Georgia’s coaching staff was informed by mass text message Sunday that head coach Mark Richt would no longer lead the program.
It was a cold, but apparently common way for coaching staffs to hear that sort of news in today’s digital world.
“Shocked,” one assistant told me of his feeling when he got the news. “We had no idea. I know that I had no idea, and no one told me that they knew it was coming.”
Just like that the Mark Richt Era at Georgia was over. Jeremy Pruitt was in church with Mecole Hardman’s mother when when the news came down. Others were on the road; some were getting ready to get on the road.
Richt, for the record, ate alone Sunday morning at the Waffle House in Oconee County before the news broke.
So where to go from here? A new head coach will have to be named in the coming days. Insiders say that two names - Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and Houston head coach Tom Herman - have moved to the forefront of UGA’s search.
Most insiders believe that Smart has the inside track for the job. The Bainbridge native played for Ray Goff and Jim Donnan in the middle-to-late 1990s before moving his way around the coaching world and finally winding up at the side of the most successful coach in college football today - Nick Saban.
In the summer there was plenty of background chatter that this was going to be the season Smart finally left the nest that is Saban’s Alabama. South Carolina and Virginia Tech seemed like possible destinations considering the age of the coaches at those schools. Then both coaches left their respective jobs in the middle of the season. Smart, it seemed, was headed to one of the two.
But he has, understandably, always had an eye on the Georgia job. After Georgia’s dissappointing show in Jacksonville, Smart likely pumped the brakes on any other job besides the one in the Classic City. The parlor game in Athens has long been about which, either Smart or current Colorado State head man Mike Bobo, of the former players would get a shot at the job when Richt left town.
Bobo is hardly out of it, but he’s likely not been gone long enough yet to be fully appreciated by the Bulldogs. However, Bobo has one thing Smart doesn’t… head coaching experience. And that is one concern about Smart from insiders. The other is that he is a defensive coach in a college football world where scoring is becoming more and more prevalent. Smart would also likely demand full autonomy while in Athens, which is something Richt never enjoyed due to meddling from Georgia’s administration.
The notion of hiring Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen turned off one insider. Mullen has now lost three of four games to rival Ole Miss by double digits, and although he is friendly with Georgia AD Greg McGarity, Mullen seems unlikely at this time.
“I think Dan Mullen would be a horrible hire,” one insider told me Sunday.
Bringing in Mullen, too, would all but make certain that 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason would not sign with Georgia. Mullen’s spread system is too far a departure from Georgia’s pro-style offense for Eason to stick with the Bulldogs.
Meanwhile, one assistant coach said recruiting will continue. Another assistant said that only Thomas Brown and Bryan McClendon will represent the Bulldogs on the road; those two will be joined on Monday by director of player personel Todd Hartley, who can go out because Mark Richt is not out recruiting.
“Just sell Georgia,” that person said of the job Hartley, Brown and McClendon have right now. “That’s the job. Keep recruiting.”
That’s somewhat complicated. Georgia’s perceived ace recruiter, Jeremy Pruitt, has been sidelined by AD Greg McGarity, and Pruitt made certain the players at tonight’s team meeting were made aware of it.
“Read between the lines, guys,” Pruitt said to the team after telling them McGarity pulled him back from recruiting on the road this week. That moment was just part of what folks who were inside that room called a “very emotional” team meeting that Richt called Sunday night.
Insiders say that Pruitt had many of the players in a frenzy over McGarity not allowing him to get on the road - and even more fired up at the thought of him not being retained for the 2016 season--no matter who the head coach is.
“Everyone wants Pruitt back,” said one insider. “The entire team loves him.”
That’s a remarkable turnaround from the first week of November when Pruitt was blamed by several folks leaking information to media outlets blaming the defensive coordinator for what can’t be called anything other than total disfunction at Georgia.
“I really don’t know where some of that (expletive) came from,” one assistant told me. “It just wasn’t true. That stuff was blown way out of proportion.”
“Yeah, there was too much made of that,” another non-staff insider told me the week of Georgia’s win over Auburn. “Y’all (the media) just made it bigger than it really was.”
And Pruitt could very much be a fork in the road that is picking Smart to be the next coach at Georgia. Smart, again, will want to have every coach at his disposal to bring to Athens. Pruitt is very clearly fighting for his job, but former Florida head coach Will Muschamp also figures into the equation.
If Smart can’t pick the defensive coordinator he wants, and word is that he wants one of those two, that very well could be a deal breaker for him. That was part of the reason why his move to Georgia as defensive coordinator in 2010 fell through… he didn’t get everything he wanted from Georgia.
So this fluid situation moves to Monday, and it is hard to know where it will turn next, but for now Smart and Herman are get focal points of Georgia’s coaching search.