After the most complete and satisfying win of a much-maligned season, Mark Richt faces some serious questions. The biggest question may be one that was posed more than nine years ago.
When Richt interviewed for the head spot at the University of Georgia, he got a glowing recommendation from his boss and mentor Bobby Bowden. The legendary Florida State coach told Vince Dooley and UGA president Michael Adams that Richt possessed a great offensive mind and that had he “left him alone” the Seminoles might have won a couple more national championships in Tallahassee.
When Dooley and Adams asked Bowden what Richt’s downside might be, his boss answered with a question: Is he is tough enough? Bowden knew the expectations at Georgia and knew that if Richt struggled, the heat would be scorching and wondered deep down if Richt had what it takes to make the tough choices a head coach must make.
Richt’s career at Georgia started with a couple of speed bumps; questionable time management issues in two games may have cost him a shot at victories in an 8-4 inaugural season.
But two SEC championships, three SEC Eastern Division titles and six 10-win seasons have bought a lot of political capital for Richt and very little heated criticisms.
The 2008 season started with lofty, possibly unreasonable expectations and a preseason No. 1 ranking. The Bulldogs returned Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, two future first round draft picks on offense and returning starters on a defense that, based on a strong finish, most thought would improve from the previous year.
All the parts were in place for Richt to make a run at the National Championship.
That all went down the drain when Alabama marched into Athens and put 31 points up in a dreadful first half. Down 31-0 and donning black jerseys, Georgia fought back in the second half but lost the game 41-30. A 49-10 beatdown by Florida and a second half meltdown against instate rival Georgia Tech left Georgia with a 10-3 record and no national championship and no SEC championship.
The undercurrent of grumblings began. It wasn’t so much the three losses as it was how the team lost those games. In the Alabama game, the defense looked clueless in giving up 31 points in one half.
Florida outscored the Bulldogs 35-7 in the second half and Tech scored 26 unanswered points in the third quarter alone.
The Georgia fans seemed to notice a trend on the defensive side of the ball. Willie Martinez, defensive coordinator since Brian Van Gorder’s departure in 2004, was the target of criticism. Many fans thought Martinez was not up for the job and should have been replaced after the 2008 season.
Enter the 2009 Georgia Bulldogs, an enigma of epic proportions. Turnovers, penalties, terrible special teams play and poor fundamentals haunted this team.
The disappointing season culminated late in the season with another second half meltdown against Kentucky. After squandering a 20-6 halftime lead late in the fourth quarter, the Dawgs fumbled on the two-yard line going in for a tying touchdown.
The fans had endured enough. They fled the stadium and abandoned the team.
The Tech game, to most Georgia fans, was going to be an absolute blowout and a fitting end to a season and a team that had most questioning Mark Richt’s ability to win in the SEC.
Richt and the Dawgs had other ideas. They came out and punched Tech in the mouth and did not stop until they had racked up 339 yards in smash mouth, ole fashion football rushing yards.
The same Georgia team that had fans scratching their heads, beat Tech at their own game: a tough running game.
Now the season is over with a 7-5 record and a big win over a highly ranked rival. What’s next?
Looking at the season as a whole, there are obvious issues. The Bowden question rings in every Bulldog’s ear.
Is Mark Richt tough enough to make the changes to his staff that the fans are clamoring for and must be done? Or if he believes that this staff is the one that can get the job done, can he endure the rage that the bloodthirsty fans will throw his way for not sacrificing coaches. He could use this big win over Tech to defend his coaches.
These are some of the choices facing Richt. Tough choices only reserved for head coaches in college football.
Is he tough enough? This is the burning question. Is he tough enough to do what is right for the program even if it means sacrificing personal friend? Is he tough enough to bust up a staff that has been mostly intact for a cozy nine-year run?
But do not think that it is easy. Do not question the struggle deep down inside. Martinez is a lifelong friend and he and his family is in Athens because Richt personally brought them there. Now he has to make the decision to send them away. For fans it’s easy to pull the trigger because we don’t hold the gun.
We don’t see the lives and relationships it affects. We are not staring into the eyes of a close friend and saying you no longer have a place here. It is not easy.
In the end, from what I saw in Richt during the Tech game, I have no doubt the answer to the question Bobby Bowden posed. Yes, he is tough enough. And in that answer, I feel for him and what he has to do. Tough decisions, no doubt…tough.
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