ATHENS — Moments after Georgia put the finishing touches on its 17-9 win over No. 2 Florida this past Saturday, coach Mark Richt and senior noseguard John Jenkins hugged near midfield. They spoke animatedly, laughed hard and hugged again. It was clearly a moment of unbridled joy.
Richt was asked Tuesday to recount their conversation, but he opted to keep their exchange to himself.
“I remember what it’s about but I won’t say,” Richt said with a grin. “But it was a good thing. Sometimes I’ll say some things to the team and I won’t even remember what I said to them. Then they’ll bring it up after the game. They’ll say, ‘we took care of you’ or ‘we had your back’ or whatever. It was one of those kinds of conversations.”
According to Jenkins, it was definitely one of those “we had your back” conversations.
In addition to the “soft-defense” talk before the Florida game, Jenkins said the Bulldogs were equally inspired by the bashing that Georgia’s coaching staff had taken since the loss to South Carolina and the endless recitation of their record against Top 10 opponents. After losing to the Gamecocks 35-7 on Oct. 6, Georgia dropped to 1-9 against Top 10 opponents since 2008. Jenkins said the players were tired of hearing about it.
“Sometimes it feels like it’s never enough,” Jenkins said. “When you’re in this line of work and you go out trying to please everybody else, then you, yourself, is not pleased. So a win like that, it was one of those victories where we knew exactly what we had within the group. Excluding everybody else, outside influences, we knew what we were capable of. The coaching staff and the players, we had each other’s backs. It was one of those type of deals.”
It used to be that football players were somewhat secluded from all the blather that swirls around every major football program all the time. They would be directed by coaches to refrain from reading newspapers or listening to talk radio and could remain insulated from the onslaught of critique and opinion.
But that’s impossible in the digital age of smart phones and Twitter and message boards and open blog commentary. Players are bombarded with instant and usually horribly ill-informed feedback about the job they or their coaches are doing. Often the messages come directly to them.
Hushing the bashers was as much a part of the joy of beating Florida as was putting the Bulldogs in position to win the East, players said.
“It was definitely a big moment for us and Coach Richt,” said junior tight end Arthur Lynch, who signed with Georgia out of Dartmouth, Mass. “We all see Coach Richt as a father figure. College football is a monopoly that we live in. It is driven by money – you can spin it how you want; NCAA this, NCAA that, TV deals, power conferences – that’s the world we live in. That being said, I don’t know many other coaches in college football who are as kind and loyal to their morals like he is. His base foundation, whether it’s his faith, his honesty or just basic human qualities, you can’t find anybody better than Coach Richt.”
“That short time after the game’s over, we’re happy for him,” senior linebacker Christian Robinson said. “We’re not oblivious to what people say. I watch GameDay every morning we have a late game. We see and hear what people say and we use that as fuel a lot of times.”
As ever, the gulf between the vocalized minority and reality remains vast and deep. They would have you think that Richt — and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, in particular – are in imminent danger of losing their jobs with a misstep in any significant game. As it is, Richt just received a five-year contract extension; he speaks glowingly every chance he gets about the job being done by Bobo, who has the Bulldogs on a record-breaking offensive pace; and those who write the checks seem unswerving in their support.
In the past three years, as Richt maneuvered the Bulldogs through their most tumultuous period in his 12-year tenure, contributions to the Hartman Fund (which is used to determine ticket priority) have remained consistent, between $22.6 to 23 million. And despite a dramatic national decline in game attendance due to a down economy, Georgia has had only a few empty seats due to unclaimed tickets returned by visiting opponents.
It’s all very annoying to Lynch, a history major who has taken a keen interest in the Southeastern football phenomena he moved more than 1,000 miles from home to be a part of.
“You can say what you want to about him as a coach, but obviously he’s had some success,” Lynch said. “He’s the longest (tenured) coach in the SEC. He’s had 10-win, 11-win, 12-win seasons. For us, the criticism is undeserving. But it’s there because that’s just how our society is. It’s a what-have-you-done-for me lately type deal in college football.”
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