This Dan Wolken piece has obviously struck a chord with many of you, judging from the emails I’ve received about it.
And though the drought may be mostly a product of happenstance, it is also true that Georgia’s nearly endless supply of natural resources has been counterbalanced by an institutional ethos that makes it more difficult for the school to be a year-in, year-out superpower in the hyper-competitive SEC.
“Georgia football has tried to do things the right way,” said Richard Tucker, a member of the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents and a prominent supporter of the school’s athletic program. “UGA is more to me than just football.”
Whether it’s academics, commitment to building high-end athletic facilities, marijuana testing policies or intolerance for off-field behavioral issues, the perception — and in many cases the reality — is that Georgia holds itself to a slightly higher standard than the programs it is compared with annually on the field.
Or, as Wolken put it more succinctly a few months ago,
That tweet of his led me to ponder where the program was at back then.
I’m sick of writing these existential posts about the program every couple of years or so. And it seems like every time we think we’re seeing a real turn around the corner, reality comes back to bite us in the ass with more evidence of the Georgia Way. This time around, I looked at last season, with a team that fought in every game despite an injury-riddled offense, subpar defense and special teams and thought at least Georgia was hitting a point where it was no longer going to fail to show up on a consistent basis.
Wrong, bacon breath. What I saw was how much Aaron Murray meant to the competitive spirit of this Georgia program.
The reality is that Georgia is a program that believes it’s better than it is. I can almost envision the congratulatory speech McGarity was constructing in his head as Georgia nobly fell on its sword about Gurley and kept winning. Too bad about Jacksonville, Greg.
But it’s not like that’s anything new. It’s a recurring drama. And when things fall short, as they inevitably do, the decision makers shrug, make some vague sounds about the coaches needing to do more, maybe even fire somebody if they’ve dawdled long enough, check the bank statements and console themselves with the thought that at least they’re doing things the right way. Whatever that is.
What they’re unwilling to give any hard thought to is how to win doing things the right way. Whether that’s out of a sense of guilt, as Wolken surmises, or because it’s too hard to make the effort, I can’t say. But it’s clear, and not just to me.
And while I like to think that we’re in a different place now, when you read some of the comments Wolken gathered from in and around Butts-Mehre, you can’t help but shake your head.
“Do I like losing? Hell no, I want to win every one,” said Dink NeSmith, president of Athens-based Community Newspapers, Inc., and a former Board of Regents chairman. “But I’m not willing to sell my soul to the devil just to say we won. There’s a certain pride, without being condescending, where we try to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”
You may remember Mr. NeSmith from such hits as this. And this.
Then there’s the expected self-satisfaction of Greg McGarity.
“There are some schools that are like we are in so many areas, but more attention is brought to us as a result of maybe what we do in situations that deal with discipline in general,” Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said. “It’s publicized more. Everything we do is under a microscope, but I think we just try to do things the right way. Are we perfect? No. We’ve had our own problems, our own situations that have been troublesome in the past.
“But I don’t think that’s a reason or a problem that has held us back from anything. I just don’t think that’s an excuse.”
In other words, if the program’s underperformed, don’t be pointing a finger at those pesky school policies, peeps. Even if McGarity and his bosses have tried to lobby the SEC to embrace the Georgia Way on more than one occasion.
And then there’s money. There’s always money.
Some would also look at Georgia, particularly in this era of escalating costs, as a standard-bearer for fiscal responsibility. Though McGarity bristles at the notion that Georgia hasn’t spent money to build competitive facilities — he said $39.6 million has come out of the athletic department reserves in the past five years for enhancements that benefit multiple sports — Georgia is careful not to operate in the red or borrow money to fund new projects.
McGarity said the athletic department will front the $30 million for its new football building out of the athletic reserves and raise back half of that money through private contributions.
“Facilities are very important, but it’s not the end-all,” McGarity said. “Some schools do extremely well that don’t have facilities that even we have. I’m looking out at our grass fields; I’ve got two 100-yard turf fields and two grass fields. It’s an amazing facility we have.
“It’s just like, ‘Who’s driving the bigger car?’ Do those things really matter? At some institutions it does. Our video board, for our stadium and our size, it’s really big. Would I want to spend money to get a bigger one or spend money in another bucket that might service our student-athletes? Those are the decisions you have to make and we’re fortunate we have a big bucket.”
I believe that’s a subtle dig at Auburn. And, yes, there’s a good example of a school that’s spent money more freely and, in retrospect, less wisely than Georgia has of late. But the biggest factor in that department isn’t a giant scoreboard. It’s coaching turnover, with its buyouts and big checks for the next set of coaches.
Which makes Mark Richt such a convenience for the people running the athletic department. He lets them get in touch with their inner sanctimony…
“I think as a rule our fans are somewhat disappointed we haven’t achieved championships, but also as a rule I think they’re by and large immensely proud of what we have done,” Tucker said. “I’ll take any day, any time, the way coach Mark Richt coaches, what he believes in and how he runs his program. Where we are based on that, I’m very satisfied. What would it take to get to that next level? We may get there under those guidelines. We may set the standard for how programs should be run.”
… while at the same time providing a level of financial stability that is unmatched in the conference.
And really, this is all about Mark Richt. After all, where do you fit Jim Harrick into that standard? Or Damon Evans? Or Frank Crumley?
These guys need Richt.
The truly ironic thing here is that if Richt manages to succeed at this point in pulling Georgia football up the mountain to its top is that will happen despite the Georgia Way – Tucker’s use of the word “may” in that last quote is a quiet acknowledgement of that reality – because he’s been willing to embrace what’s worked at a another program that I doubt McGarity, NeSmith or Tucker would proudly point to as a source.
Georgia coach Mark Richt also has downplayed the Alabama influence, saying he didn’t set out to hire so many with ties to the Crimson Tide. It started when Will Friend, the team’s offensive line coach from 2011-14 and also an Alabama product, helped lure Pruitt, his college teammate away from Florida State in early 2014. Then Pruitt set about helping to bring in people he knew from Saban’s staff.
“It kind of spread from there,” Richt said. “But originally it was more a coincidence.”
Still, it’s hard not to see the creeping Saban influence into Richt’s program.
A number of quality control staffers have been added, including a few with Alabama ties. The recruiting department’s staff was increased. Practice routines were tweaked, with a lot more energy on the defensive side the past two years. Media access was curtailed, especially to assistant coaches. Less information has been getting out in general.
It also is evident in the way some coaches talk. Pruitt referred to the “organization,” a Saban-ism.
Hell, there’s no shame in that. If something works, use it. And I don’t mean to suggest that Richt doesn’t have certain standards in how he goes about his business that aren’t worthy of admiration. But let’s not lose sight that the very people who are puffing out their chests about doing things the right way are the same people Richt’s been dealing with for years. And it’s taken that very creeping Saban influence Wolken describes to get the movement we’ve seen in the past few months since his tweet.
A large grain of salt is in order, in other words.