggard. The most frustrating part of this season came not in the early losses, painful as they were, but in the ritual failure in Jacksonville. These Bulldogs could still have played for the SEC title had they managed to beat the worst of Urban Meyer’s six Florida teams, and they couldn’t. Even with South Carolina looking fully capable of authoring its worst collapse in a century of collapses, Georgia cannot benefit.
And that’s a clear and ominous change. The first years under Richt were festooned with moments seized, the most notable coming on fourth-and-15 that cold day at Auburn when Michael Johnson jumped and the defender Horace Willis did not. For all those saying Richt can’t be faulted for the latest Florida loss because it was a slender thing … let’s say Willis had knocked away David Greene’s pass on Nov. 16, 2002. The Bulldogs wouldn’t have played for and won Georgia’s first SEC title since sugar fell from the sky above Auburn in 1982.
The business Richt has chosen is a business of moments, of plays made and unmade. Time was, Richt’s bold teams made plays. Now they stand around and wonder what just happened. (In none of their four SEC losses this season have the Bulldogs even led.)
In 2002 it was Georgia, in its second year under Richt, that was the rising power. Today other SEC schools have caught and passed the Bulldogs: Mississippi State, in Year 2 under Dan Mullen, beat Georgia and sits in the Top 25; Auburn, in Year 2 under Gene Chizik, is unbeaten and positioned to play for both the SEC and the BCS titles. In a conference that gets only tougher, Georgia under Richt has gotten soft.
It used to be that Richt was at his most resourceful when facing a tough opponent in hostile environs. Over his first eight seasons, the King of the Road was 30-4 in opposing stadiums, but even that pillar has crumbled. Georgia has lost five of its past nine away games. What once worked works no longer. More and more, the 50-year-old Mark Richt seems yesterday’s man.