Tuesday, December 1, 2015

End Of An Era

It was probably time.  News came down on Sunday that whatever bowl game Georgia winds up in to close out the season will be Mark Richt's last as head coach of the Bulldogs.  After leading the team between the hedges since 2001, the man who helmed my chosen team for virtually the entirety of my adult life has been fired. 

What he will leave behind in Athens is a conflicted legacy; a heap of goodwill and a pile of shattered expectations. 

You know the good stuff.  How Richt took a program that had been largely moribund and listless in the post-Vince Dooley years and turned it into a perennial SEC contender.  How humble and gracious he was with fans and media.  How he recruited better than damn near anyone else in the country, and how he loved every one of his players, five-stars and walk-ons alike, like family.  Also, how he brooked no shenanigans from them at any point.  Any UGA football player who put a toe out of line, broke a team rule, or got crosswise with the law, Richt's own moral compass, or both, was disciplined swiftly and (mostly) appropriately.  He was never draconian about those moments; he simply believed that he had a greater responsibility to the players as people than just coaching up the best football team he could manage, and sometimes a good kick in the ass was the best way to get his point across.  And the players didn't grouse or roll their eyes about it, even after they were long gone from Athens.  The man was and is universally beloved by pretty much anyone who ever put on the red and black.  Oh, and despite what recent "bout dang time" sentiments about his firing from a lot of Georgia fans would suggest, he won a very large number of football games, too.

You also know the bad stuff.  How all that recruiting and "do things the right way" team ethos never quite translated in the biggest moments.  For much of his time at Georgia, you could set your watch to one or two stupid, inexplicable losses per season.  Richt's teams virtually always started the year ranked highly, and often finished that way too.  But somewhere between Point A and Point B, there would be a few Hieronymus Bosch hellscape games.  Florida was always a problem, as was South Carolina after Steve Spurrier arrived at the latter.  And Tennessee, even if the Dawgs came out with a win, somehow injuring a staggering amount of Georgia players every single flippin' time they went to Knoxville.  All those little blips cost the Dawgs a fair number of chances at winning national titles or at least being there at the end with a fighting chance.  A glance at Richt's record against top-15 opponents shows a precipitous decline of late.  For all his accomplishments, Richt has never been able to put it all together for the one immaculate, season-long campaign that a team has to have in order to win on the sport's biggest stage.  At an elite program in the heart of SEC country, that sort of underperformance will eventually lead to being shown the door.  Which is why Sunday happened.

 Look, ultimately Mark Richt's successes have done far, far more good for Georgia football than his failings did the program harm.  As of this writing, Kirby Smart is slated to succeed him, but the fact that any prospective candidate would have been a complete fool not to answer a phone call from AD Greg McGarity before that decision was made is largely Richt's doing.  The bar he set (and then repeatedly cleared, although never quite highly enough) restored UGA to prominence in the national spotlight.  This too: the fact that he did it all without any of the morally shaded compromises that pervade so many top-flight programs should be commended.  (BTW - anyone who thought that overt morality somehow reflected a lack of obsessive competitiveness should remember that it was Richt who instigated that marvelous excessive celebration penalty on the opening TD aginst Florida in 2007.) 

It is probably true that, despite the sustained run of good-to-great seasons, Richt's tenure in Athens had run its course and scaled all the heights it ever was going to.  More and more over the past few years, it seemed those 10-win campaigns were never going to elevate into something bigger, and a change of scene was probably best at this juncture for both parties.  Whether UGA is headed for a Nebraska-esque disaster or a national title under Kirby Smart is anyone's guess, but Mark Richt is leaving things in a significantly better state than when he arrived, and he coached a lot of fun teams and great players, and we should be grateful for that even if he never quite met our most outsized expectations.  It's the most devout praise a Georgia fan can offer, and I'm offering it here on behalf of everyone because no matter how you felt about him at the end it's a fact:

Mark Richt was a Damn Good Dawg.  

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