Mark Richt is 145-51 at Georgia, with two SEC championships, nine bowl victories, six SEC East titles, and two coach of the year awards. He finished nine seasons in the AP top 10 in his 15 seasons at Georgia, and currently has 51 of his former players on NFL rosters. Perhaps most importantly, Richt was renown as a good guy – which is hardly inconsequential for a guy who was coaching 18-23 year-olds for a living.
But on Sunday, Georgia fired its coach of 15 seasons.
The move reeks of ignorance, arrogance, and misguided intentions.
The “narratively convenient” reason behind this move is a departure from mediocrity. Georgia wants to stop winning nine games per year and start winning championships. Which, in theory, sounds good. Rings are shiny and consistency isn’t fun in college football unless you’re Alabama or Ohio State. But this justification is as flawed and arrogant as should be expected from a given SEC fanbase.
First, most Georgia fans assume that immediately firing Richt will provide a boost, almost by default. When in fact, the opposite is true. When any team fires a coach in college sports they take an immediate hit, especially one as active in high-profile recruiting as Georgia is (much more on recruiting later). Entirely regardless of who they end up hiring, the sixth-ranked 2016 recruiting class, according to rivals.com, will assuredly take a major hit (again, more later) and the program will have to deal with some transfers, especially from the younger players. Even if they hire Kirby Smart, Chip Kelly, or any of the supposed “home-run candidates,” the Bulldogs will have to take a step back before taking any step forward.
But even in the long-term, firing Richt hardly guarantees success. Just ask Jim Donnan or Ray Goff how easy it is to maintain success at this high of a level.
Ask Tennessee. Phillip Fulmer had an eerily similar resume with the Vols to what Richt accomplished with Georgia. However, after 16 consistently strong, if unflashy, seasons with Tennessee, Fulmer was fired. Tennessee is 40-47 since Fulmer was fired. They, too, wanted to leave their consistent nine wins and become national championship contenders.
Ask Michigan. They fired Lloyd Carr after 13 successful seasons as Michigan’s head coach in 2007, with the intention of competing for national championships instead of meddling in consistent sustained success. Noticing a pattern? It has taken eight years for Michigan to find its man in Jim Harbaugh, with one good season under Brady Hoke in between.
Ask Nebraska. On a much shorter timetable, Pelini sustained consistent success (a 77-23 record) at Nebraska for seven seasons, until he was fired in 2014. They are now working on a 5-7 season, with few signs of improvement under Mike Riley.
Even if you ignore the history of countless examples of this desire to become Ohio State and Alabama, this firing still makes no sense for Georgia. Not right now. It’s frankly unfair to criticize Richt for going 9-3 without his best player, and with an incompetent set of quarterback; this is, and was always supposed to be, a transition year for the Bulldogs. A transition to the Jacob Eason era.
Richt recruited the top quarterback in the country, Jacob Eason, to come all the way across the nation (From Washington state to UGA) to play under one of the best coaches in college football. If Eason is the real deal, the misguided “Richt can’t win big games” theory would have vanquished with every touchdown strike. Players win the games, not coaches. It isn’t Richt’s fault the Dawgs fell five yards from a trip to the national championship in 2012. If Eason, tight end prospect Isaac Nauta, running back Elijah Holyfield and the countless other stud recruits committed or leaning toward Georgia ultimately decide to play elsewhere (and who could really blame them?), this decision will become even more catastrophic than it currently appears.
It’s not all bad for Georgia, though. This gamble does come with a potentially rich payoff. Maybe they do strike gold with the next Saban, Meyer, or Harbaugh. Maybe they will start to win championships with a fresh voice and a new mindset. Maybe they will become Alabama. But it’s hard to win at the high rate that Mark Richt did at Georgia, and even harder to do so year-in, year-out.
I want to correct something I said earlier. This firing was not a product of misguided intentions by Athletic Director Greg McGarrity and other higher-ups. This was change for change’s sake. A desperation move at a time when desperation was entirely unnecessary.
Be careful when you wish for an end to consistency, Georgia. You just might get it.