Athens – We can’t say Mark Richt refuses to change. We could for a while, but no longer. Last winter he fired three-quarters of his defensive staff, including his pal-from-college Willie Martinez. This time he reassigned strength coach Dave Van Halanger, who came with Richt from Florida State and who has been described as his best friend, and this yielded an even greater concession.
The Van Halanger mat drills? The offseason conditioning staple that yielded the famous slogan, “Finish the drill”?
No more mat drills for the Georgia Bulldogs, Richt announced Thursday, meeting the media ahead of spring practice. “We were looking at the possibility of doing some mats after spring ball,” he said, “but right now I’m not interested in doing that.”
Under new strength coach Joe Tereshinski, there’s more weight-lifting — heavier weights and more reps — and an increased emphasis on nutrition. (”We’re doing a better job of making sure everybody’s eating all their meals,” Richt said.) Mat drills have been jettisoned, same as Martinez and Van Halanger.
This tells us something. There was a time when Richt would sooner have promenaded down Lumpkin Street wearing Gator-issue jean shorts than ditch those beloved drills, but he has determined they no longer served a purpose.
If anyone thinks Richt is too placid to restore Georgia football to eminence, there’s your answer. One losing season — his first since 1984, when he was a just-out-of-college just-cut-by-the-Dolphins volunteer coach helping his friend Pete Christie at Pope John Paul II High in Boca Raton — and he’s ready to do whatever it takes to win big again.
“The game humbles you every season,” Richt said, but surely it’s harder to stay humble, not to mention hungry, when you’re winning 10 games and finishing in the Top 10. The first seven seasons under Richt were so superb they made us believe he’d never produce anything less. But the Bulldogs were 8-5 in 2009, and in 2010 they were worse.
Two months after the New Year’s Eve loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl, the whole thing still makes no sense. Georgia outscored opponents by 130 points over 13 games, outgained opponents by 734 yards and made 10 fewer turnovers … and lost more often than it won. It didn’t beat a team that finished with a winning record. With the exception of Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs lost to every opponent that stayed close enough to win.
Looking back, Richt said, “you see how close we were to winning. But some years you win 10 and you were so close to losing four. Every little thing can make a difference.”
There was a time when Georgia could get away with sloppiness, meaning penalties and turnovers, and win because of its talent. We began to see in 2008, when the Bulldogs entered the season ranked No. 1 but failed to win a game of consequence, how far quality control had slipped. What worked for Richt in 2002 was working less well, and it was unclear if he’d take corrective measures.
If Georgia fails to win big enough in 2011, it won’t be because the head ball coach sat on his hands. He has changed everything that needed changing, and he and his reconfigured staff went out and signed nearly every prospect worth signing. The assembling of the ballyhooed Dream Team has bought back some measure of credibility, and season-opening victories over Boise State and South Carolina would propel the Bulldogs into the Top 10, a place they haven’t been since Nov. 1, 2008.
“This year is kind of like do-or-die,” said cornerback Brandon Boykin, and it is. For nearly a decade Georgia folks had reason to believe their coach was as good as anybody’s, but the past few seasons have spawned all manner of doubt. Has the SEC gotten too tough for the nice-guy coach? With the national championships being taken by a different SEC school every season, have the Bulldogs — who haven’t won even a conference title since 2005 — been rendered an afterthought?
Georgia will have the chance to refute all criticisms soon enough, but its coach has already swatted aside one concern. Yes, Mark Richt is strong enough to change. He has found a new place for those mats — in the corner, collecting dust.
By Mark Bradley