Richt makes bold coaching statements on the field

ATHENS, Ga. — With 40 seconds left to play in Georgia's season-0pening game against Clemson, Mark Richt made a call that would set an aggressive precedent for the season.

With Georgia leading 31-28, it had the ball on its 39-yard line for a fourth-and-1 play. The safe call would have been to send in the punting team and force Clemson to drive the field if it would tie or beat the Bulldogs.

But Mark Richt does not believe that safe calls win games or build champions. Taking the gamble of losing the ball on downs and practically giving Clemson an opportunity for a game-tying field goal, if not the win, Richt left the Georgia offense on the field.

Musa Smith dove over the pile for the one yard needed for a first down. Georgia kept the ball, ran out the clock, and Clemson never had the opportunity to do anything but watch.

Said Richt at the time: "We knew if we got the first down, the game was over.''

Those are the decisions that can define a coach and motivate a team. Richt had been criticized for running the ball with no timeouts and 16 seconds left against Auburn in his 2001 debut season as Georgia's head coach, but he believed the Bulldogs should have been able to pick up that one yard when the game was on the line.

This year, Georgia's offense has delivered on that trust. Georgia has converted 9 of 13 (69.2 percent) fourth-down attempts — the second-highest success rate in the Southeastern Conference.

Their collective confidence boosted by the fourth-down calls, the Bulldogs are ranked fourth in the nation and on Saturday can win their first SEC championship in 20 years.

Richt often has said Georgia's championship drought has left a lid on the program that had to be knocked off. Various big plays, including David Pollack's interception for a touchdown at South Carolina and Michael Johnson's fourth-down touchdown catch with 25 seconds left at Auburn, are credited with  taking the lid off  the program and propelling Georgia to Saturday's 6 p.m. SEC championship game against Arkansas.  

But perhaps the fourth-down call at Clemson, and a similarly gutsy fourth-and-2 call that helped preserve an 18-13 victory over Tennessee, may have played larger roles in building the confidence needed to make a championship run.

In the Tennessee game, Richt had redshirt freshman Tony Milton run a toss sweep on a fourth-and-2 play from the Tennessee 35-yard line with 1:43 left to play.

Milton had been stuffed for no gain up the middle on third down, but Richt believed the tailback had enough speed to turn the corner on the Tennessee defense. Milton broke free for 25 yards, and again Richt's Bulldogs had taken control with the game on the line.

After the Tennessee game, senior offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb said Richt "has nerves of steel.''  Added Stinchcomb Tuesday: "As an offensive player, you want that opportunity. You want the chance to have the game decided by what you do. "Obviously, Coach Richt had the confidence in the offense to make the plays.''  

Bold on the field, Richt sets a more reserved example off the field. Richt spent the season having his staff post trash-talking quotes on the bulletin board — but no retorts came from the coach. His players followed the example.  

"I definitely think Coach Richt has been a strong influence on the attitude and approach of the team,'' Stinchcomb said. "I like the way our team handles business now. No doubt our attitude and approach stems directly from on top.''  

Though confident, Richt is as calm and seemingly laid-back on the practice field as he is when speaking in public.  

Said quarterback David Greene, who possesses many of Richt's characteristics: "I think he has the whole football thing in perspective. He doesn't put football in front of everything else in his life. He has a great passion for it, but he's really a laid-back guy. He expects hard work and expects you to play well.''  

Even after a 51-7 rout of Georgia Tech last Saturday, Richt Tuesday managed to downplay the margin of victory.

"It was a good game, no doubt, but it was a strange game to me because I just don't think it would happen again if (Tech and Georgia) played next week,'' Richt said, adding "in another game it could be a war.''  

Of the team's 24-21 win over Auburn, Richt said: "Auburn was beating the tar out of us and then we found a way to win.''  

Richt, a leading candidate for SEC Coach of the Year, this week was named Regional Coach of the Year by the American Football Coaches Association. The AFCA named five regional winners.  

Some players said the key to Richt's success was making good hires on his coaching staff.  

"The  talent has always been here," said senior offensive guard Kevin Breedlove. "I believe we've always really had great players. "The best thing Coach Richt has done is brought in the type of coaches that he has.''

 But a bad head coach can damage the work of good assistants by over-managing the program. Richt has allowed such veteran assistants as Neil Callaway and John Eason the freedom to do their work.

"(Richt) knew he got the best when he got them here, and he lets the coaches do what they know how to do,'' Breedlove said.  

Added Callaway: "I think he's got a good way of working with people and letting them do their job and listening to input.''

This was the successful formula Georgia athletics director Vince Dooley hoped to find when he hired Richt as the successor to Jim Donnan after a disappointing 2000 season.  

Dooley said he admires "the characteristics of the team, the unity of the team, the leadership of the team and the fighting spirit'' of Richt's players.  

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