What We Are Hearing

ATHENS - The start? That’s hard to know the answer. The finish line? Not the SEC Championship Game - and after that who really knows.

Behind the scenes Georgia is in as much turmoil and chaos as any point of the Mark Richt Era. College football has changed — and the SEC was the leading reason why. Coaches like Phil Fulmer and Bo Schembechler, perhaps even Vince Dooley, simply would not have survived in this day’s SEC. Coaches are no longer allowed to surround top 5 finishes with 8-5 marks — fans, boosters and administrators start ruffling at the thought of anything other than a 10-win season at many SEC schools. Case in point: Look at the end of Steve Spurrier at South Carolina — a beaten, defeated stranger to the man who helped redefine this conference.

The multi-million dollar contracts for conferences and, therefore, the coaches in it has raised the pressure to win in a big way. 2008’s SEC wouldn’t recognize the 2015 version, and not just because Texas A&M and misplaced Missouri are in the conference. Cheating in recruiting is at an all-time high. Facilities are being thrown up with little regard for balanced budgets. Georgia has reconfigured its football facility make up several times in the last few years, and will do so again in the next year. It went decades before that by fundamentally changing nothing about the football facility in Athens — and some argue that Georgia is still behind on that front.

It is amazing to watch the acceleration of what is important on college campuses now. Georgia’s athletic budget in 1999 was about $40 million. The institution invested that much into football alone this calendar year.

Richt very well could be the latest casualty of an SEC that’s no longer hand-to-hand combat, but a full-on proxy war nearly every day whose actors don’t use fists — they use missiles. Surrogates (many of whom the schools themselves may suspect, but have not real actionable intelligence on) are working on behalf of the programs, and are out of control like never before.

That’s just recruiting. Inside the practice facility at Georgia, Richt has become much more like Bobby Bowden — a delegator — than anything else. Richt’s critics, and many of his advocates, say he’s more engaged with the program than he was at the turn of the decade, but that he’s still overseeing more than putting his finger on things.

They say the simple reality is that Richt allowed too much control, for whatever reason, to be given or wrestled away from him over the last few years. Whereas in the past loyal lieutenants like Mike Bobo and even Willie Martinez were by his side — Richt’s top two surrogates now have no tie to him — and no tie to Georgia.

That’s made for an interesting dynamic behind the curtain. Jeremy Pruitt, who can be described appropriately as an aggressive up and comer with ideas about how to be successful on the field, has ruffled feathers, stepped on toes and been no stranger to conflict this year.

Still, Pruitt has a good record to back up his notion of what winning is, too. During his stops at Alabama and Florida State those two programs won the national title three times. It goes without saying that Pruitt wasn’t the exclusive reason why, but nonetheless he’s been a part of national championship programs as an assistant and a coordinator.

So has Mark Richt.

Richt saw the potential in Pruitt and handed over all of the decision making on the defensive side of the ball to him. Even after the explosive in-game and post-game confrontation between the two after the Georgia Tech game in 2014, Richt’s actions showed that he was willing to defer to Pruitt on major decisions like the hire of strength and conditioning coordinator Mark Hocke and some say even the hiring of Rob Sale.

Even though Pruitt has been low key in the media his DNA is all over Georgia right now. That’s because of the influence he’s had over the last two years, and the fact that Mike Bobo left the school in order to become coach at Colorado State. Many in the coaching world have felt that Pruitt has been maneuvering to be the next coach at Georgia for some time. His influence over many decisions in the program as well as his recruiting prowess seemed to make that argument one to be taken seriously.

A speed bump in the form of the 2015 season has all but wrecked that proposition. Pruitt stands virtually no chance of being the next head coach at Georgia for a few reasons, but namely that he needed Richt to be successful in order for him to be successful. Not only that, he and the rest of the staff at Georgia right now could be swept out of Athens in the form of being terminated.

The boiling point on the coaching staff has been reached. Brian Schottenheimer, for all of his failures on the field, has pretty well stayed out of starting any madness that has seemingly split the coaching staff into pro-Richt and pro-Pruitt camps. That doesn’t mean he’s been immune to a screaming match here and there. The argument against Schottenheimer, aside from his handling of the quarterbacks and the offense this season, is that he’s too much like Richt — not mean enough. Anti-Schottenheimer folks (of which there are many) say that his predecessor wasn’t afraid to mix it up with players; Often Bobo would scream and demand things from players, even the mighty Todd Gurley, who was a notoriously subpar (for what he could do) practice player.

When folks quietly talk of dissension and disfunction amongst the coaching staff that’s 100% what they are talking about — Richt and Pruitt fighting with one another — there’s no other way for me to put it. The situation is fractured to the point that several Georgia partisans bet that Pruitt is the least likely of anyone to be in Athens next season because: 1. His head coaching stock has taken a serious tumble in the last 12 months, and he’s ready to get out. 2. Pruitt’s relationships inside of the University itself are so bumpy that it seems likely that his time at Georgia is winding down.

It got so bad at one point that Richt and Pruitt didn’t talk for a period of time in October. Another event between the two happened during an event after the Missouri game, which has been the fuel for the scuttlebutt around the program. Did Richt make Pruitt leave his house? I’ve heard that several times from different folks. I don’t know that to be fact, but I’m not going to act like that’s not out there. If that happened it would not surprise me.

Several pro-Richt folks don’t dismiss Pruitt’s desires to make the program better, but seriously question the way by which he takes action to accomplish things.

Who is right and who is wrong? Impossible to know if that’s even the correct prism by which to look at this situation. Richt, quite frankly, has allowed Pruitt to become a major voice at Georgia, and it is difficult to distance yourself from the person you are paying $1.3 million a year. Many pro-Richt folks argue that Pruitt has overstepped his bounds during the last 20 months. But even some pro-Richt folks argue that it might be too late for the person that yanked Georgia from what was a decade-long funk to national relevancy to put the young coach in his place and make the partnership move forward in a way that’s functional.

Offensive assistants, loyal to Richt, have grown particularly angry with what they view as major disrespect directed at Richt from Pruitt. The pro-Pruitt faction, however, argues that Pruitt is working harder and pushing for new initiatives Richt never could get done even after being at the school 10-plus years.

However described, the situation is a full-blown mess. Richt is as cool a customer as can be expected. Pruitt, it seems, is looking for a way out one way or the other. Obviously, Pruitt wants to one day be a college head coach. While it remains to be seen if that will happen quickly, the smart money is being placed on him taking over a program sometime in his future. No matter his actions, one can’t ignore (again) his recruiting prowess.

But Pruitt is making enemies the likes of which, at Georgia at least, that will prevent him from being the head man in Athens as it stands right now with the current president and athletic director. While Greg McGarity has a particular amount of venom pointed his way for any number of reasons, he’s not going to be terminated any time soon. Jere Morehead, the real decision maker here, has just been put in place by a Board of Regents that will likely either make the final decision about Richt or allow Morehead to do so. Burning bridges with that bunch is different than fighting internally with a head coach that — no matter how he goes out — will always be loved in Athens.

The fracturing on the field is mainly due to failure on the offensive side of the ball. Pruitt’s defense, which has generally played well this season outside of Knoxville, can’t yet be confronted with the failures of last year against South Carolina, Florida and with a defensive scheme that had many players on the team questioning the plan going into the Georgia Tech game. They felt like Grantham had figured Tech out, and there was no reason to change anything. Nonetheless, a new scheme was put in place. A slew of veteran defenders didn’t understand the change.

One insider — not necessarily against or for Pruitt — told me earlier this week: “When the (expletive) has his defense stopped anyone that matters?” Perhaps a little harsh, but the honeymoon with Pruitt is seemingly over with.

Many insiders note that the fall of Greg Pyke from starter to virtually third team this week is an indictment of Rob Sale’s ability to develop players.

“I know that Will Friend couldn’t recruit,” said one. “I get that. But, shit, he damn sure could develop guys and make in-game adjustments. David Andrews played for him for four years… he seems to be doing OK right now starting and snapping to Tom Brady, and David was hardly a superstar coming out of wherever he came from.”

“I don’t know what happened with Greg,” another said. “They may have lost him somewhere along the way, but there is just no way that can happen. That guy was a top three round guy coming into the season. That just can’t happen. I wonder if they’ve ruined Pyke… and Brice Ramsey, too. That is just bizarre. Those two right there… those are bizarre. For the life of me I can’t understand those two situations. Those kids are not trouble-making kids.”

As expected on the recruiting trail, confusion reigns supreme. Georgia had (and I hate, hate, hate this term) three major silent commits - one of them being a five-star player with another being a prospect that has to be considered a major, major key to the future of the offense.

However, late October is driving a massive wedge in between the potential of what Georgia’s 2016 class could be and what it might wind up being.

Most recruits contacted of late have specifically asked if there are chances will Pruitt survive, but the person that stands out in a major way for recruits is Tracy Rocker. He’s asked about a lot more than you would think. Rocker’s addition to the staff has been one of the best hires in terms of functionality in years. He’s a rock star (sorry).

“We’ve not even considered anything other than Georgia,” said one concerned parent of an uber-talented recruit committed to Georgia. “I mean you have to look around even if its still 99% that’s where (the recruit) wants to go. What happens if they come in with an entirely different scheme?”

Losing out on Mecole Hardman  (with his mutant-like powers on the gridiron) or a de-commitment from class flag bearer Jacob Eason would be one of the biggest recruiting meltdowns since the Bulldogs swung and missed with some of the key players in the 2011 class in early January of that year after the inexplicable loss to UCF in the Liberty Bowl on the final day of 2010.

The angst is palpable — nothing good will come from wins over Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia Southern or Georgia Tech. A loss to the Jackets might signal the end of an era no matter what. Georgia coaches, for the most part, can survive losses in SEC play. But consecutive losses to the Jackets (particularly three losses in a row) is the standard-bearer for firing the head coach at Georgia.

Its one of the most disappointing times in Mark Richt’s tenure at Georgia. And as I wrote earlier this week, a full-scale firing of the entire staff would have financial ramifications of at least $7 million. That’s before taking into consideration the compensation for a new coach where the level of expectation of pay is no less than $4 million a year for an SEC head coach… no less; possibly much, much more when considering that coordinators are now making around $1 million a year themselves. Georgia just invested $40 million in coaches and facilities earlier this year — a change could cost the Dawgs about half of that in guaranteed money for a new coaching staff. For all of the talk about Georgia and money — very few $100 million organizations can budget to absorb $50 or $60 million changes, even if those changes come over a few years and not all at once. It still goes on the balance sheet, and that matters.

Also, making wholesale changes to a coaching staff that just had $40 million invested into it earlier this calendar will have ramifications. Sure, it says something about that staff, but it also says something about those who gave that much support financially to what now seems impossible to fix.

In the summer, as I have written in the past, one trustworthy Georgia staffer told me that no expense was being spared for the sake of football, and that it was a major departure from the past.

“Whatever we want Dean. Shirts? Travel? Whatever. We. Want,” he said. “But I’m worried that they are setting us up so that if we don’t win they’ll fire Coach Richt.”

That’s the real question, and I certainly don’t have the answer to it — will those who have invested in Georgia football under Mark Richt in a way they’ve never done before for any coach be willing to pull the parachute chord 11 months into what seems like a new morning in Athens? Was that investment for football at Georgia, or football at Georgia under Mark Richt?

Its clear, too, that the Board of Regents and, therefore, Morehead very much want Richt to succeed. Morehead has brought a massive change in philosophy to the most visible arm of the institution. Keep in mind that more people know who Mark Richt is than can name the governor of the State of Georgia. I can tell you unequivocally that few people know who in the world the governor of Alabama is - is there any doubt about who coaches the Tide?

The point? The head coach matters in a big way at all of these schools. And while Richt’s admirable life philosophy and actions prove that he’s a better, more genuine man than most — this is about winning and losing on the field. And to his credit Richt has won many, many more times than he’s lost, which is what makes terminating him so difficult.

He’s the devil you know (sorry for that one). And while it might not be perfect - he’s pretty consistent. Pulling the trigger on a winner that’s so well liked with such a huge cost to the reserve fund over the next four years isn’t a simple decision.

This isn’t like firing Dennis Felton, in other words. It is much, much more complex, and there is no can’t-miss coach out there ready to be in Athens tomorrow. Any change would have risk associated with it — major risk.

As it stands today I think Richt will be back in 2016, but the final four (or five) games of the year will go a long way in determining if it is too late to turn this around, or if the $40 million plan is still in motion. 

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