UGA's Journey Down the Yellow Brick Road

JACKSONVILLE - Garrison Smith’s face was full of tears. He had a hard time speaking.

“I just don’t know if people know how much this means to me - to us,” he said as he took a moment to try to compose himself in the north end zone of EverBank Field after Georgia’s 23-20 win over the Gators.

It was the last time Georgia left that field happy. In the two years since, the result of that game has thrown Georgia’s season and now its program into disarray. But this year’s result has much further-reaching ramifications.

That’s because things have changed at Georgia in a fundamental way; this isn’t like times in the past. 

The term “hot seat” has been overused with the status of Mark Richt in the past (national media folks rarely understand what’s going on locally - to be frank). But it very well seems to be an accurate way to describe the situation at Georgia right now.

Georgia has never had to get serious about a football decision in the last five years or so, but now we are going to find out just where this thing is headed - and fast. There are only four games remaining in the season, and none of them are games that give Georgia the ability to have big wins - losses at Auburn or at Georgia Tech would just extend the current misery.

In other words this season can’t be saved - it is too late. 

Any decision about a future with or without Mark Richt is going to fall on UGA president Jere Morehead - that seems to be a clear consensus. If this were Greg McGarity’s decision Richt may well have been let go last winter. But numerous folks have said that Morehead stepped in to support Richt and invest in the program in ways that have never happened before. He may have felt, and would have been correct in thinking, that Georgia had not given Richt everything necessary to win at the highest level. So Morehead opened up financial valves, and released millions of dollars in support for a program that has always been a brand name, but never had full institutional support and buy in. 

That commitment, in turn, raised expectations internally. What we don’t know is how much expectations were raised and, more importantly at this juncture, the timeline by which those expectations have to be accomplished. There is major heat to let Mark Richt go after this season. And due to Georgia’s 5-3 record and remaining schedule, there doesn’t seem to be a big game left to win for Richt to silence his critics for the next year.

Letting Richt go didn’t happen in 2014, but (as always) circumstances in sports evolve pretty much every weekend. Richt was given a contract extension and raise, Jeremy Pruitt was as well and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was given a three-year, $2.9 million contract. 

The move to increase Richt’s money and extend his contract was one thing, but by locking up Pruitt for $1.3 million and the price tag of Schottenheimer’s contract showed that Georgia was very, very serious about paying money to its coordinators, and therefore very, very serious about football. Schottenheimer was the second-highest paid offensive coordinator in the SEC at the time his agreement was released. Pruitt’s number put him near the top of all assistants in the country in terms of pay when his contract was announced. 

In other words - Georgia wasn’t cheap any more. That was the message it was sending to its fanbase and recruits. The program then followed up those signings by announcing a $30.2 million indoor practice facility. All told Georgia invested about $40 million of new money into the football program before the summer. 

Money was flowing - the University was doing its part. But 11 months later its hard to know how long it will take for Georgia to see that investment grow into lifting a trophy. There’s no question that Schottenheimer is under the most heat. Saturday in Jacksonville was the worst offensive performance since Richt took over - and the worst scoring performance by a Georgia team in back-to-back games since the year man first walked on the Moon.

According to published reports, terminating Schottenheimer’s contract would result in the Bulldogs being forced to pay the remaining $1,914,400 the two sides agreed to in January. Pruitt’s contract is structured the same way, but there is no talk of him being let go. 

Richt’s contract, on the other hand, is more complicated. The most current extension agreement has either not yet been signed, which has been a practice that’s gone on under McGarity for one reason or another, or has not yet been requested and therefore released under Freedom of Information laws. 

With that said, according to the contract that is public, Richt would be due $66,000 per month through the end of 2019. That’s at least a $3,168,000 buyout for Richt alone. Terminating Richt would also certainly trigger the termination of Schottenheimer ($1,914,400) and likely Pruitt ($2,600,000). PDF iconUGA-Richt-Mark-2012-16-contract.pdf

That means if the extension Richt agreed to - the one that is not public has the same clause for compensation for termination without cause - then dismissing Richt after the 2015 would cost Georgia at least $7,682,400 as it stands today. That would be Richt, Pruitt and Schottenheimer all gone. 

It could be done, sure, but that’s not a small amount of money. Again, the person most in danger here is Schottenheimer, in fact, its nearly impossible to imagine him coaching in Athens next fall. But Georgia being Georgia there is no telling what to expect when it comes to terminating a failing coordinator. There’s been a lot of things not go Schottenheimer’s way this fall - namely the loss of Nick Chubb in the backfield - but the fall from grace for this offense is stunning.

Georgia’s offense last season set a a school record for points scored. This season Georgia has scored ten points or fewer in three SEC games for the first time since 1972. In other words, last season was historically good on offense; this season it has been near historically bad. That sort of crazy up and down should never happen - no matter how crazy the amount of variables in play. Scoring touchdowns shouldn’t be this difficult for an offense equipped with two five-star running backs (Michel and Marshall) and an offensive line that returned four of five starters - no matter how bad the quarterback play is. 

It is pure unadulterated failure on the part of Schottenheimer, and it is Richt’s fault for hiring him. That Georgia fails to convert third downs at record pace is a failure, too. There are so many failures on offense that there is no way Schottenheimer can be considered anything other than a failure. I should just leave it there, but I feel like I have to continue. 

The offensive landslide will have ramifications. If nothing comes of that collapse in points production there is no point in the program existing. And that’s just the failure in execution on the field. 

Then there was the decision, eight games into the season, to start Faton Bauta in the most important game of the year. It might be one of the most curious decisions in Mark Richt’s 15 years in Athens. Bauta had not attempted a pass in 2015. He only appeared in the final quarter of the Southern game, but only to hand off to reserve tailbacks. Bauta entered the game with fewer career passing yards (48) than former starter Greyson Lambert (1,276), suddenly-a-punter Brice Ramsey (554) and NFL running back Todd Gurley (50). 

“You serious?” said one former Bulldog when I told them Bauta was going to start. Ten minutes later that same person texted back: “You really think they are going to start him?”

Another former teammate of Bauta’s said: “It's going to be funny seeing people respond to this. People are going to be upset.”

Upset or jumping off the Hart Bridge in Jacksonville? 

Those folks were not making fun of Bauta - they genuinely didn’t understand the move. Still, others thought that Georgia would run the read option the entire night. That, mysteriously, didn’t happen. Bauta only ran the ball three times. The player who had been no better than the No. 3 QB, with the exception of a month here and there, since arriving on campus was starting, and Georgia wasn’t changing the offense for Bauta. It went with the same offense they had run the entire season. 

Why not go with Lambert? Because Richt said in the post game the coaches had, intelligently it must be pointed out, decided it was time for a change. That made sense. Why not go with Ramsey? That’s unknown. Why not put Lambert or Ramsey in with Georgia down? That’s unknown as well. Why not change the offense to be outfitted with several quarterback runs and the wildcat? After all, Georgia had two weeks to get ready for the biggest game of the year with everything on the line against the Gators. Again - unknown. 

The negligence of development and questionable decision making on the offensive side of the ball is breathtaking. Again, it is historically bad - there really are not cute or snarky ways to explain how bad it is. Being cute and snarky is a disservice to the folks who spend thousands of dollars to travel to games to watch what can only be described as a shit show. 

Now all options are on the table, but those options seem limited at best. It seems pointless to start Lambert, who has now lost the staring job at two different division one programs in less than a year. Bauta struggled mightily with turnovers - even though he didn’t exhibit any of the nervous nature Lambert did during the game. It seems completely illogical to play either of those two to get them ready to start in 2016. Ramsey hasn’t played quarterback since Schottenheimer literally said the sophomore was going to play in every game in the season. 

That statement, which included a part in it about how Bauta wasn’t “seriously” being considered to play earlier this season, was yet another step down the yellow-brick road that is Georgia’s long and painful journey to an Oz where disfunction reigns supreme, and the great and powerful Oz is just some blindfolded old man behind the curtain wildly pulling levers with hopes of converting a third-and-one situation.

One has to wonder if any of the three have actually progressed as quarterbacks this year. Its hard to make the argument they have considering the results on the field. Again, the run game has fallen apart since Chubb was hurt, but nothing is clicking on offense right now. And as truthful as it is to point out that Chubb is gone for the season - Richt is correct in pointing out that “that’s football.”

With all of that said - it is impossible to imagine a scenario where this coaching staff remains intact for the 2016 season. Change will be forced on the program in one way or the other. Too many resources have been dumped into the program for change not to occur. It is obvious to anyone that something has to be done. Jacob Eason, who is gifted, can’t be counted on to fix every offensive problem as an 18-year old true freshman. That notion is a ridiculous attempt to solve a multi-prong problem that started the moment Mike Bobo was replaced by Schottenheimer. We didn’t hear about Georgia’s problems at quarterback until Schottenheimer arrived. Ramsey, while not spectacular, seemed to figure out how to beat ranked Louisville by converting third downs and finding Nick Chubb’s hand to give the ball to. Jacob Park was Schottenheimer’s least favorite. He was never going to play him, but running him out of the program was a mistake. The point? You have to work with what you’ve got when you are a coach - none of these players are perfect. You have to make them progress. It is called development. Schottenheimer rolled the dice to go get Lambert instead of developing Ramsey, Park or even Bauta - that hasn’t worked either. That Schottenheimer hasn’t made it work with the quarterbacks he was given or the one he went and got says more about him than those kids. 

Eason, as good as he is, should not be burdened by unfair expectations from a fanbase starving for a championship. He’s flying across the country for his college life - probably the most fun time he will have in his life - and will be burdened with expectations that are through the roof. That’s how bad it has gotten. That’s how much this has failed under Schottenheimer, and therefore Richt, in 2015. Both must be held accountable for allowing things to get this bad. 

The question is: Where does Georgia go from here? Will Georgia finish out the season with an eye to 2016, or are Richt and company is survival mode? That is impossible to know. 

The pressure to let Richt go is higher now than I can ever recall in his time at Georgia. National columnists have questioned if Richt can ever make it work in his 16th year beyond, and they are making good points. 

USA Today’s Dan Wolken wrote on Sunday: “The idea that (Richt’s) departure is somehow a foregone conclusion right now is just simply not true.” CBS’s Dennis Dodd correctly points out as well that: “Georgia lost again to Florida and the first word that came to mind was “dysfunctional.” Not necessarily the game or the coach or the players -- just the whole atmosphere surrounding Georgia football.”

In other words - this isn’t like years gone by (which I agree with) - but it isn’t as simple as saying that Richt will be fired no matter what at the end of the year. Wolken also correctly points out that pinning hopes to recruiting as a reason not to change a coaching staff is absurd. “The recruiting angle is pure Pollyanna,” he argues. 

“What we’re going to learn about Georgia in the next month is bigger than all of that,” Wolken continues. “Because if its fan base and administration could deign to lower their noses from the air and take a peek at reality, they would see a program that is stale and no longer taken seriously as a Southeastern Conference power.”

Ouch.

The truth hurts, and it has been painful too many times this season.


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