St. Simons Island — Truth or fiction, reality or perception, the general thought on Georgia football is that this is a critical season for head coach Mark Richt. Virtually every preseason story that has been written on the Bulldogs so far, has placed Richt on the proverbial “hot seat.”
But there are only a handful of people whose opinions really matter on this subject, chiefly UGA President Michael Adams and Athletic Director Greg McGarity.
It is them, and to some degree the Georgia Athletic Association executive board gathered here at the King & Prince Resort this week, that will ultimately decide Richt’s fate. So I asked them how they felt about things.
“First of all, the guy that has the most to say about it is the AD,” said Adams, presiding over the board’s annual end-of-the-year meeting here the past two days. “Despite what sometimes gets written, I haven’t done one of these things, pro or con, without heavy consultation with the AD.
“That said, I think you look at a person’s whole body of work. And I think the whole body of work by Mark Richt the last 10 years is very strong. We have very high expectations at the University of Georgia. We didn’t meet them last year. But I’m pretty confident that we’re going to spring back, that he made the kind of adjustments in staffing that needed to be made. Now we’ll do what we always do with every coach every season; we’ll sit down at the end of the season.”
The reason for the speculation is Georgia is coming off a 6-7 campaign — its first losing season since 1996 — and a two-year stretch in which it is just two games over .500 overall (14-12) with a losing SEC record (7-9).
But when you look at Richt’s “body of work” before that, it paints a totally different picture — 82 wins over eight seasons, two SEC championships, four first-place finishes in the SEC East and two second-place finishes.
“Our first requirement is to run the program properly,” Adams said. “You will get in trouble at Georgia more for failure to do that rather than for having a bad season once a decade. But we do think with our resources, with our recruiting base, with our fan base, it’s not unreasonable to expect us to have a winning football program. And we have for 13 of the 14 years I’ve been here. I fully expect we will for 13 of the next 14.”
Richt made some significant changes after last season. He replaced his longtime strength and conditioning coordinator, Dave Van Halanger, with Joe Tereshinski Jr. Tereshinski, a former All-SEC player and strength coach under former head coach Vince Dooley, brings an old-school training approach. The strength staff was also expanded and nutritionists are now overseeing the year-round diets of all the players.
“I think we got off to a wonderful start in January,” McGarity said. “I’ve said many times, how you perform in September and October comes down to what you do in January. You set the tone, you set the expectations, you say this is the way we’re going to run our operation. There’s no question – and I think Mark would acknowledge this and I think the players would acknowledge it— that they’ve gotten off to a good start with nutrition and strength and conditioning.”
Board members who were asked about the direction of the football program all expressed support for Richt while also acknowledging that 2011 will be an important season.
“He’s not in my hot seat; he’s still in my lap,” Bob Bishop, an executive board member for 29 years, said with a laugh. “I love him. I don’t think you can find a better human being anywhere and he’s a fine football coach. He’s proven that time and time again. But we all know it goes in cycles. He had a bad cycle last year and he made a lot of changes to improve on that. If you have a real bad season again there’s going to be a lot of turmoil all over the state and on campus and behind the scenes.”
Said board member emeritus Gary Hill: “I’m firmly in Mark Richt’s corner. I want him to succeed. Everything is in place for him to succeed and I’m pulling for him to do so. Who wants to go through the turmoil of changing coaches and changing staff?”
Bishop was asked if the board would have to respond to alumni or fan dissension.
“You’ve got to listen; that’s why we serve on the board. But most of that doesn’t play into it,” he said. “You evaluate the program independently and how the program is progressing. We’ve had a couple of down years. It will be very nice if he can improve that 6-and-7, at least modestly. But I think our program is in good shape.”
McGarity agrees and expressed confidence in the prospects for this coming season.
“I think there’s tremendous leadership on this team and I think that’s one thing that gets lost in the conversation,” McGarity said. “Individuals like Orson Charles and Aaron Murray and Christian Robinson and Ben Jones, you’ve got some guys like that are taking it upon themselves. If we have problems internally, they’re going to take care of it before it ever reaches anyone anywhere.”
That has been another criticism of the program under Richt. Off-field issues, such as 10 arrests of football players last year, made it appear there was a lack of discipline on the team.
So far there have been no arrests this year.
“Are we always going to stay out of trouble? No, chances are we’ll have our bumps in the road,” McGarity said. “But I think the things that you look at from a leadership standpoint, I feel very good about that. How will that translate into wins and losses? I think sometimes winning is a byproduct of what you do, just like in any other walks of like. If you work hard, you pay attention to details, then winning is going to be a byproduct of that.”
McGarity said he was impressed with the way Richt and his staff responded to last season’s disappointment, particularly by going out and signing a Top 10-ranked recruiting class.
“There’s no question that Mark feels invigorated about the season,” McGarity said. “I think he’s excited to go. All of the sudden it’s going to be June 6 and everybody comes to campus and they’re going to be under our wing at that point.”
Bishop has presided over four football coaching changes in his time on the board, so he knows the realities of today’s high-stakes college game. But he scoffs at the criticism of Richt’s ability to coach.
“I remember back when Bear Bryant was coaching, he had a bad year and everybody was saying the game has passed him by,” Bishop said. “Biggest joke I’ve ever heard. He had a few bad years, but he had a few good years, too. All we need is one more point than Boise State and we’ll be on the road.”