Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Mark Richt is an admirable human being who also did a lot for the Georgia football program.
Do not forget where things were when Richt was hired. Jim Donnan recruited well, but had a poor track record against rivals. His teams would sparkle on occasion, but flop in the spotlight. He never took Georgia to an SECCG.
In his second season, Mark Richt changed all that. Georgia won its first conference title in twenty years. More than that, Richt raised the program to a level of national success it hadn’t seen since the glory years of 1980-3.
He leaves with an impressive legacy, both on the field and in the way he conducted himself off of it. And for that, we should all be extremely grateful. It’s also worth remembering in the mercenary world of D-1 coaching, he meant what he said about wanting to be in Athens, no matter what that might have cost him if he’d had an aggressive agent negotiating for him.
None of which is to say he was perfect. I got a good tasting of what was in store for the program in his first year. I remember walking out of Sanford Stadium after the loss to South Carolina thinking it really wasn’t much different than what I’d seen from Donnan. Then came the incredible win in Knoxville, when I saw that the team had bought into its new head coach. Even the questionable clock management that I saw in the losses to Auburn and Boston College didn’t make me think Richt didn’t have the program going in the right direction. And the next few years bore that out.
Through the ups and downs, I remained convinced that Richt was the best man for the job until the bowl game loss to Michigan State. At that point, after watching the down years of the 2009 and 2010 seasons, when that sense of buying in had worn away, I no longer took it as a given that Georgia was at its best playing under Richt. That’s not to say I wasn’t incredibly proud of the way the team suddenly regained its confidence in the middle of the next season, or the way that the team tried to fight its way through the injury-plagued 2013 season. But the emotional attachment to Richt himself was gone.
Richt’s fatal flaw, if you want to call it that, wasn’t about a lack of passion or not being obsessed enough by the job. It was something more mundane: an inability to stay on top of details. We saw that on the field far too regularly in things like clock management. But it also manifested itself in how he let his coordinators operate. When he picked good men for those roles, the program thrived, and when he didn’t… well, he came close to losing his job over Willie Martinez and couldn’t survive what his 2015 staff did.
I give Richt credit for being very good about reacting to problems, once he realized he had them. There are a lot of coaches who wouldn’t have been able to right the ship after 2009. Georgia wound up playing in two straight SECCGs, and was a heartbreak away from playing for a national title in 2012. Roster mismanagement, which was the major reason for the program’s recent decline, appeared to be in Georgia’s rear view mirror with the good work last year and this.
There was always that sense of the little boy and the dike, though. We’d see one problem be addressed, only to see something else pop up. And that never seemed to end.
Seth Emerson and Chip Towers reported that the decision to start Fauta against Florida was the back breaker for many of the boosters. As poor a move as that was – and the implementation was even worse than the decision itself – I’m not sure in and of itself it would have been enough to do Richt in. For that matter, going 19-6 over the last two seasons wouldn’t have been enough to end his career, either. But as the last misstep in a continuing series, that’s a different story.
It’s sad to see any fifteen-year career end and Richt is a good enough man that I’m genuinely sorry it’s happened to him. But I can’t deny that it was a decision that couldn’t be justified, even if the people making the call are at least as flawed in their management as Richt was. When all is said and done, the little details matter.