by Gentry Estes
Mark Richt has averaged 9.6 wins in his 10 years at Georgia. His SEC record is a sparkling 53-27. He's won or shared four SEC East titles. And he's squarely on the hot seat.
Moments after an ugly season ended with an uglier performance, the weather caught up. Rain poured, bringing thunder, lightning and flash floods on an unseasonably warm New Year’s Eve in downtown Memphis.
It seemed fitting, given Georgia’s mood as the loser of the 2010 Liberty Bowl.
“2010 is over. 2011 is upon us,” coach Mark Richt said in the soggy aftermath. “I think everybody’s looking forward to that.”
That new year has arrived, bringing opportunity for Georgia either to redeem its reputation or replace its coach. While the gloom of 2010 was temporarily shielded by an impressive recruiting class and facility upgrades, the importance of the 2011 season isn’t lost on anyone associated with Georgia’s football program. Richt’s shaky footing has gradually become the elephant in the room around a program he elevated in the past decade.
The Bulldogs had gone nearly two decades without a conference title and had reached 10 wins only 12 times in their 108-year history when Richt arrived from Florida State’s staff after the 2000 season. Less than six years ago, Richt celebrated a second Southeastern Conference championship in a four-season span. Less than four years ago, Richt won the Sugar Bowl with a 41–10 rout of Hawaii and followed it up with a 10-win season, his sixth at UGA.
Richt has served for 10 largely successful seasons and been loyal to the Bulldogs, always waving away speculation and reports of other schools’ interest by saying “Georgia is my home.” On the strength of his body of work, his 14–12 record the past two years wasn’t enough to sink the dean of SEC coaches. Neither was an embarrassing rash of off-the-field issues that featured 11 total player arrests in 2010, although such trouble may be as damaging for Richt as the losses. UGA president Michael Adams called for change in September, saying of the problems: “We’ve had too much in the football team.”
From start to finish, the 2010 season wasn’t kind to Georgia. The NCAA’s four-game suspension of star receiver A.J. Green for selling a game jersey helped trigger a 1–4 start. Though the Bulldogs did squeak into a bowl game by beating rival Georgia Tech, they didn’t reach the end zone in a 10–6 defeat against UCF in Memphis that featured a lack of energy and enthusiasm on Georgia’s sideline. The defeat also meant a 6–7 record and the program’s first losing season since 1996.
“We feel as a team that we have a lot to prove this year,” senior receiver Israel Troupe says. “Having a losing season last year was not acceptable to us as a team and to the Bulldog Nation, and we’re trying to correct that this year.”
“Last season certainly was not anywhere close to what we expected or what we expect here,” Richt says. “It was certainly well below the standard of what Georgia football is all about. I understand that as much as anybody. I’m not happy with the way things went, but I do think in the process of going through what we went through, we’ll be better for it in 2011. … We’re not very far away from having the type of success that we want. But we’ve got to get it done. That’s what this offseason is going to be about. You want to review the past so you don’t repeat anything that might bite you later on in the future, but you can’t sit there and wallow in it.”
A new year is carrying a new sense of urgency, reflecting both the season’s make-or-break nature and the schedule’s opening opponents. This year’s Sept. 3 opening-weekend game in the Georgia Dome brings Boise State to face Georgia. The following weekend, the Bulldogs host defending SEC East champ South Carolina.
“I think everybody knows that we cannot be a team that’s just kind of getting their act together Game 1,” Richt says. “We have to be in midseason form.”
There isn’t a demand for a firm number of wins being issued by first-year athletics director Greg McGarity, but it’s clear that Richt must reverse the recent trend and get Georgia back into the championship hunt.
“Improvement in all areas,” McGarity says. “We want to see improvement in discipline. We want to see improvement in leadership. We want a passionate team. We want every member of our staff — regardless of what sport it is — to be passionate about being here. We want individuals that are invested in our program, that want to do everything it takes to get to the next level.”
In the months since the Liberty Bowl, Richt has tried to scratch where it itches, and he has gotten some assistance from the university. McGarity took over some of Richt’s administrative duties with the program, saying that, “Mark had his hands in so many things that it was almost impossible to focus really on the Xs and Os of the game.”
Conditions were less than ideal for Georgia in 2010, because many of the team’s daily activities — like position meetings and treatment for injuries — were done in temporary trailers. The football program, in general, was in transition because of an ongoing $39.5 million expansion to its headquarters, the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.
“A lot of stuff you couldn’t do in the trailers, of course,” senior cornerback Brandon Boykin says. “It’s tough not having a facility you can go to whenever you want to. After a game, you might be sore and you can’t really get to the cold tub like you want to. You’ve got to wait. All those little things really do add up.”
Most expansion work is now completed, and Georgia’s 2011 team will have the advantages of being housed in a state-of-the-art facility where basically everything off the field is brand new.
On the field, Richt’s belief is that Georgia’s football team generally hasn’t been physical enough. So the lone staff change initiated by Richt was to promote assistant strength coach and video coordinator Joe Tereshinski to head strength coach, bumping aside veteran Dave Van Halanger, the Dawgs’ strength coach during Richt’s entire tenure.
Richt sought an approach he deemed to be “old-school,” which meant that Tereshinski would employ a more stringent workout and nutrition regimen in addition to a change in practice routine. Judging by weights issued by Georgia’s team, the result has generally been a gain in weight for playing during the offseason months.
Richt blamed himself for practices not being tough enough in the recent past, basically because of his own reluctance to tempt injury. This past spring, Richt orchestrated full-scale 11-on-11 practices with lots of hitting, enough to cause multiple concussions and leave nearly two-dozen players out at one time or another with injury.
“My goal this spring was to make sure that we’re a physical football team,” Richt says, “and we are a team that’s going to get after it every time we put the pads on and snap up our chinstrap. And I’ve seen that. They have really competed well.”
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