Grading Mark Richt After Nine Years With the Georgia Bulldogs (Part II)

Last night, we took a partial look at Mark Richt’s record in his first nine years in Athens. Today, we will move past Coach Richt’s rate of success against various Georgia opponents and focus instead on the larger picture.

As before, I will be comparing the achievements of the first nine years of the Mark Richt era (2001-2009) to the first nine years of the tenures of Harry Mehre (1928-1936), Wally Butts (1939-1947), and Vince Dooley (1964-1972). Although much has changed in Bulldog Nation over the last eight decades---Georgia now plays twelve regular-season games a year; it is much easier to earn a bowl bid today; the conference championship is decided by a playoff game at the end of the year; teams tied at the end of 60 minutes now play overtime to determine a winner; the Red and Black joined the Southeastern Conference in the sixth year of Coach Mehre’s tenure in Athens---it is useful to contrast the Classic City Canines’ latter-day accomplishments to the program’s performance historically to see how well or poorly Coach Richt is faring in comparison to the norm.

Once again, we turn to the tale of the tape:

Overall Won-Lost Record and Winning Percentage:
Mehre: 53-31-4 (.625)
Butts: 70-25-3 (.730)
Dooley: 66-28-4 (.694)
Richt: 90-27 (.769)

Obviously, the winning percentage is more indicative of performance than the won-lost record, as the number of games played in a season has increased steadily over the years. Thus, in the first nine years of their respective coaching stints in the Classic City, Coach Mehre guided the Bulldogs in 88 games, Coach Butts and Coach Dooley in 98 each, and Coach Richt in 117.

It is rather noteworthy, therefore, that the number of losses by the four Georgia coaches who lasted nine season on the job has remained fairly constant; the coach who lost the most frequently (Harry Mehre) lost just six more times in a nine-year period than the coach who lost the least frequently (Wally Butts). On average, Coach Mehre lost 3.4 games per year, as compared to Coach Butts’s 2.8, Coach Dooley’s 3.1, and Coach Richt’s 3.0. Coach Richt’s Bulldogs are playing more games, but they’re not losing more games.

Mark Richt is averaging an even ten wins an autumn over a span during which Harry Mehre averaged 5.9, Wally Butts averaged 7.8, and Vince Dooley averaged 7.3. Hence, Mark Richt’s winning percentage is nearly 40 points higher than that of his next closest predecessor. Reasonable fans may debate the importance of the various factors that have influenced this disparity---rent-a-win home games against patsy opponents certainly have helped, though probably not as much as you think---but the rate at which Mark Richt has won football games has far outpaced that of the coaches who came before him.

Bowl Won-Lost Record and Winning Percentage:
Mehre: 0-0 (.000)
Butts: 4-0-1 (.900)
Dooley: 3-3 (.500)
Richt: 7-2 (.778)

This statistic undeniably is skewed; Harry Mehre, for instance, led four of his first seven squads to records of 7-2-1 in 1930, 8-2 in 1931, 8-2 in 1933, and 7-3 in 1934. Had anything like the present proliferation of bowls been in existence then, all four of those teams would have made it into postseason play. There’s no question that it paints an unfair picture to look at the number of bowl games more recent coaches have attended.

Nevertheless, the bowl winning percentages of the three longest-tenured Georgia coaches other than Harry Mehre are at least somewhat instructive. Vince Dooley was a much less successful coach in the postseason---he would end his career with an 8-10-2 bowl record and would not win bowl games in consecutive seasons until his last two years on the job---but Wally Butts deservedly earned the moniker "Bowl Master" for his triumphs in the 1942 Orange Bowl, 1943 Rose Bowl, 1946 Oil Bowl, and 1947 Sugar Bowl. (That run was interrupted by the middle years of the Second World War; none of the lettermen from the 1942 team were suiting up in silver britches in 1943 because most of them were clad in olive drab fatigues.)

Mark Richt, however, is almost exactly the same coach in December and January as he is from August through November; there is a difference of just nine percentage points separating Coach Richt’s bowl and overall winning percentages. While this is attributable partly to Coach Richt’s temperament---he is more even-keeled than Coach Dooley, whose sideline gesticulations during plays were filled with nervous body English---our current skipper’s willingness to make big changes before bowl games should not be underestimated. Mike Bobo’s first game as the Bulldogs’ publicly-acknowledged play caller was in the 2006 Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia Tech and this year’s Independence Bowl featured a makeshift defensive staff that included the head coach and a pair of graduate assistants.

All other things being equal, I’d pick Wally Butts to beat Mark Richt in a bowl game, but I’d pick Mark Richt to beat any other head coach in our history in a postseason showdown. (Don’t give me any of that "Jim Donnan was 4-0 in bowl games" business in the comments, please. We all know Coach Donnan’s success in the postseason, unlike Coach Butts’s, was due to his teams’ having underachieved in the regular season. Had Jim Donnan’s clubs not routinely wet the bed against Auburn and Georgia Tech, every one of his last four squads would have gone to a better bowl game against an opponent in the Red and Black’s weight class. Jim Donnan was undefeated in postseason play for the same reason I’d have a great ERA if I pitched in Little League.)

Conference Won-Lost Record and Winning Percentage:
Mehre: 28-23-3 (.546)
Butts: 28-18-2 (.604)
Dooley: 35-17-2 (.667)
Richt: 52-23 (.693)

Now we begin to get to the heart of the matter. (For what it’s worth, Coach Mehre’s first five Georgia teams played in the Southern Conference prior to the formation of the SEC in 1933.) Bowl games are all well and good, but, at the end of the day, it’s how you fare against your league brethren that counts.

In that respect, the four longest-lasting head coaches in Georgia history have followed a steady upward trajectory in conference play, as Wally Butts was 58 points better than Harry Mehre, Vince Dooley was 63 points better than Wally Butts, and Mark Richt was 26 points better than Vince Dooley through the first nine seasons of their respective careers.

Coach Richt’s Red and Black outfits have never posted a losing record in conference play and six of his last eight squads have finished 6-2 or better in regular-season SEC contests. Coach Mehre, on the other hand, finished under .500 in league play in three of his first eight years at the Georgia helm. Coach Butts’s first five Bulldog teams produced three losing conference ledgers and Coach Dooley guided the Bulldogs to a 2-3-1 SEC finish in his sixth season. (Note, as well, that Sewanee and Tulane were league members during the Harry Mehre and Wally Butts eras, while Arkansas and South Carolina joined after the end of the Vince Dooley era. Coach Richt has fared better against a stouter SEC.)

Mark Richt’s overall success in Southeastern Conference action---including two SEC titles, three conference championship game appearances, and four finishes of no worse than tied for first place in the East, with no losing records in the process---is without parallel in Georgia football history.

Non-Conference Won-Lost Record and Winning Percentage:
Mehre: 25-8-1 (.750)
Butts: 42-7-1 (.850)
Dooley: 31-11-2 (.727)
Richt: 38-4 (.905)

Ere anyone attempts to argue that Coach Richt’s superb out-of-conference ledger is the product of schedules stacked with the likes of Northwestern State, Western Kentucky, Tennessee Tech, and Hawaii in the 2008 Sugar Bowl, I should hasten to point out that he is 21-4 against Arizona State, Boise State, Boston College, Clemson, Colorado, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Purdue, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Even if we factor out Division I-AA teams, Sun Belt squads, and similar schedule fodder, Coach Richt is .840 against teams from automatic BCS-qualifying conferences other than the SEC. (Yes, I’m going ahead and counting the Broncos in that category because the Mountain West will get a guaranteed bid as soon as Boise State is invited to join.)

Let us not forget, either, that the Yellow Jackets were conference opponents of Georgia’s throughout the tenures of Coach Mehre and Coach Butts, or that Coach Dooley played one regular-season road game outside the South in his entire career. The Bulldogs’ schedules for the applicable years under Coach Richt’s three long-serving predecessors contained many tough outs, including the perennial Eastern powers of the day, but those slates also offered up the likes of Furman (nine times), Mercer (seven times), and, yes, Tennessee Tech. Coach Richt quite likely is the best coach Georgia has ever had where non-conference opponents are concerned, and Coach Butts is the only one of his predecessors who even arguably is his peer.

Championships Won:
Mehre: 0 conference, 0 national
Butts: 2 conference, 2 national
Dooley: 2 conference, 1 national
Richt: 2 conference, 0 national

The figures in Wally Butts’s and Vince Dooley’s national championship columns come with enormous asterisks attached. Coach Butts captured the national crown in the 1946 Williamson poll and, although six recognized polls ranked Georgia No. 1 in 1942, the Associated Press rankings were not among the ones that did. Coach Dooley guided his 1968 club to a national championship in the Litkenhous poll, despite a 14-point bowl loss to Arkansas. Simply put, even we don’t claim 1946 and 1968.

Wally Butts, Vince Dooley, and Mark Richt all won a pair of SEC championships in their first nine years on the job. Coach Butts’s first nine teams produced two top ten finishes in the AP poll: No. 2 in 1942 and No. 3 in 1946. Coach Dooley’s first nine teams produced three top ten finishes in the AP poll: No. 4 in 1966, No. 8 in 1968, and No. 7 in 1971. Coach Richt’s first nine teams produced five top ten finishes in the AP poll: No. 3 in 2002, No. 7 in 2003, No. 7 in 2004, No. 10 in 2005, and No. 2 in 2007. The lack of a national title is a legitimate knock on Coach Richt’s overall performance, but, where championships and poll rankings are concerned, it is the only legitimate knock against him.

Conclusion

There are those in Bulldog Nation who would like to see Mark Richt run out of town on a rail. Such people should be turned over to the custody of Mike Leach, in the hope that he will treat their obvious head trauma the way he treated Adam James’s. (To be fair to Coach Leach, Reggie Ball once was pulled from a game against Georgia after reportedly sustaining a concussion when he shoved a Bulldog trainer with his hand, and the Georgia Tech medical staff treated him for his concussion by allowing him to stand on the sidelines yelling and waving a towel, so unorthodox treatments are nothing novel in college football.)

Mark Richt isn’t perfect, and his few deficiencies (perhaps because they are so few) are glaring, although some of them---for instance, the loyalty that caused him to retain Willie Martinez at least two seasons too long---stem from qualities that are admirable and have helped produce such favorable conditions as the stability that anchored a string of ten-win seasons. The sacking of three underperforming staff members answered a lot of critical questions about Coach Richt’s toughness and demonstrated his continued fitness for the job.

His record against Florida is intolerable and inexcusable. The Sunshine State Saurians have multiple natural advantages---money, facilities, climate, tradition, top-shelf coaching, a rich natural recruiting base---but Georgia is among the few schools in the nation with the ability to match the Gators in these departments. While it is true that the Bulldogs were mired in lengthy losing stretches against the Orange and Blue under each of the two coaches who immediately preceded Coach Richt, he was hired to make up for their shortcomings, and, in this area, he has failed to do so.

Coach Richt has gone up against by far the two best coaches in Florida history, but he had a losing record even against Ron Zook, who was on a par with or perhaps even below most of the Gator coaches upon whom previous Bulldog skippers feasted. Besides, it isn’t as though Florida never fielded good teams before Steve Spurrier; one of them, in 1985, rolled into Jacksonville as the No. 1 team in the nation . . . and returned to Gainesville after absorbing a 24-3 drubbing from the ‘Dawgs.

There are areas in need of improvement, which are few yet important and obvious. In recent weeks, though, we have seen concrete steps in the direction of correcting these flaws in the program. Mark Richt’s recent efforts to restore Georgia football to its prior height serve as reminders of the heights to which he previously has taken the Bulldogs, which, on the whole, compare favorably---in some cases, very favorably---with the marks established by Harry Mehre, Wally Butts, and Vince Dooley. Mark Richt, as the saying goes, isn’t in a class by himself, but it doesn’t take long to call the roll.

Also, he never went back on his word after letting his wife publicly state that he wouldn’t change his mind or being told by a child of his that she felt like she had gotten her daddy back, and he never skipped town with half the coaching staff while calling recruits and telling them not to go to class so they could bolt with him, so there’s that.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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