Richt's Critical Season Arrives

ATHENS - Mark Richt used to be the toast of the town in Athens, and in a lot of ways he still is.

But ten years and two SEC Championships later Richt is entering the most critical year of his tenure at Georgia.

The recently bumpy road has had more positives than negatives, but in a world of "what have you done for me lately" Richt needs to win in 2011. How did we get here? Anyone who has been a head coach at an SEC school for as long as Richt has will make some friends and have some detractors.

This article appeared in the February 2011 edition of Dawg Post the Magazine. Don't get Dawg Post? Sign up or upgrade your subscription here.

The biggest thing missing on Richt's resume, and his critics' number one case against him, is his failure to win a BCS National Title. Georgia fans have watched Alabama, LSU and Auburn play for and win the national title. But more than anything, Florida's two BCS titles in three years, and the Gators' continued dominance over the Bulldogs even after Richt arrived is the source of much of the angst aimed at Richt.

Perhaps failing to represent the SEC East with Knowhson Moreno and Matthew Stafford in the same backfield was the biggest failure in the Richt era. But it must be pointed out that the Bulldogs had one of their most successful seasons in school history in 2007 – winning the Sugar Bowl and finishing ranked second in the country.

It is probably the case that Richt is feeling heat he would have never felt even ten years ago. Two things have happened since Richt took over the head spot in Athens: 1. The SEC has dominated nationally, and Georgia is one of the few high-level SEC schools not to have played for the BCS title in that time (Tennessee is the other, but they won the BCS in 1998) 2. Richt raised expectations with his winning ways.

That is to say, of course, that Richt is his own enemy – which happens

in coaching when you've been in one spot for a period of time.

Many Georgia fans may not like my next statement: Since Vince Dooley, and for some time under Dooley after the Herschel Walker years, Georgia was an SEC also ran. The Dawgs had not been relevant nationally from 1984 to 2002. Since 1992, Georgia was struggling to stay above South Carolina in the SEC East, and the Bulldogs had only topped Tennessee and Florida once each before Richt arrived.

From 1984 to 2000, Georgia was lucky to get to a New Year's Day bowl. The Bulldogs accomplished that six times under Richt – three times in the Sugar Bowl.

Fans started expecting Georgia to win big every season – no matter what. Fans should expect that, but reality dictates something totally different.

Richt's Problems

Richt's tenure has not been without mistakes or failures – that is clear. Not representing the SEC East with Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and A.J. Green on the same side of the offense seems incomprehensible, but that is what happened. The results against Alabama and Florida in 2008 with those three on offense seems even worse.

But the thorn, more than any other, in Richt's side is his failure to defeat Georgia's biggest rival – Florida. It has become comical the way the Bulldogs have fallen to the Gators.

Three losses in the series have become bellwethers for Georgia's ineptitude against the Gators – 2002, 2008 and 2010.

The only loss of the 2002 season, Georgia's loss to Florida probably cost them any shot at the national title. The Bulldogs came into the game favorites over the Gators for the first time in almost ten years.

The Most Important Moments/Issues of the Mark Richt Era

Tech and Florida
Richt's dominance and struggles against Tech and Florida have been head scratching. He's struggled, just like the rest of the college football world with Florida over the last ten years. But he's beaten in-state Georgia Tech at the highest clip of any coach that's been at Georgia over a ten-year span. Either way both games end with the same feeling nearly every time.

The Hobnail Boot
If anything gave Mark Richt respect in the Georgia community it was the win over Tennessee in Knoxville in 2001. Georgia, which had only beaten the Vols once since the SEC went to divisions in 1992, had not beaten Tennessee in Knoxville since Herschel Walker's arrival to college football in 1980. P-44, probably the most famous play called in Richt's career even ten years later, stands as one of the most famous moments in Georgia football history and may be Larry Munson's greatest call ever.

2008 Losses
Georgia's losses in 2008 seemed to get worse as the season went on. Florida's blowout win in Jacksonville was the worst of the Bulldogs' three losses on a lot of levels, but Alabama's 41-30 win in Athens seemed to show just how vulnerable the Bulldogs were and would become – even though they started the season as the top-ranked team in the country. The loss to Georgia Tech was embarrassing. At that point Richt had never lost to the Yellow Jackets in his career – and he's made a point of talking about how important the game is to the program ever since.

Recruiting Misses
Got a program with the state of the program in Athens? Recruiting has been at least some of the problem at Georgia. A small class in 2005 was hidden by Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno for two years, but became exposed in 2009. Misses with in-state prospects in the 2007 class also showed in a big way that season. The Bulldogs have struggled because of a drop in talent – which is a direct result in not performing on the recruiting trail. Don't look now, but the class of 2010 wasn't the strongest performance ever, either.

Dancing in the End Zone
There were so many ways Georgia's thrashing of Florida in 2007 was great, but probably the greatest moment of the game was at the start of it. Knowshon Moreno dove over the top to score the first six of Georgia's 42 points that afternoon – suddenly the Bulldog bench emptied. Two things followed – lots of yellow laundry on the field and the worst beating of Florida by one of their rivals in the decade. Defeating the defending national champions was one thing, but doing it with the swagger the Dawgs had that day was something special to see.

The Blackout
Mark Richt has gone out on a limb before, but probably the hottest idea he's ever had was to bring out black jerseys for the first time in school history. His idea worked, and the Bulldogs steamrolled Auburn in Athens. The moment is probably Richt's most famous in Sanford Stadium (as many of his triumphs have happened away from Athens). The Blackout remains a special moment in Georgia football history, and probably ranks as the high point of the Bulldog program under Richt – even higher than winning two SEC Championships.

Defensive Dismissals
Richt gave Willie Martinez and crew as much rope as possible before he had to cut ties. He dismissed his long-time friend and two other coaches a few days after the Bulldogs stunned #7 Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Martinez had become the focus of the angst among Georgia fans, and Richt saw that the defense was moving backward under Martinez.

SEC Titles
Georgia went two full decades without an SEC title, but thrashed Arkansas 30-3 in December of 2002 to "blow the lid off the program." The outcome of the game that day was never in doubt. Still, the win itself was the culmination of a season of big wins – Clemson, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech. But Georgia's win over LSU in 2005 may stand as the top coaching performance of the Richt era. The Bulldogs seemed to be a team of destiny that season (even though quarterback D.J. Shockley was either out – Florida – or hurt – Auburn – for two huge games the Bulldogs lost). Shockley and company won games with a stifling defense, an effective offense and the best special teams in the conference. Bryan McClendon's punt block, Tim Jennings' interception return for a touchdown and Shockley's scramble for a touchdown did the Tigers in and was Richt's best in-game coaching performance of the decade.

Still, the Dawgs' offense didn't have any answers for what Florida was doing. Usually reliable players, like Billy Bennett and Terrence Edwards, had uncharacteristic mistakes that cost the Dawgs the game. The loss was painful – and it seemed Georgia would never, ever beat Florida.

2008 was Georgia's chance to swing the series back in their favor for the first time since Vince Dooley walked the sideline. Georgia had been manhandled by Alabama earlier in the month, but a win over the Gators would put the Dawgs back in the SEC and BCS hunt. It was not in the cards. Georgia was thrashed by the Gators after a Stafford interception was taken back to set up a 21-3 Florida lead in the third quarter. The game was capped off by Florida head coach Urban Meyer's decision to call multiple timeouts with a minute to go while the Gators clung on to a 49-10 lead. Florida's dominance over the Dawgs was completed that season when they won their second BCS National Title in three seasons – the Bulldogs started 2008 #1, but the Gators finished there.

In 2010, both Florida and Georgia, proud schools with long winning traditions, limped into Jacksonville with poor records and both out of the top 25 for the game for the first time since Columbus discovered the Americas. Georgia got down early, but rallied back and looked like they were about to win the game. Florida natives Orson Charles and Aaron Murray – both highly recruited by the Gators, but signed by the Dawgs – were thrashing the Orange and Blue. But the Dawgs couldn't win the game in regulation. When Georgia took over in overtime Murray tried to hit Charles on a pass, but it was picked off and run back to the Georgia one-yard line. The Gator bench exploded onto the field – much the same way Georgia did in 2007. But Florida had not won the game on the interception – they still needed to score. Officials didn't throw a flag for excessive celebration, so the Gators started on the 25-yard line. Georgia's defense forced the Gators to try a field goal attempt. Then new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham told Florida placekicker/punter Chas Henry that he was going to choke – he didn't and Florida won the first overtime game in series history. The 2010 loss to Florida, like so many before that one, eliminated any chance of the Bulldogs winning the SEC.

But to say that Richt's mistakes or failures are limited to on the field would not be fair. Recruiting, which can be a tricky game, hasn't always gone the way the Bulldogs would like. Georgia likely wouldn't have fallen in the standings in 2009 and 2010 had they done a better job recruiting in 2005 and 2007 – both classes seriously limited the Bulldogs' talent level in the latter part of the decade.

In recruiting, all classes are not created equal. It seems like there are times when there was something in the water 19 years ago that made for some special babies, and 2007 was one of those special years in Georgia as far as recruiting is concerned.

Too bad Georgia couldn't take advantage of it.

The problem, or the good thing if you sign players, is that recruiting is a zero-sum game – a player can only sign with one school. When one school wins in recruiting another loses. Georgia Tech won an ACC title based on its 2007 signings – Georgia dipped to new lows as a result of theirs.

Of the top 15 players in the state, only five signed with Georgia. Only two of them were multi-year starters. Caleb King was been a part of a one-two punch at running back for the Dawgs in parts of 2009 and 2010. Rennie Curran was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft. Other than that, Georgia pretty much whiffed on the top talent in state. In three seasons of playing, Israel Troupe has had limited impact at Georgia. Chris Little and John Knox, the other two signees ranked in the top 15, left the program before taking a single meaningful snap.

That is not to say very talented players didn't exist in state – actually it was the opposite. Georgia missed on a slew of players including: Cameron Newton (Heisman Trophy Winner), Eric Berry (5th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft), Cameron Heyward (31st overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft), Josh Nesbitt (Led Georgia Tech to its first ACC title since 1990) and Jonathan Dwyer (2008 ACC Player of the Year).

2007 was more about misses than hits. Had 2007 been hidden (meaning had the class of 2006 with Asher Allen, Knowshon Moreno and Matthew Stafford stayed an additional year) the slump at the end of the decade probably would not have occurred.

What compounded the problem with the class of 2007 was Georgia's class of 2005, which, as it turned out, was the worst of Richt's career. Not only was Georgia limited in terms of scholarships in 2005 due to the large senior class that fall, the class started to fall apart even before it could make an impact.

Corey Moon, Tavares Kearney, Brandon Sesay, Ian Smith, Donavan Baldwin and Antavious Coates never took a meaningful snap in Athens. In other words, 35% of the class signed did nothing on the field. Jeff Owens, Marcus Washington and Roderick Battle all had at least one year's worth of injuries – Owens got worse as his career went along. Bryan Evans was a liability the one year he started at safety. All in all the class of 2005 was a disaster, but it was made ok by a very strong class of 2006 – that is until the class of 2006 turned pro before the 2009 season.

Mohamed Massaquoi was the lone headliner in terms of NFL production in the class. Kade Weston is on the Patriots' roster. But in terms of pure numbers, the 2005 class was the worst of the Richt era in terms of producing NFL talent. Some of that has to do with the small number signed. Some of that has to do with the number of players in the class that never player. Either way, it left Georgia, and Richt scrambling, and that's why players like Evans were starting.

Personnel Problems

Richt also made the unsavory decision to move along from two old friends – Willie Martinez and Dave Van Halanger in the last year. Richt, it should be noted, saw the writing on the wall – Georgia was getting beat because of two things: One, its defense, and two, its inability to move the pile at the moment of impact, or strength and conditioning.

Martinez may have been the scapegoat for really poor recruiting on the defensive side of the ball. Still, you are allowed to recruit. It has to be pointed out that during Martinez's run the Bulldogs' points per game allowed on defense was slowly going the wrong way. In 2009, Martinez's defense allowed almost 26 points a game – the first year he was put in control of the defense the Dawgs only allowed just over 17 points a contest. Todd Grantham's defense allowed 23 points a game in 2010, and the Bulldogs were competitive in every single game. So moving on without Martinez was the right thing for Richt to do.

It remains to be seen what the future will hold without Van Halanger. The second-winningest strength and conditioning coach of his time, Van Halanger must be given at least some credit for the Bulldogs' run at the start of the decade. But insiders complained that his tactics had become outdated and said his presence was not felt at much in the weight room because of poor health.

Richt, insiders claim, also knew a change was needed in strength and conditioning. He moved Van Halanger over to some non-football parts of the program and moved longtime Bulldog Joe Tereshinski to head of the strength and conditioning program.

The interesting thing is that many inside the athletic department believe that Richt would have never been allowed to make that move – essentially moving Van Halanger, but not firing him outright from the athletic department – with former athletics director Damon Evans still around.

Evans was no friend of Richt's. Former coaches constantly complained of how Evans did little to help the football program. From complaining about Evans' lack of help getting junior college players signed to a lack of an indoor practice facility and everything in between including having to account for the number of socks a player or coach got. Evans and Richt had a sandpaper-like relationship, and it spilled over into football operations. That's not to say that Richt should be absolved of every problem in the football as a result of his near-toxic relationship with Evans, but there was no indication that Evans was ever going to help Richt win – and that was difficult to deal with.

Top Ten Wins and Most Damaging Ten Losses of the Mark Richt Era

1. 2008 Florida
2. 2008 Alabama
3. 2002 Florida
4. 2006 Tennessee
5. 2007 Tennessee
6. 2008 Georgia Tech
7. 2009 Tennessee
8. 2010 Colorado
9. 2006 West Virginia
10. 2006 Vanderbilt

1. 2001 Tennessee
2. 2002 Auburn
3. 2007 Auburn
4. 2007 Florida
5. 2005 LSU
6. 2004 LSU
7. 2009 Georgia Tech
8. 2002 Alabama
9. 2006 Auburn
10. 2008 Hawaii

Back in the Day

Things haven't always been bad under Richt. In fact, for the most part, they have gone better than any other ten-year period of the program at Georgia.

2010 was the first year the Bulldogs didn't have at least one "big win" (2001 – Tennessee and Georgia Tech; 2002 – Alabama, Tennessee Auburn and Florida State; 2003 – Tennessee and Auburn; 2004 – LSU and Florida; 2005 – Tennessee and LSU; 2006 – Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech; 2007 – Alabama, Florida, Auburn and Hawaii; 2008 – LSU; 2009 – Georgia Tech).

It's just that big wins have been replaced, seemingly, by big losses – particularly in 2008 and 2009. The losses to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech in 2008 and the blowouts to Tennessee and Florida in 2009 were too much to take. Georgia – at least under Mark Richt – didn't get blown out… certainly not twice in the same season. In the 1990s? Sure, getting blown out by the Gators and Vols was usually a twice-a-year occurrence. But under Richt, Georgia had come a long way.

If the 2008 game against Florida sucked the life out of the program for two years, the win over Tennessee in 2001 jumpstarted the program. It showed just what Georgia could be. It was a program-defining moment. P-44. Hobnail Boot. Richt, in a way, in one game had delivered what Georgia had been lacking for years – a meaningful win, on the road over a top-ten team. It was huge – and it continues to be the basis for everything that's happened at Georgia over the years. It was a bigger win than Georgia's 2002 SEC Championship over Arkansas, and it may well be bigger than the win over Auburn earlier that fall.

Another fact about the Richt era at Georgia – Richt will has strung together the second winningest ten-year period of Georgia football in school history. Georgia will have won more contests than at any other ten-year span (96) in the program's existence. Now, that is expected considering the number of games played these days. Richt's ten-year run from 2001 to 2010 (96-34 or 73.8%) outmatches the run from 1980 to 1989 (88-28-4 or 73.3%) but its second to the period from 1974 to 1983 (88-28-2 or 74.4%) by one game. The 1980s featured one 6-6 season (1989) while the span starting in 1974 had one losing season (1979), and two mediocre years (1974 and 1977).

The Future

No matter the future, and all indications are that if Richt has a very good 2011 that he will be around for some time, Mark Richt's legacy at Georgia will be that he yanked the program out of mediocrity and delivered two conference championships to a program that had failed to even play for one for two decades. He gave a once-proud program a reason to be optimistic. But, as always, the hint of failure brings uncertainty, and with that comes speculation.

So how will Richt's performance in 2011 be judged? The season opening game against Boise State followed by the home opener against South Carolina may have as much to say about where the program is and where it is headed than any other two games next season. The South Carolina game is not a must win, but a win would go a long way to returning to the Georgia Dome for the SEC Championship Game in December.

The future is now for Richt – his 2011 season is the most important of his career.

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