Hoover, Ala. — His program, figuratively if not literally, was headed south. “Georgia had declined in record and in how people nationally perceived our program,” Mark Richt said. “I realized that.”
That was important. Realization that you’re going wrong is the first move toward making things go right again. But such knowledge isn’t always the precursor to change. Fact is, it’s harder to recapture momentum than to build it in the first place.
“You can get it back,” said Richt, speaking before his appearance before the full body of the SEC media here Thursday. (These glitzy Media Days are like the Oscars in that there’s a pre-show for selected local and national scribes.) “There’s positive momentum around our program right now. There’s a sense of excitement. Anticipation is very high.”
He’s right. There is. Over the winter, Georgia went from being the team that couldn’t score a touchdown against Central Florida to the program that assembled a recruiting Dream Team. And here’s quarterback Aaron Murray after seeing the heralded freshmen in summer workouts: “I wasn’t sure if they were going to be that good, but they’re definitely as good as advertised. Seven or eight of them could start right now.”
For all the speculation that Richt must win big or be gone, there’s no sense, as Richt himself said, “of gloom and doom.” This team thinks it can win the SEC East. (More than a few observers, this one included, would agree.) This program has overridden the grim reality of an 8-5 season followed by 6-7 … at least for now.
Here we pause to assess reality. Tennessee won consecutive SEC championships and the 1998 BCS title; a decade later, Phillip Fulmer was pushed aside to make room for, ahem, Lane Kiffin. Florida State finished in the top five 14 seasons running but not once after 2000, which is why Bobby Bowden was jostled into retirement. Having suffered four losing seasons in five years, Penn State has since had three 11-win seasons — but that was in the Big Ten, not the SEC.
In the SEC, everything is accelerated. Terry Bowden won his first 20 games at Auburn and resigned after coaching 45 more. Tommy Tuberville, who succeeded Bowden, went undefeated in 2004 and was gone in 2008. David Cutcliffe went 10-3 at Ole Miss in 2003; the next year he got fired.
The exceptions: Bear Bryant had six-win seasons at Alabama in 1969 and 1970 but won eight of the next nine SEC titles; Vince Dooley went 5-6 in 1977 and 6-5 in 1979 but was 43-4-1 over the next four seasons. Bryant’s turnaround came when he began to recruit black players; Dooley’s came when he signed Herschel Walker.
If there’s a surge coming at Georgia, it will likewise be tied to recruiting. The Dream Team, center Ben Jones said, “was the turning point we needed. The juice is back.”
Said Richt: “The recruiting class did give us momentum, and [there was momentum] even in the class itself. So-and-so would jump on, and then so-and-so, and there was a climax at the end with Isaiah [Crowell, the Columbus tailback] and [JUCO nose tackle Jonathan] Jenkins.”
There’s another component to G-Buzz 2011, and it’s a function of Richt being bold. Opening against Boise State is a considered risk — the Bulldogs might well lose, and there’d go your buzz — that had to be taken. “That game would jolt you back into the consciousness of the college football world,” he said, and the coach is milking it as feverishly as an ambidextrous dairy farmer. (Five seconds into his opening statement to the main media body, Richt spoke the words “Boise State.”)
In Athens on Wednesday, Richt stage-managed the unveiling of the Nike-styled Pro Combat uniforms the team will sport against Boise. He pretended to throw a fit when Murray and cornerback Brandon Boykin didn’t show up — the coach even threw his notepad — only to have the two players walk into the room in full (top-secret) regalia. “There’s excitement over our uniforms,” Richt said.
If Georgia loses to Boise and then to South Carolina the next week, excitement will yield to raging speculation over how Kirby Smart will fare as the Bulldogs’ head coach in 2012. In his pre-briefing briefing, Richt was reminded by Ivan Maisel of ESPN that Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins once said, “No matter how pretty a woman is, there’s somebody somewhere who’s tired of her.”
Richt laughed out loud. Then he said, “I know where you’re going with this. We’ll see how pretty we look at the end of the season.”
The guess here that they’ll look pretty darn good. The guess is that Richt will do what demonstrably great coaches have failed to do: He’ll execute a mid-course correction and take Georgia back to the top of the SEC East.
By Mark Bradley