A refresher: The buildup to the 2014 Belk Bowl was like nothing I had ever experienced in my 16-year career doing this. I, and many folks I trust, genuinely didn’t know if Richt would return as the head coach if UGA didn’t beat Louisville that night. Looking back that seemed ridiculous. Actually it seemed ridiculous at the time.
But the speculation was intense, and, as it turns out, there was confusion on the staff as well. John Lilly, who had become the offensive coordinator for the game, was openly asking behind the scenes if the staff would be retained UGA lost the game. As it turns out that wasn’t something to be concerned about. By the end of the game, Lilly was calling plays, Brice Ramsey was under center and Nick Chubb was having a record-breaking performance. UGA blew out No. 21 Louisville 37-14.
It seemed the turbulent times were ending after Richt and the Bulldogs finished up the season with another top-ten season and top-ten ranking. That cold night seemed like a glimpse into the future - it was anything but.
It was the last time UGA defeated a ranked team. The truth is that things didn’t get better for Mark Richt after that night, and its too bad. UGA’s destruction this past fall of what turned out to be the worst South Carolina team in a decade was simply a mirage - Carolina wasn’t a football program by year’s end. Wins over Auburn and Georgia Tech at the end of the season, while satisfying, were some of the ugliest offense we’ve seen since face masks were invented.
The wins were hollow, and UGA was building towards nothing. Players development seemed optional. Confusion trumped competence.
The other truth is that Kirby Smart can learn a lifetime of lessons studying the end of Richt’s tenure in Athens. Richt might not publicly admit it, but he surrendered too much control of his program - and that killed the program. Richt told the assembled media at ACC Media Days about what he was looking forward to most about calling plays and developing QBs at Miami:
“I love it - coaching QBs and creating scheme,” he said. “Its wonderful. It has been wonderful. I am going to really enjoy it - having the energy level you have to have to call plays. I think it is important for the coaches and players to see me compete. I think it has been good for me and the players.”
In the final years/days of his tenure at UGA, Richt “allowed” too much. What I mean by that is that he didn’t take control. He didn't or couldn't force change. It appeared that he didn’t fight for funding for his program to be at the level by which it was judged - conference/national titles or bust.
Richt should have pressed for more from Greg McGarity, UGA and the Athletic Association. That trio seems to sit on its hands as much as possible with regard to the football program. That’s what Kirby must learn right away - that UGA gets in the way more than it helps. On the surface, the Bulldogs have everything they need to win it all. Under the surface, the program deals with bureaucratic red tape that programs like Alabama and Ohio State sidestep, ignore or put on the back burners.
Funding is no issue in Tuscaloosa and Columbus, but I’ve yet to believe that UGA itself is getting behind the football program and pushing as hard as it can up to the mountain top that is winning the national title.
Also, too, Kirby can learn that your staff can kill you - particularly if you don’t control young, brash egos. Infighting, led by Jeremy Pruitt, made headlines. Offensive incompetence, led by Brian Schottenheimer, was the norm on the field. UGA is better off without either. Kirby needs to make certain that he’s never in a situation where he gives away either side of the ball. This is his job, and he will be terminated if results remain the same as last season (probably one of the least-impressive 10-win season in UGA history).
Mark Richt was hardly a failure at UGA, but part of me thinks that lack of institutional support coupled with time wore him down. Losing Mike Bobo after the 2014 season, due to UGA not countering Colorado State’s offer, probably did in the Richt tenure. Does anyone truly believe UGA would have been that horrid on offense last year with Bobo running that side of the ball? I don't have a clue if Jim Chaney will be productive, but is there any doubt that he's an upgrade over Schottenheimer's No-Schott offense that was as derelict at scoring points as it was developing players?
With that understanding, Kirby has to attack UGA itself. He has to be a sort of chemotherapy that, cleanses the system of the bad until all that remains, in theory, is the good. If Kirby does not take advantage of the tremendous political momentum he currently has to institute real, fundamental change at UGA, then he will suffer the same fate as Richt.
Perhaps Richt is best fit with the current ACC. After all, his 82% winning percentage against ACC foes foreshadows that he should have success at the private school, but I'm not going to ignore the fact that Miami's once-around football program been an abject failure for some time. Time will tell if Kirby is enough of a killer to be the coach I think he can be in the future, but I know too many people that know Kirby or played with him back when be frosted the tips of his hair to know that he's going to bring "a particular edge" to the program.
Again, Kirby is going to have to push forward institutional change at UGA. If he doesn’t do that the ceiling is low, and he's cheating himself. But if Kirby can force institutional change there is no reason he can’t go down as the most successful coach in UGA history.
Yes, I said it.