How Well or Poorly Did Jim Donnan Serve the Georgia Bulldogs as Head Football Coach?

I wasn’t even trying to get contrary, but my recent posting concerning Jim Donnan’s elevation to the College Football Hall of Fame drew several responses around The Dawgosphere, including this comment from Paul Westerdawg:

I completely disagree with you

To me…the only measurement that counts in coaching is…did you leave the program better than you found it? And Jim Donnan undoubtedly did.

Is he a tool? Yes.
Should he be in the Hall of Fame? No.
Should he have benched Quincy in ’00? Yes.

But look at the mess he found. No one wanted the job in ‘96, and we were literally in danger of being passed by Tuberville’s Ole Miss squad and/or South Carolina’s program when he arrived. Hell, Glen Mason turned us down for goodness sake.

When he left, he had returned us to winning 8 games a year … which is what Dooley won while he was in Athens.

And more impressively, he has never spoken an ill word about UGA since his departure other than to mention his contempt for Mike Adams.

I’m glad he’s gone. But I don’t think he deserves nearly the contempt you threw his way.

I should emphasize a point I tried to make, but which may have been lost, in my original posting: I was the biggest Jim Donnan supporter I knew during his tenure in Athens, and I remained one up until the very end. (I should also provide a "Star Trek" spoiler alert before you read the caption of the photo included below for the purpose of breaking up the text.) A brief anecdote may help to explain why I was such a strong backer of Jim Donnan during his regime.

In 1996, after Coach Donnan was hired but before he had coached his first game, my father and I went to a Bulldog Club meeting at the Atlanta Motor Speedway to hear Coach Donnan speak. I wore a vest covered in oval "G" logos and Uga head emblems, which I also have been known to wear to weddings, and, before he spoke, Coach Donnan caught my attention from across the room and said, "I like your vest." (By the way, I have repeated that story to numerous Georgia fans over the last 13 years, and I have never once had a fellow Bulldog booster tell me that he had a similarly pleasant interaction with Coach Donnan.)

Lieutenant Uhura speaks all three Romulan dialects, and even she’s never heard anyone but me tell a tale of a positive personal conversation with Jim Donnan. (By the way, the romantic relationship between Spock and Uhura was something I totally did not see coming.)

Perhaps there is no zealot like a convert, but I defended the man from the get-go and I got burned. We were always just about to turn the corner and it simply never happened. "Leaving the program better than you found it" seems like a tepid measure; Dennis Felton left the Georgia basketball program better than he found it, but that attests to the sins of his predecessor rather than anything he did correctly or well. Anyone who left the Bulldog basketball program with academically-qualifying scholarship athletes and not on probation left the program better than Jim Harrick bequeathed it to him.

Likewise, Ray Goff, a loyal Georgia man, was promoted beyond his level of competence and got his alma mater slapped by the N.C.A.A. over some fairly nitpicky stuff about who paid for an airplane ticket, but Coach Goff’s ineptitude as a head coach is not a testament to the success of his successor, particularly when we consider Coach Donnan’s borderline-paranoid thin-skinnedness and the undisciplined cesspool Coach Donnan evidently allowed the program to become. Say what you will about Ray---and I have---but at least his stewardship didn’t earn Georgia the reputation for being a team wearing tie-dyed T-shirts with "buckeye leaves" (yeah, right) on the sides of their helmets while perpetually suffering from the munchies and asking opponents at the line of scrimmage whether they had ever looked at a football . . . I mean, really looked at a football. Also, Coach Goff may not have beaten anyone else, but at least he beat Georgia Tech.

In any case, here is the comment I left in response to Paul:

I take issue with some of that

I’ll grant that Jim Donnan hasn’t taken overt shots at the institution, but he’s damned sure gotten in his digs on ESPN and on "Buck and Kincade." Just because he tries to offer his jabs as jokes rather than as pointed criticisms doesn’t mean he hasn’t taken more than his fair share of swipes at us.

Besides, what possible basis could he have for criticizing Georgia? We plucked him from obscurity in West Virginia, paid him a boatload of money to go away, and replaced him with Mark Richt, who is demonstrably superior to Jim Donnan in every way, both as a coach and as a man.

The "eight games a year" figure is a bit misleading. When Vince Dooley took over the program in 1964, teams played ten games a year rather than eleven, there were nine bowl games instead of 18, the Bulldogs played Clemson and South Carolina on the non-conference schedule virtually every year, Georgia was playing teams like Florida State and North Carolina on the non-conference schedule on a regular basis, and there were no Division I-AA teams. It was a heck of a lot easier to win eight games against the schedules Vince Dooley arranged for Jim Donnan than it was to win eight games against the schedules Joel Eaves arranged for Vince Dooley.

Ten per cent of Coach Donnan’s wins came in bowl games. His 4-0 record in postseason play was the result of routine underperforming in the regular season, which got the ‘Dawgs sent to sub-par (and, therefore, winnable) bowl games nearly every year of his tenure. I give Coach Dooley a hell of a lot more credit for losing four Sugar Bowls (because losing them meant getting to several Sugar Bowls) than I give Coach Donnan for making us the perpetual reigning O’ahu Bowl champions.

The other problem with the "eight games a year" formulation is that it represents an average. Following a rookie season that tracked the pattern established for the post-Garrison Hearst Georgia squads of the mid-1990s, Coach Donnan’s teams went 10-2, 9-3, 8-4, and 8-4, which shows the direction in which the program was heading and the (admittedly slightly heightened) level of mediocrity into which we were settling.

Coach Dooley, on the other hand, averaged eight wins a year over the course of 25 seasons because five of his first seven seasons saw his Georgia teams winning seven, six, seven, five, and five games, respectively (none of which, incidentally, produced a losing season). In his last 18 seasons on the sidelines, the Bulldogs won nine games four times, ten games three times, eleven games twice, and twelve games once.

Coach Dooley’s winning percentage at Georgia was .715. Coach Donnan’s was .678. Coach Dooley had winning records and lengthy winning streaks against every major rival except Auburn. Coach Donnan had a losing record against every significant Georgia rival he faced. Coach Dooley won six S.E.C. championships and a national title for the Red and Black. Coach Donnan won the ’96 Auburn game, the ’97 Florida game, the 2000 Outback Bowl, and . . . what?

Personally, I think the Peach State’s population growth, the athletic association’s facilities upgrades, and the overall rise in the quality of talent throughout college football generally all had much more to do with the boost the Bulldogs received in the post-Ray Goff years than Jim Donnan ever did, but maybe that’s just me.

At this point, I’ve pretty much had my say upon this question, but it’s a legitimate issue among Bulldog fans, so I wanted to bring Paul Westerdawg’s and my exchange to the front page, in order to continue the dialogue in the comments below. Let me know . . . what do you think?

Go ‘Dawgs!

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