The sight is dismal;
And our affairs from England come too late.
The ears are senseless that should give us hearing
To tell him his commandment is fulfilled,
That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
Where should we have our thanks?
Hamlet, Act V, Scene II
I apologize if that was a bit melodramatic, but I already used II Samuel 3:38 to mark the death of Uga VII and there was something appropriate in returning to Hamlet to mark the bloodletting that ended the bloodletting: I don’t want to belabor the point, having spent much of the last year building the case against Willie Martinez, but it bears repeating that, starting with last year’s disaster against the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Georgia Bulldogs have allowed 34 or more points ten times in 21 games and have held just three of their last eleven Division I-A opponents under 24 points. This happened because it had to happen, and Mark Richt is to be credited for making it happen, however difficult it must have been for him.
When Vince Dooley was considering hiring Mark Richt, he had one misgiving, which he put to Bobby Bowden in the form of a question: "Is Mark Richt tough enough?" Coach Bowden replied, "You just don’t know." Now we all know; on the day after Bobby Bowden only partially willingly stepped down---on the day that the portion of the Georgia fan base whose strong suit is not contract law long believed would be the day Mark Richt cleared out his office in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall---Coach Richt told three of his assistants to clear out their offices, instead. If the public statements issued from Athens are accurate, this was the head coach’s decision, not the athletic director’s and not the boosters’, which is as it should be.
The reaction in Bulldog Nation, at least in this corner of it, has been measured and appropriate. No one wishes, or should wish, these good men ill. Sometimes, good men fail to do a good job, but that does not mean anyone should take personal satisfaction in seeing any man lose his job, particularly not in a weak economy three and a half weeks before Christmas. Our thanks and our best wishes go with Jon Fabris, his wife Marcy, and their sons Jack and Mike; with John Jancek, his wife Kelly, and their sons Zachary, Brock, Jack, and Brady; and with Willie Martinez, his wife Kim, their daughters Christina and Ashley, and their son William. Vaya con Dios.
Now it becomes a question of which of the candidates will be chosen to turn 2010 into 1975. While I have my preferences, I trust my head coach, who knows much more about such things than I will ever know. I know this about Willie Martinez’s successor, though: he needs to have three characteristics. These are they:
- He needs to be the fire to Mark Richt’s ice. While we have seen Coach Richt become impassioned on the sideline (viz., his obvious anger at the premature Powerade bath last Saturday night), someone needs to have the job of amping up the energy level. Mark Richt’s calm confidence won us a lot of games---hobnailed boot, anyone?---just as Vince Dooley’s did a generation earlier, but only when Brian VanGorder and Erk Russell were around to shout profanities and crack skulls. Quite frankly, if a candidate to be the Bulldogs’ new defensive coordinator doesn’t use the word "ass" in his interview, I don’t want him.
How important is the latter objective? Plenty. As David Hale has demonstrated, the problem with Georgia’s turnover margin hasn’t just been the offense’s propensity to cough up the pigskin (which, while bad, isn’t all-time awful), it’s been the defense’s historically low level of takeaways. Back when Coach Dooley used to insist upon calling them "takeovers" instead of "turnovers," forcing fumbles and getting picks was a cornerstone of the Bulldogs’ defensive philosophy.
In 1980, Georgia won the national championship without ranking in the top ten in the country in rushing offense, passing offense, total offense, scoring offense, rushing defense, passing defense, or total defense. How did the ‘Dawgs do it? By leading the nation in turnover margin, tallying 44 total takeaways in an eleven-game season, and fielding the country’s interception leader in safety Jeff Hipp. (Having the nation’s leading punt returner in Scott Woerner and the best freshman running back in the history of the game didn’t hurt, either, but we’re getting the running game straightened out and hiring a new special teams coordinator, who probably will reach this conclusion: "Blair Walsh is the best placekicker in the country? Well, dang, let’s just turn him loose and let him boot it out the back of the end zone every time!")
In 1982, Georgia again went 11-0 through the schedule and went to the Sugar Bowl to play for the national championship. The Bulldogs never gave up more than 22 points in the regular season and ranked fourth in the land in scoring defense, due in large part to the fact that the Georgia D was led by rover Terry Hoage (who finished first in the country in interceptions, with twelve) and safety Jeff Sanchez (who finished second in the country in interceptions, with nine).
The math is pretty simple, really. The last two times Georgia went to the national championship game, the Bulldog defense was superb at taking the ball away from the opposition. Twelve games into the 2009 season, the Classic City Canines rank 119th out of 120 Division I-A teams in turnover margin and have taken the ball away just ten times on eight interceptions---fewer than the Bulldogs’ second-best defensive back snagged in 1982---and two---count ‘em: two---fumble recoveries. Georgia is 7-5 and bound for the Independence Bowl. While there are many aspects of the Red and Black program in need of correction, there is no area in which a genuine fix would pay bigger dividends than in the area of takeaways.
The almost two years since the Sugar Bowl shellacking of Hawaii have been a tough time in Bulldog Nation; as my brother-in-law said to me on Thanksgiving, "Uga VII is dead, and I don’t feel so good myself." This is a sad day, but a necessary one. We should keep Coach Fabris, Coach Jancek, Coach Martinez, and their families in our prayers, and we should be proud of Coach Richt for doing what he had to do despite the difficulty of doing it.
The firings are done; now we await the hirings, and particularly the announcement of the anointment of a new defensive coordinator, whom we will set to his assigned task with the admonition: "Take it away, Coach!" These are dark days in Bulldog Nation, but the break of dawn is coming.