Underachieving or overachieving: Everyone has an opinion on Mark Richt
Mark Richt has been categorized and judged in a myriad of different ways.
People say he’s a nice guy. Richt treats his players like sons and his staffers like siblings. He’s created a family atmosphere around the Georgia program where coaches’ kids are welcome, and he cares for players beyond football. People say he can’t control his program or he’s too much of a disciplinarian. Players are dismissed from Athens at almost a historic rate, and Georgia seems to have not taken the next step from a great program to an elite one yet in his 13 seasons Between the Hedges. People say he’s a great coach, no matter what. Georgia has a storied history and Richt will go down as the winningest coach all-time for the Bulldogs, topping a list of distinguished coaches.
Richt knows it. He’s aware of the perceptions. He’s entering his 14th season in Athens, and for all intents and purposes is the longest-tenured coach in the SEC. (Missouri’s Gary Pinkel was hired a month before Richt, but spent his first 11 years at Missou in the Big 12.) Richt seemingly has faced as many highs and lows at one school as many coaches do in their entire careers.
For Richt, doing the right thing every day is the key to longevity.
“When I put my head on the pillow at night, can I have peace to know I did what I think is best, what I think is right?” Richt asked, in a Sports Illustrated interview with Zac Ellis last month.
Believers say Richt’s success is undeniable. He’s won the games he’s needed to to stay. Critics say he can’t win the big one. He’s only won two SEC championships in 13 years and has never won the big one.
He was 8-4 in his debut campaign in 2001, matching Jim Donnan’s average in his five seasons in Athens. Richt has gone on to surpass that total in nine of the 12 years seasons that followed. Any college football person would say that nine seasons of AT LEAST nine wins or more in 12 years is successful, yet Richt has been on the hot seat more than any other coach in the league. Add on the five top-1o finishes, two SEC titles and 126 wins and you’d think they would’ve already erected a statue of Richt outside of Sanford Stadium.
But the questions linger.
In 2002, an upset by an 8-5 Florida kept the Bulldogs, who finished 11-1, on the outside looking in. The Bulldogs finished third. In 2007, the Bulldogs were co-SEC East champions with Tennessee, but thanks to an early loss to South Carolina, Georgia failed to make the SEC Championship game, and finished 11-2 and earned a BCS at-large bid and beat Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. Perhaps most notably, Georgia came closest to the ultimate prize in 2012, falling just yards short against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
So Richt can win. That’s indisputable. But can he win the important ones? In his 13-year stint at Georgia, four SEC schools have won national titles. Georgia never even played for the title during the BCS era.
Meanwhile, every July at SEC Media Days, Georgia’s discipline problems are the center of Steve Spurrier’s jokes. Three defensive starters in 2013 were dismissed during the offseason.
In this day in age in sports, coaches and players, alike, are examined in light of their shortcomings rather than their successes. We’ve seen how close they’ve come, but which one is the most difficult to swallow?
“Every game we’ve lost,” Richt said last month.
2013 perhaps was the most difficult season of them all. The ‘Dawgs entered the season as an SEC East favorite, but a biblical amount of injuries decimated a team that limped to an 8-5 record and a bowl loss to Nebraska in which star quarterback Aaron Murray didn’t play.
Even for that all that he’s done, that elusive championship still has not found Richt. But the expectations in Athens are such that you’d think he’s won multiple titles by now. His teams have been so good for so long that winning a championship almost seems inevitable. So, is winning a championship just that difficult or is Richt not that good in big moments?
People forget, though, that the Bulldogs didn’t win an SEC title at all in the 20 years prior to his arrival from 15 years as an assistant under Bobby Bowden at Florida State.
You take Mark Richt’s success and place it in Nashville, Starkville, Oxford, Lexington, Fayetteville or numerous other SEC cities and he’s the greatest coach in school history. You win 10 or 11 games in Athens and it’s a failed season because you didn’t make it to Atlanta, or you lost to Florida or South Carolina.
There’s no debate that players love to play for him and coaches love to coach under him, though. The 2014 class that has arrived in Athens this fall was a top-10 class, and were recruited from in-state and out-of-state. After the 2011 season, Richt even made small, out-of-pocket payments to his coaching staff because he felt they were under-compensated, which isn’t exactly legal under the NCAA’s watch. But it’s things like that that poached new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt away from Florida State, fresh off a national championship last season.
Expectations climb the latter and hope springs anew in Athens heading into the season opener against Clemson on August 30. The ‘Dawgs return stars Todd Gurley, Ramik Wilson and Jordan Jenkins, and enters the 2014 campaign ranked 12th in the Amway Coaches Poll.
Keep putting a good team on the field, and the breaks will go your way. Injuries won’t happen, the ball will bounce your way week-in and week-out and your schedule will work in your favor.
They’ve been right there for the past 13 years. Could this be the year for the Bulldogs? Could this be the year for Mark Richt?