The label “must-win” has affixed itself to the South Carolina game, but a more precise description is “darn-well-better-win.” There’s a chance an 0-2 Georgia could still make something of its season. Say the Bulldogs win nine of their next 10: Wouldn’t 9-3 with a strong finish coming after 6-7 be construed as, ahem, significant improvement? That said …
Beyond simply saving himself for next week or next season, can Mark Richt ever again be truly safe in this job?
When the second game of any season is deemed, however inexactly, a “must-win,” matters have already deteriorated. When something is so far gone, is there any going back? The Georgia-Tennessee game of Oct. 6, 2007, was considered a “must-win” for Philip Fulmer, and he won it 35-14 and rose from 2-2 to 9-3 and led the Vols to the SEC East title (shading Georgia on a tiebreaker). Great recovery, huh?
Reality check: Philip Fulmer was fired in November 2008.
The Fulmer parallel is often invoked regarding Richt, and it’s apt. Both men won big for a good long while. Both took two SEC championships. (Fulmer even won a BCS title, a prize for which Georgia under Richt has never played.) Then they stopped winning so much. Fans noticed. Fans began asking: “Is he still the right guy?”
When enough fans ask that loaded question enough times, games stop being games and become referendums on the coach. This week a man who has a finger on the pulse of Bulldog Nation estimated Richt’s job-approval rating at five percent. Should Georgia lose to South Carolina, what might the approval rating be? Two-point-five percent? Zero percent?
We need to ask this, too: Even if Georgia wins this game, will Richt’s doubters again become believers? Or will they just doubt a bit less until he loses again?
A coach cannot serve for long at the displeasure of his constituency: This has always been true, but it’s truer than ever in a world where the athletic director has an e-mail address and anyone with Internet access can post on Twitter and Facebook and AJC.com. With so much money in play and so many seats to fill, can any AD wage a protracted fight against the wishes of his fans?
When C.M. Newton was in charge at Kentucky and folks were upset that Bill Curry wasn’t winning, the AD advised the dissidents to go find another school to support. Even with such administrative backing, Curry wound up resigning. When you lose so often that the roar of discontent drowns out the huzzahs raised in any victory, you’re a goner even before you actually go.
Richt is treading perilously close to that tipping point. Losing to Boise State mightn’t have been so bad on its face — the Broncos arrived ranked No. 5 in the land and were favored by Vegas — but the manner of the loss was devastating. This disjointed performance didn’t augur a new beginning; this was merely more of the same, which made it worse than ever. You sign the Dream Team and can’t stay onside? To borrow from Steve Spurrier’s famous 1991 dismissal: “Georgia gets all these recruits, but I don’t know what happens to them.”
Should Georgia lose to South Carolina, as coached by the dastardly Spurrier, Richt won’t resign on the spot or be fired on Sunday. He might still win enough to keep his job. (For another year, anyway.) But here’s the bigger issue: Even a win over the Gamecocks won’t convince many folks that the 51-year-old Richt remains the daring young man who Finished The Drill way back when.
It might take another SEC championship to do that. It might take a BCS title. And if, after Boise, you espy such glory on the horizon … well, count yourself among that five percent.
By Mark Bradley