Columnist: Farewell to Mark Richt, pt. 2

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 5, 2015

Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

Final of two parts.

I remember a scene in about 2004, Mark Richt and I were flying somewhere, just the two of us. I was driving us through the campus to the Athens Airport.

It was springtime, blooms everywhere, and students were changing classes. The smiles of coeds sparkled in the sunshine, the weather was balmy and there was electric energy permeating the scene. I saw him in a reflective mood. He said, “To mess this thing up, we would almost have to try.”

If you pose the question of what went wrong, I hold the opinion that things changed when his defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, left for the NFL in 2005. VanGorder, now the defensive coordinator for Notre Dame, was not only a clever coach, he demanded discipline.

His way of coaching had a positive influence on the entire team — different style, but similar results of Erk Russell. You win with defense, which is why the new coach at Georgia will have something to build on.

After VanGorder’s departure, the defense failed to excel. Willie Martinez did well enough initially with Georgia winning the SEC championship in 2005, but post VanGorder, the defense was ineffective until Jeremy Pruitt took over in 2014.

Through much of this time, the only way Georgia could win a big game was if Mike Bobo, offensive coordinator, could outscore the opposition.

The view I have come to underscore is that to be a successful head coach in these times, you have to be a “hard-ass” with today’s players. I just don’t think that is in Mark’s DNA.

I remember two nights before Georgia played Florida State in the Sugar Bowl in 2002, I was a dinner guest of Vernon Brinson, a Georgia graduate who invited Bobby Bowden, then the Seminole head coach, to join us. Bowden told me he was proud of Mark, but repeated what he told me when Richt was hired: “I was worried about whether he was tough enough.” My response was that he seemed to have “inner” toughness.

If you are the devil’s advocate, there is concern that, lately, Georgia doesn’t win big games. If your goal is to win championships, then an athletic director has to address the question: “Are we on the right path to get to the Georgia Dome?”

In a stretch when Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida are off and you can’t beat Missouri to the Georgia Dome, the conclusion is that you are underachieving. Can the incumbent pull himself up by the bootstraps and turn it around? When the conclusion became negative, the athletic director, who has more than one constituency, decided to make a change.

As a Georgia graduate, I support any decision which is in the best interest of the institution. If the athletic director chooses to change, we should get behind the decision and move forward.

He doesn’t tell me what he is going to do on personnel decisions. We do have conversations, and he is always insightful and presents a carefully researched view. A change, for example, affects the lives or more than the head coach, it affects the lives of dozens of people. Greg McGarity is not a dispassionate person.

Over the years, Georgia has been patient with football coaches. I can’t imagine a group of advocates organizing, as it appeared to be recently with LSU, to ante up to buy out a coach’s contract at Georgia.

It is not the Internet junkies and those who blather away on talk shows that influence decisions. An athletic director does hear from the “quiet” supporters behind the scenes who take a pragmatic stance.

“If you want to win championships, you should consider a change.” Those supporters don’t rattle sabers, but they do have influence and their voices are heard and evaluated. That happens everywhere the game is played.

As Mark Richt moves on, I belong to the fraternity which appreciates the good and positive things associated with his stay at Georgia. He was the greatest of ambassadors, he never embarrassed the University and he ran an honest program, as best he could.

He once told me that he could not keep supporters from doing things clandestinely for kids. You work to control and eliminate that kind of activity, but common sense tells you that it is difficult to control such conduct absolutely.

“There is one thing I can do,” he said. “My coaches know that if they are involved with anything illegally, they will be dismissed immediately. That is one thing I can control. I will give a kid a second chance but not a coach who is violating rules.”

If more coaches felt that way, that would solve a lot of problems in recruiting.

Since Kid Woodruff, who coached for $1 a year, left following the 1927 season, there have been eight head coaches: Harry Mehre, Joel Hunt, Wallace Butts, Johnny Griffith, Vince Dooley, Ray Goff, Jim Donnan and Mark Richt. Only one was not fired or forced out — Dooley.

If you drive race cars, you can expect to experience wrecks, and sometimes it can be bad. If you coach, you are likely to experience change.

There are a lot of people who are upset over this decision, but there are more who agree with Greg McGarity than there are detractors. I think it should be pointed out that it is not like Mark has been thrown out on his ear. He has made something in excess of $35 million, he will get a nice retirement — based on his University of Georgia salary — for life, and he and Katharyn will get health and hospitalization benefits for life.

Speaking as an alumnus, I know I will miss all the good qualities of Mark Richt, but I look forward to working with the new coach. The business of college athletics is a tough business — tougher than it has ever been. This is a fact of life.

As cynical as it may be to some, reality is that the King is dead. Long live the King.

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.