Here’s one case of goodness being its own reward. The events of this offseason have reminded us that it was never this coach Georgia fans had come to dislike; it was only this coach’s diminishing record. Mark Richt has given those folks reason to believe the record is subject to sudden change, and the cloud of gloom that figured to shroud the 2011 season has all but lifted. (At least for now.)
Georgia folks are optimistic. Cynics among us will insist that Georgia folks are always optimistic until reality descends — then they’re ready to fire their coach. After the Bulldogs lost to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl to finish 6-7, there were a couple of anxious days when some who know the inner workings of the program weren’t certain Richt would keep his job. But here he is, and he’s not acting like a coach about to get canned.
He’s cheerful, almost aggressively so. “I plan on having a hell of a year,” Richt said last month.
In public appearances across the state, he has been greeted not with skepticism, but with an enthusiasm that has redoubled. It’s as if Georgia fans spent the winter contemplating life without Richt and concluded they still want this guy as their coach. They just want him to win more games.
Toward that end, Richt won big on signing day. The “Dream Team” might prove to have been overblown — recruiting classes often are — but there can be no denying that its compilation came at the exact right moment. Georgia fans were wondering if their program still mattered, and the addition of a half-dozen major prospects delivered the message that it does. But there was another component to this offseason, this having to do with Richt himself.
His constituency had come to wonder if winning meant as much to him as it does to them. His answer came in measured steps, but it was the answer Georgia folks wanted. Richt re-assigned strength coach Dave Van Halanger, often described as his best friend, and replaced him with fierce lifetime Bulldog Joe Tereshinski. The mat drills that were Van Halanger’s staple, the exercise routine that had spawned the Richtian slogan “Finish the Drill”? They were dropped.
So was Washaun Ealey, the running back of great promise who kept losing his way. Gone, too, is Caleb King, another hyped runner who failed to meet obligations. “Some of [the departing Bulldogs] left because they wanted to leave,” Richt told the Bulldog Club of Metro Atlanta. “Some we helped out the door.”
A bit later, Richt conceded: “I might not be as patient as I once was.”
This drew the loudest applause of the night, and in that moment it was possible to believe that this coach might well stay in place another 10 years. For all the criticism he has received, nobody who knows Richt wants him to fail. The personal affection Georgia fans have for this coach has been, if not a game-winner, then at least a game-changer.
As of this month, the elements that make up Georgia football have again come into alignment: The coach has been reborn, the players rededicated, the fans re-energized. “You’re either on the bus or you’re not,” Richt said that rainy night in Atlanta. (He has spoken the same words other places.) “If you’re not, you need to get off. If you are, great — now let’s go have some fun.”
Recent seasons have drained the joy from Georgia football. This figures to be the year the fun returns. Unless the Bulldogs lose to Boise State and South Carolina. But they won’t.
By Mark Bradley