Commentary: The Curious Case of Mark Richt . . . . . . . . (or 15 + 2 = 0)

Chris Bruton is your typical southern sports fan who loves to offer his unique view on athletic events, even if no one asks him. He is a husband, father, UI/UX designer, and a mental health therapist.

​Internet connectivity and social media has empowered individuals to have a greater voice in the public sphere. Twitter mobs and users in web forums use their collective power to shed light on the faults of individuals’ in ways that was unavailable ten years ago.

Gaffes that would have people sent to their human resources department for disciplinary action now have consequences exponentially more severe. With respect to sports, organization’s general managers, athletic directors, and presidents now have greater access to the ire or praise of their fanbase. Mark Richt’s tenure has occurred in this era of increased communicative interaction, and his fate may be sealed in this new era.

“Fire Mark Richt” has become mantra of a large portion of the Bulldog faithful over the last few years, and as a result, has created a civil war between Richt defectors and loyalists within the fanbase. Anyone living in or near the state of Georgia has read Facebook comments or tweets either defending Mark Richt, or calling for his dismissal. Conversation that used to be left to the barber shop or water cooler is now hyperlinked, categorized, and searchable worldwide. We know everything about our players, opponents, and the blotter sections of our digital news sites. We have unprecedented information and communication in which to judge our players, coaches, and opponents.

To be comprehensive, let’s breakdown Mark Richt’s career at the helm of the Bulldogs (fans may or may not want to skip this section). Starting in 2001, Mark Richt has compiled a 140-50 (0.736) record with nine 10+ win seasons. He has two SEC Championships (2002, 2005). He has represented the SEC East six times in the championship game (2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2011, 2012). He has led the Dawgs to three Sugar Bowls, winning two (2002, 2007). He has been the SEC Coach of the Year twice (2002, 2007). Thirty years ago, this resume would have had him casting a bronze statue, but Georgia has yet to win that elusive National Championship that is now at 35 years and waiting. It is this reason, and this reason alone, that Richt finds his coaching seat hotter than ever.

Why is it that Mark Richt’s legacy is his failure to win a national championship, trumping what is arguably the best comprehensive era of University of Georgia football? Here is where the curious case of Mark Richt originates.

Let’s first look at the close calls. The 2002 season shot the Bulldogs out of the Donnan era and into the sphere of national title contenders. Much like Urban Meyer later, Richt’s second year at the helm brought prosperity that UGA had not seen since the Reagan administration. That team came within a Terrence Edwards reception of an undefeated season. Playing arguably the best football in the country, Georgia missed out on a chance at the national title because Ohio State and Miami were undefeated. Miami’s roster was what remained of what may feel is the best college football team of all time, the 2001 version of the Hurricanes. They had immense talent at every position. Ohio State’s perfect record included six wins that were determined by a touchdown or less. That’s right. The Buckeyes were within one score of losing half of their games. Credit to them for winning them all, but Richt was one bounce, one play away (six times, mind you) from Ohio State losing and the Bulldogs facing Miami with the chance to win it all.

I’m adding the 2005 version of the Bulldogs to the argument because they were the SEC champions that year. In what would become a trend of Richt losing his best player to injury in a year where there is a chance to have a special season (because the chance to have a “special” season comes, at most, every few years for a team the caliber of the Dawgs), D.J. Shockley goes down in the Arkansas game and misses the Florida game, a loss which otherwise should have been a win, and comes back at less that 100% in the Auburn game, where an Auburn fluke fumble-out-of-the-endzone ended in a one-point loss. But who are we kidding? If Shockley plays all season and UGA finishes 12-0, they pull a 2004 Auburn and watch USC and Texas play for all the marbles. USC was in the middle of one of the greatest dynasties in college football history, going for their third consecutive national championship. Texas had a generational player in Vince Young that proved to be better than the USC defense that year. Mark Richt did not have a prayer in 2005, and what may be most frustrating is that for a nine consecutive year span, UGA was the only SEC Champion to not play for or win a National Championship.

Jump to 2007, the beginning of the Richt-loses-inexplicable-games era. Honestly, before this point, the stats on Richt was his outstanding out-of-conference record and victories over quality teams. The South Carolina and Tennessee games were just inexcusable; if either was won, UGA wins the National Championship that year. Furthermore, even with the two losses, all UGA needed was a Tennessee loss to give them the opportunity. The result was three miracle wins for the Vols over South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky (make the darn field goal!). Yes, the Dawgs should have taken care of business, but do not neglect to consider the terrible luck that accompanied that 2007 team. A two loss LSU team won the title that year. Georgia was unable to play for it because national pundits felt that a team that did not win their conference should not be able to play for a national title. Please note that this a reversal in opinion and theory from 2001 Nebraska and 2012 Alabama, where neither won their conference but were given the chance to play for the title. Everyone knew a two-loss UGA was the best team at the end of the year; intentionally unreasonable voting in the polls had UGA’s computer ranking fall to third that final week.

The 2008 season may be the worst on Richt’s resume. He had a team with Matthew Stafford, A.J. Green, and Knowshon Moreno...and he lost three games; two to his biggest rivals. Granted, Willie Martinez was coaching that defense and there lied the team’s fault. The Bama Blackout Game still lives in lore as it was the arrival of the Bama Dynasty and the death of Georgia’s hopes. Well, at least for four years. In many ways, UGA is still reeling from that loss, feeling like the little brother to the Bama bully. In 2008, Florida paid them back for the celebration incident from the previous year with an absolute beatdown. Then a reeling and dejected Georgia team forgot how to tackle against Georgia Tech. The 2008 season started with high expectations, only to end in reoccuring heartbreak. The Georgia football legacy became one of losing big games and having underwhelming performances. August of 2008 was the summit of Richt’s opinion ranking. It has been falling ever since.

The 2012 team. Bama. A deflected pass. Five yards. Is there something in my eye? ARE THOSE TEARS? NOT AGAIN….STOP....JUST STOP! I need to take a moment...okay, I’m back. Side note: How sad is it that Chris Conley, one of my favorite Dawgs of all time, will be most remembered negatively for actually catching a football? It is so weird that a receiver's negative legacy results from actually catching a football (i.e. the anti-Terrence Edwards). Maybe if Conley was playing Florida in come the tears again!

In my opinion, Mark Richt has fielded five teams capable of winning a national championship in fifteen years. That’s an average of one elite team every three years. It’s just unreasonable to think that you can field a team to win it all year-in and year-out, unless you are a robot like Nick Saban. An average of once every three years is beyond reasonable, in my opinion. Could it be that the issue is not with Richt’s performance, but with expectations?

Once again, Mark Richt’s legacy may be the victim of circumstances.

In his fifteen years, the SEC’s dominance has risen to unprecedented heights. Historical heights. Of any conference. Ever. In all of football. Thus, Richt’s tenure came at a time where his competition is at a higher level than any other time in history. Then, when looking at this dominance, you have to consider the National Champions that occurred during this fifteen years. Not only did the SEC become a never-before-seen-machine-of-football-dominance, the rest of the conferences took a nap. Nine national champions have come from the SEC during Richt’s time as head coach:

LSU (2003) 13-1

Florida (2006) 13-1

LSU (2007) 12-2

Florida (2008) 13-1

Alabama (2009) 14-0

Auburn (2010) 14-0

Alabama (2011) 12-1

Alabama (2012) 13-1

Now let’s examine Richt’s dumb luck. From 2002-2012, two thirds of Richt’s tenure mind you, four SEC champions have not played for a national title (UGA, 2002, 13-1; LSU, 2003, 13-1; Auburn 2004,13-0; and UGA, 2005, 12-2). Of those four teams, LSU was awarded a national title 2003 anyway, and rightfully so, in my opinion. That leaves three SEC champions in that eleven-year window to fail to win a title, Auburn’s scenario being the worst offense.

In Richt’s two SEC championship years, he had the gall to lose one and two games. I mean, before 2006, it was generally considered that to win a title, you probably had to go undefeated. To his luck, there were two undefeated teams in those years where he had losses. Look closely at the records of those SEC to national champions. Out of the nine, only two were forced to go undefeated. To this day, Urban Meyer has never finished a season undefeated, and he has three national championships. The great Nick Saban? One undefeated season, four title. Even Steve Spurrier couldn’t win them all on his way to his only championship. Les Miles can’t even manage a game clock correctly and he has two. This is where the ire towards Richt begins. It’s just highly unfortunate that Richt lost games with his elite teams in the years he did.

To amplify his bad luck, two UGA rivals have won three national championships during Richt’s time. Add Alabama and that number doubles. In those cases, UGA has competed against two of the greatest SEC players of all time in Tim Tebow and Cam Newton. He has competed against two historically accomplished coaches in Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, who have won a total of six titles during Richt’s tenure. Georgia fans see their rivals making it to the promised land, all the while, Richt is unable to come through. If any other team in the nation wins in 2006, 2008, and 2010, would we be as angry?

What if 2002 Georgia happens any other year (besides 2004 and 2005)? They win a title. What if the rest of the country steps up and one and two loss SEC teams miss out on the title game? To be conservative, what if half of those teams with a loss are not given the chance to win it all? Does Florida, LSU, and Auburn only having one championship and Bama have one, maybe two change Richt’s expectations? Probably not, but it is a window into the poor luck and incredible era in which Richt has coached.

Should Richt be fired? If you would have asked me at 7pm last Saturday, I would have said yes. I may still say yes. However, I have to take in the context of the Richt era and the potential demand of a national championship by UGA fans. Has the SEC’s historical run of dominance created unrealistic expectations? Do Georgia fans overestimate UGA as a program? I mean, since 1947, context shows that it took the greatest college football player of all time to deliver just one national championship to Georgia. Do we think too much of ourselves?

This blog post is not an argument on whether to fire Mark Richt or not. However, it’s a contextual view of the regional and national landscape in which Richt has coached. Mark Richt may never win a national championship at Georgia. However, pitiful luck, accompanied by a few subpar performances is the only reason why were are not having a discussion of “Can Richt win another one?”

In my opinion, it’s Richt’s dumb luck to have coached in this time period. The unprecedented success of the SEC and historical titles of our rivals, accompanied by his opponents’ possessing some of the greatest playing and coaching talent of all time, that has Georgia fans asking, “Why not us?” The answer to that question might not lie at the feet of Mark Richt’s faults, but in us fans’ unprecedented and possibly incorrect conclusion that winning it all is must be easier than we imagined. Richt’s tenure in the 80s or 90s would be celebrated. It appears Richt’s greatest failure has been timing.

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