This isn’t an unfair characterization.
“Let’s face it, we’ve had the best winning percentage in the history of Georgia football,” Richt said Tuesday. “We’ve done pretty well. This year we have not, OK. So we’re averaging 10 wins a year and won the SEC twice and they hadn’t won one in 20 years. It’s not like we’ve just been floundering around. This year we have been, let’s face it. And I don’t like it.”
And I think it’s fair to say that Mark Richt has banked a lot of good will with the fan base as a result of his track record. He certainly has with me.
But here’s the thing. It’s not a positive that he’s now at a point where he has to defend his record, because that indicates that he’s already spent some of that good will. And it’s also troubling to see him cast this in the context of one down season. Many of us saw the canary in the coal mine over the past two or three seasons with the utter disappearance of the team for significant stretches in games here and there – something that was unthinkable during his first five seasons in Athens.
I’m not buying this Richt’s-too-nice-a-guy narrative, though. Coaches don’t claw their way towards the top of their profession – and say what you will, until a year or two ago, Richt was widely seen as being there – without being sufficiently competitive. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see the man as someone who suddenly lost his desire to win.
So there’s much of Jeff Schultz’ argument that resonates when he writes this:
The problems at Georgia are similar to those that can afflict any long-time success story. The Bulldogs have declined partly because they’ve grown stagnant. Autopilot doesn’t work in sports. It’s why coaches get fired so often, particularly in “emotion” sports like football and hockey. Old messages and old methods have a limited shelf life.
Georgia doesn’t need a new voice. It just Richt to raise his voice — or his foot. The program needs some tension.
Question: Do you think anybody in Gainesville or Tuscaloosa feels “comfortable”? Ever. Or do you believe like I do there is always some tension in the air? And do you believe like I do that the assistant coaches who work for Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, and the athletes who compete for them, always are on edge? There’s never a chance of things getting stale.
I don’t get that feeling at Georgia. Didn’t have it last year, either. There has been too much comfort. There has been too little accountability. Richt will tell you that he’s a different guy out of public view, that, “People who know me know I have an edge.”
There’s an article I read a long time ago that I wish I could find now, written by somebody like Bill James, that discussed in-game adjustments. In essence, the author’s point was that teams that were winning were less likely to make adjustments to what they were doing than teams that were behind. On one level, that’s a stunningly banal observation (why change what’s working?), but the article went on to show that the really good coaches/managers were the ones who were observant enough to recognize that the other fellow would likely make changes and that the winning side needed to be prepared to adapt if that happened.
That’s where Mark Richt is at, just on a bigger level. Schultz refers to it as autopilot, and in a sense, it’s only natural for Richt to look at his accomplishments and question why changes are needed. The problem with that kind of thinking is that he operates in a highly competitive world where rival programs drop coaches, spend unbelievable amounts of money on replacements and push until somebody achieves a level of success that ultimately comes at Georgia’s expense. It’s not a place where a guy like Richt can afford to stand pat, SEC championships or not.
That’s one thing I truly respect about Urban Meyer. Sure, he believed his offensive scheme would work in the SEC, when many people, including me, were skeptical. But Meyer has also been wise about the fact that coaching in this conference is significantly different from life in the Mountain West or the MAC. That’s why he’s pushed hard since his first day to emphasize speed as a way of maintaining advantage. He’s not complacent, even with his track record. So, if that’s what Richt and Schultz mean by “edge”, then, fine, I’m on board with that.
The program’s current malaise isn’t something that can be fixed by Mark Richt becoming more fiery on the sideline. As Schultz writes,
… the major changes need to be bigger picture. Coaches and players need to be worried more about playing to a standard. Fearing the head coach wouldn’t hurt. They’re sloppy. They’re undisciplined. That’s not talent. That’s coaching.
Where’s the accountability? Why don’t these problems exist at Florida or Alabama?
To Richt’s credit, I think he knew there were underlying issues after last season that needed to be addressed. Unfortunately, the steps he took this past offseason to correct those weren’t the right ones. Whether that’s because the staff underestimated the toughness of this year’s schedule, misevaluated the returning talent, failed to adapt to changing schemes around the conference, or because of other issues, I couldn’t say. What is clear is that Richt has allowed his program to drift off course and that the corrections he’ll have to contemplate at the end of the 2009 season are going to be far more significant and likely more painful ones than he’s been willing to face up until now.
Like it or not, Richt’s more than earned the right to make that call. The flip side of that coin is that there only so much good will on deposit left for him to draw on. It’s up to him to decide how big a withdrawal he wants to make.
UPDATE: Orson thinks Richt is two years behind schedule, and essentially overdrawn at the bank already.
… It is one thing to replace assistants immediately: both LSU and Texas make quick work of plugging and unplugging assistant coaches if they don’t perform, and have done so successfully. Delaying it for two years running as Richt does, though, sets up an unpleasant power struggle, since he’ll have appeared to have caved to pressure if he does pull Martinez, and won’t be seen as proactively replacing a faulty part.
I see his point, but I’m not sure it’ll matter if Richt makes the right choice of a replacement at DC.