By J. SCOTT HELTON
After watching the University of Georgia Bulldogs play impressive, hard-nosed football during the first two games of the season, I could not help but be impressed with the direction of the program under head coach Kirby Smart. Since arriving back on campus (Smart previously played and coached at Georgia) the Dawgs have significantly improved, they have won the SEC championship, went to the National Championship game but lost in OT to Alabama, the most dominant program in college football for the last 10 years. Under Coach Smart, the Dawgs have become the class of their division by not losing an SEC east game over the previous two seasons.
The decision to hire Kirby Smart is looking like an excellent choice for the university. When the decision was made, it was mired in controversy due to the success of Coach Mark Richt, who had turned UGA from an average team that consistently lost to inferior teams into a national powerhouse that was a severe threat to the dominance of Florida and Alabama during the 2000s. UGA was 145-51 during his 15 years as coach, which amounts to .728 winning percentage. Richt came from Florida State where he had served as offensive coordinator, and QB’s coach under Bobby Bowdon and helped Florida State win the 1999 national Championship.
I cannot help but wonder if the current playoff system had existed during Richt’s tenure, could Georgia have possibly won a national championship? We can look at the 2007 team that finished the season with an 11-3 record and destroyed an undefeated Hawaii team that many predicted would handle Georgia. No one can forget the 2012 SEC championship game between Georgia and Alabama that could be considered the title game because many experts felt that either team would easily beat Notre Dame, who Alabama played in the final game. That one game can be viewed as the beginning of the end for Richt at UGA because of the questionable decisions and time management use at the end of the game. He took a gamble that did not pay off in the end, and if his decision to not spike the ball had worked, we would have been calling him a genius as opposed to someone that allowed themselves to get caught up in the moment. The playoff system in use today would undoubtedly have included Georgia in the final four teams during several of Richt’s seasons as coach, and a valid argument can be made that Richt could have one or two titles and I believe if this were the case, he would still be the head coach.
We cannot only use wins and losses to measure the impact he had on the program, but we must also separate the man from the coach, despite this fact being what cost him his job in the end. Richt ran a clean program and was just as concerned about producing a quality man and citizen as well as a football player, and he did this during a period which many coaches recklessly ran their programs into the ground. For all his success at USC, Pete Carroll and the program will forever be known for the Reggie Bush Scandal, which caused the team to vacate 14 wins during the 2004 and 2005 season, including the 2005 national championship. Carroll is a classic example of what Mark Richt was not, a coach that wanted a win at any cost, no matter the impact it had on the school, its reputation, or the young man involved. We must never forget that college football players, despite the unbelievable athletic acts they perform, they are still young men, most under the age of twenty-two or twenty-three at the oldest and this why quality men like Mark Richt are critical to the survival of college football. He was a credit to Georgia and should always be remembered in a positive light, without the leadership and guidance he provided during his time in Athens, Georgia could still be where they were before his arrival, mediocre at best.
By J. SCOTT HELTON