Mark Richt's "riches to rags" descent onto one of the hottest seats in college football in 2011 is, by now, well chronicled.
After masterminding arguably the best offense in college football while offensive coordinator of perhaps the best program of the 1990s, Florida State, Richt arrived in Athens in 2001 to almost messianic expectations, courted away from the 'Noles to rejuvenate a University of Georgia program gone dormant in the dozen seasons following the retirement of the iconic Vince Dooley. Dooley's successors failed to compete for Southeastern Conference championships and, therefore, to win the hearts and minds of the Bulldog Nation, and both were unceremoniously shown the door.
During his first seven seasons, Richt led the Bulldogs on a rapid climb back to SEC relevancy. In that span, the Dogs posted a 72-19 record, played for the SEC Championship three times in four years, winning it in 2002 and 2005, won five of seven bowl games, and concluded the 2007 season with a No. 2 national ranking. Returning a veteran squad in 2008 that included future NFL draft picks, Matt Stafford (No. 1) and Knowshon Moreno (No.12), Richt's Georgia Bulldogs seemed poised to challenge for the national championship, as pollsters gave them the preseason No. 1 nod.
Washed aglow in this success, Mark Richt was hailed a hero and was seen as a rising star on the horizon of college football's coaching elite. And then...the bloom began to wilt and fall off of his Georgia Red rose.
Over the past three seasons, Richt's star has fallen quickly, as that highly touted 2008 squad faltered after the infamous "Black Out" debacle at the hands Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide and the following two seasons witnessed the Dogs' descent into abject mediocrity, culminating in last New Years Eve's woeful 10-6 Liberty Bowl loss to the University of Central Florida.
Why? What happened? Why have the wheels seemingly fallen off Richt’s bandwagon, leaving many Bulldog fans scratching their heads and wondering if he is still the right man to lead the program at Georgia?
Theories abound. Many have decried Richt a weak disciplinarian, lax in tending to his charges. Winning the mythical "Fulmer Cup" for having the most off-season player arrests prior to last year’s dismal 6-7 season convinced many that the tail was wagging the dog.
Another popular postulation is that Richt has become complacent, resting upon the laurels of early success. Before 2010, Richt had not been involved in a losing season since his freshman season at the University of Miami and, as an assistant coach, had been involved with but one season with a win total as low as six, that while serving as Bill Lewis's offensive coordinator at Eastern Carolina in1989 (6-5). Accustomed to winning and having never been fired, Richt, some say, has lost that "fire in the belly," devoting more of his time and attention to family, spiritual, and community interests while placing the program on autopilot.
Another theory intrigues. Is it possible that, after seven years, Mark Richt has fallen victim to the Peter Principle? Simply stated, this axiom, proffered by Dr. Laurence Peter in a 1969 book of the same name, states that, at some point during a career, individuals are advanced to their own "level of incompetence," promoted from doing something they are good at to doing something that they are not.
While a tempting rationalization, given Richt's reputation as a genius as an offensive coordinator, this extrapolation does not seem to hold up under scrutiny, acknowledging his rather considerable and substantive success as a head coach.
Give him his due. He knows the game. He did not just wake one day in 2008 suffering from amnesia. But, alas, there is considerably more to succeeding as a head coach than just Xs and 0s, so what then?
Wait. There is a broader application of the Peter Principle that might provide a more plausible explanation of the Richt recession, one which offers both Richt and Bulldog fans considerable more cause for optimism. In this generalized employment of the Peter Principle, systems or organizations (i.e., the UGA football program) have a tendency to plateau, to eventually reach a homeostasis of incompetence beyond, which it is difficult to impossible to progress as long as the status quo is being maintained.
Could it be that Mark Richt's method, his "Georgia Way," has simply grown stale and is no longer efficacious? Considering that some view the UGA job as one of college football's top five and that, over the last decade, Georgia's recruiting has been ranked No. 2 nationally, something has to be up, right? Perhaps this theory provides a more tenable approach to putting the Bulldog swoon in perspective.
Since Richt's last title in 2005, the SEC's perennially formidable coaching fraternity has been bolstered by the addition of the coaching and recruiting talents of Les Miles, Gene Chizik, Bobby Petrino, and Dan Mullen to the staple endowments of Steve Spurrier, the prodigal Nick Saban, the now really departed Urban Meyer, and Richt.
The SEC has won the last five national championships. From 2001, Richt's rookie year, to 2005, the league managed but one, the 2003 crown which LSU shared with Southern Cal. It seems clear that the competition for players and wins in the SEC has ratcheted up in the last five years.
Against this backdrop of amped up coaching and competition, a malaise has slowly set in at UGA that roughly correlates to the departure of Brian Van Gorder, Georgia's miserly defensive coordinator, for the NFL after the 2004 season, and Richt's turning the keys to his offense over to Mike Bobo in 2006.
When you factor in the underwhelming performance by the defense under the now defunct staff of Willie Martinez, the offensive line's struggles under the much-heralded, but now departed Stacey Searels, Dave Van Halanger’s stale "mat drill" methodology, which left the Dogs conspicuously gassed during fourth quarters in recent seasons, lingering questions surrounding clock management and other strategic game decisions, concerns regarding the heart and effort (or lack thereof) exhibited by some Bulldog players in the heat of recent battles, and the likelihood that the "Lack of Discipline" and "Complacency" theories may both be viable to some degree, the bottom line is that Mark Richt's mojo and magic have simply not been what they once were...they haven't been enough, anyway.
So, setting all these decline theories aside, serious questions remain as the 2011 season beckons. Is Mark Richt on the proverbial hot seat, on the brink of losing his job? Is he embarking upon a "do or die", "put up or get out" season? Most likely. Has he has managed to place a tourniquet on the program's hemorrhaging with his recent reforms? Uncertain.
Clearly, significant changes in the "Georgia Way" have been made. The offseason was quiet and largely devoid of embarrassing incidents involving players. Coaches in stagnant, under-performing areas of the program have been replaced with new teachers with new methods. The grueling offseason conditioning program has drawn both groans and kudos from the players. Players whose own "ways" were in conflict with those of the program have been encouraged to pursue other endeavors elsewhere. An incoming "Dream Team" recruiting class offers the chance for a fresh start, a chance for coaches to sell a ""buy-in" of a new and improved way of doing things around the Butts-Mehre Complex, and a chance to revive Richt’s "Finish (No, really, finish) the Drill" mantra.
Is Mark Richt still the best fit for Georgia? Potentially. Richt is clearly a good and godly man, a family man, the kind of man that any parent would like their son to emulate, with the quality and strength of character that any university would want as its public face. But being an example and leading are not necessarily concomitant acts.
In the game, the business of college football, supporters want head coaches that set and lead impressionable student-athletes by example, but they also want them to lead their teams in an aggressive, unyielding, "year in and year out" pursuit of BCS nirvana.
In 2011, Richt unquestionably faces unforgiving scrutiny. Some have queried whether nine wins or a win over nemesis, University of Florida, would be a more preferable salve for the wounds to the pride of Bulldog faithful, which scenario would best save his job. Best guess, best advice? Coach Richt better hope that his retooled "way" can achieve both of these objectives.