Grading Mark Richt's First Ten Years With the Georgia Bulldogs (Part I)

Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to put 2010 behind us. I have reviewed my preseason predictions and my bowl forecasts, which leaves me with the duty to evaluate Mark Richt’s tenure as the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs after a full decade on the job.

As I did last year, I will judge Coach Richt in the only fair way I know how, by comparing his performance in his time on the job to the performances of those of his predecessors who lasted at least that long in the job, for the same period. In other words, I will be comparing Mark Richt’s first ten years as the head coach in Athens (2001-2010) to the first ten years of Harry Mehre (1928-1937), Wally Butts (1939-1948), and Vince Dooley (1964-1973).

I will not be looking at Coach Butts’s last twelve years (1949-1960), Coach Dooley’s last 15 years (1974-1988), or any part of the tenures of any Georgia coaches who guided the program for less than a decade. Accordingly, Pop Warner, Alex Cunningham (who technically led the program for ten years, from 1910 to 1919, but who fielded only eight teams, as the Red and Black took the war years of 1917 and 1918 off), Herman Stegeman, Kid Woodruff, Johnny Griffith, Ray Goff, Jim Donnan, and the lesser-known Georgia coaches will not be considered.

Only four head coaches have led the Bulldogs for ten or more football seasons: our current coach, the two men whose names are on the building in which our current coach’s office is located, and the man whose name is on the athletic complex in which that building is located. It is at these four men we will be looking, examining their respective records against the rest of the teams currently in the SEC, against perennial non-conference opponents Clemson and Georgia Tech, overall, in bowls, in conference play, and against out-of-conference opponents, in order to determine where Coach Richt rates in the context of Georgia history. We will look at the highs (championships won) and the lows (seasons at or below .500), as well.

This is an attempt at fairness, though I am sure it will get me branded a Richtophile by those who mistakenly believe Thomas Jefferson was in attendance at the Constitutional convention instead of serving as the U.S. minister plenipotentiary to France. (Please note that the foregoing is merely a good-natured jab at CCRider, with whom I have principled disagreements, but whom I nevertheless respect. Also, I’d be willing to bet we see eye-to-eye on Constitutional interpretation.) The ground rules having been established, let us begin:

Georgia v. Mississippi State:
Mehre: 0-0
Butts: 0-0
Dooley: 3-1
Richt: 2-1

The two sets of SEC Bulldogs never have been frequent foils for one another, and the teams met only once before 1950. Coach Dooley and Coach Richt had similar starts against Mississippi State: their respective first three encounters with MSU each consisted of one double-digit victory, one three-point victory, and one low-scoring setback in the Magnolia State.

Georgia v. Vanderbilt:
Mehre: 1-1
Butts: 0-0
Dooley: 7-1
Richt: 9-1

As aggravating as it is that Georgia lost to the Commies in 2006, the performance of Coach Richt’s clubs against the ‘Dores has been no worse than par for the course. No Bulldog head coach has beaten Vandy more times in his first decade than Mark Richt, and every Georgia skipper with a ten-year tenure who faced the Commodores in his first decade on the job lost to Vanderbilt exactly once in that span.

Georgia v. Kentucky:
Mehre: 0-0
Butts: 5-2-1
Dooley: 8-2
Richt: 8-2

Here, we see the Vanderbilt theme repeated: Georgia coaches who faced the Wildcats in their first ten years lost to Kentucky twice during that period. Regarding his most comparable predecessor, Coach Richt continues to hold serve when measured against Coach Dooley.

Georgia v. Arkansas:
Mehre: 0-0
Butts: 0-0
Dooley: 0-1
Richt: 5-1

Once again, last year’s loss to one of the best recent Razorback squads was gut-wrenching, but, in context, it doesn’t look so bad. Coach Richt’s predecessors rarely faced, and never beat, the Hogs in the first ten years of their Georgia careers. More than half of the Bulldogs’ all-time wins over Arkansas have occurred on Coach Richt’s watch, as opposed to only one-fourth of the Red and Black’s all-time losses.

Georgia v. Alabama:
Mehre: 1-4
Butts: 4-3
Dooley: 1-3
Richt: 3-1

While the Bulldogs’ lone loss to the Crimson Tide in the Mark Richt era was absolutely devastating, it was a single setback, which distinguishes him from his predecessors, all of whom lost at least thrice against Alabama and only one of whom was above .500 against the Tide.

Georgia v. LSU:
Mehre: 0-3
Butts: 2-4
Dooley: 0-0
Richt: 3-3

The Bulldogs’ budding rivalry with the Bayou Bengals has blossomed over the course of the last decade, producing a .500 record (overall and in a pair of SEC Championship Game tilts), with two of the three losses coming by single digits. Coach Richt’s 3-3 record against Louisiana State represents an improvement over his predecessors’ records, particularly when we pause to consider how solid the Tigers have been during the Nick Saban and Les Miles regimes.

Georgia v. Ole Miss:
Mehre: 0-0
Butts: 1-1-1
Dooley: 5-3
Richt: 4-0

Since the series started in 1940, only Coach Richt has maintained an unblemished ledger against the Rebels in his first decade on the job, with the ‘Dawgs defeating the Mississippians by two touchdowns or more in three of four meetings during his tenure.

Georgia v. Clemson:
Mehre: 2-0
Butts: 4-0
Dooley: 8-0
Richt: 2-0

The heyday of the Red and Black’s rivalry with the Orange and Purple came in the second half of the Vince Dooley era, in which the two teams went 5-5-1 against one another between 1977 and 1987, with nine of eleven meetings being settled by seven or fewer points. Nevertheless, no Georgia coach who lasted at least a decade in Athens has ever lost to the Tigers in his first ten years on the job, though Coach Richt, like Coach Mehre, only had two opportunities to cross paths with Clemson during that portion of his Classic City career.

Georgia v. South Carolina:
Mehre: 1-0
Butts: 3-0
Dooley: 6-0-1
Richt: 7-3

Outside of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (about which more anon), there may be no series in which Bulldog Nation has greater cause for concern than in the annual division battle with the Palmetto State Poultry. That the gap has narrowed is evident, both from Coach Richt’s won-lost record against the Gamecocks---his teams have lost thrice to South Carolina, a program to which none of his long-lasting predecessors lost even once in the same time-frame---and from the routine closeness of those contests. To their credit, the Garnet and Black have gotten better under Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier, ultimately winning the SEC East last season, so it isn’t merely a matter of the Bulldogs backsliding. Nevertheless, a trio of losses in ten tries represents a step in the wrong direction historically, with one caveat: Georgia lost to South Carolina five times in eleven meetings between Vince Dooley’s last season in 1988 and Jim Donnan’s last season in 2000.

Georgia v. Tennessee:
Mehre: 0-2
Butts: 0-0
Dooley: 1-2-1
Richt: 6-4

On the one hand, Mark Richt has lost to the Vols as many times in his first ten years (4) as Harry Mehre, Wally Butts, and Vince Dooley combined. On the other hand, Coach Richt has beaten the Big Orange six times in ten tries, whereas his three similarly-tenured predecessors defeated Tennessee once in a half-dozen attempts. Coach Richt has delivered more than one-third of all of Georgia’s victories over the Volunteers, including half of all of the Bulldogs’ wins in Neyland Stadium.

Georgia v. Georgia Tech:
Mehre: 6-2-2
Butts: 6-4
Dooley: 8-2
Richt: 9-1

Clearly, no Georgia coach has been as successful against the Yellow Jackets in his first ten years on the job as Mark Richt, and only Vince Dooley comes close. Truly, Coach Richt runs this state.

Georgia v. Auburn:
Mehre: 5-4-1
Butts: 7-2
Dooley: 5-5
Richt: 6-4

The closeness of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry is attested to by the fact that three of the four longest-serving Georgia coaches all hovered around .500 against the Plainsmen after ten years in the Classic City. Though he has not matched Coach Butts’s success against the Tigers, Coach Richt has fared marginally better against the Bulldogs’ oldest foes than Coach Mehre and Coach Dooley, claiming memorable victories over Auburn in 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, and 2009. Half of Coach Richt’s losses to the Plainsmen came against Auburn squads that went undefeated.

Georgia v. Florida:
Mehre: 6-3-1
Butts: 8-1
Dooley: 5-4-1
Richt: 2-8

There’s just no sugar-coating this one. Every previous long-lived Georgia coach has had a winning record against the Gators at the end of a decade, even if only barely, but Mark Richt has lost to the Sunshine State Saurians four-fifths of the time. Though Coach Richt is the only Bulldog skipper to have faced both of the Orange and Blue’s two greatest coaches, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, he faced the former only once in Jacksonville, and Coach Richt had a losing record even against the mediocre Ron Zook. Most maddening is the fact that the ‘Dawgs dropped thoroughly winnable games against the Gators in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2010. In the 1990s, Ray Goff’s and Jim Donnan’s teams were simply outmatched by the Evil Genius’s dominant squads, but, despite being essentially on an equal footing with Florida, Mark Richt has fared no better against the Saurians than the rest of the SEC East. Since the road from Athens to Atlanta runs through Jacksonville, this situation is intolerable and inexcusable, and it ultimately may prove to be as much of an albatross around Coach Richt’s neck as John Cooper’s inability to beat Michigan eventually did.

Conclusion

On the whole, it’s hard to be terribly critical of Coach Richt’s records against any SEC opponents or significant out-of-conference rivals except Florida and, to a lesser yet still not inconsiderable extent, South Carolina. However, the dominance of often good and occasionally great Georgia teams by often good yet rarely great Gator squads is unprecedented, as the Saurians’ only comparable periods of dominance came when the ‘Dawgs were down, the Gators were peaking, or both.

Likewise, the gradual decline of the Red and Black at a time of gradual improvement by the Garnet and Black is disturbing, though existing downward trends in the Bulldogs’ series with both SEC East competitors were ameliorated, but not reversed, when Coach Richt arrived in the Classic City. The Bulldogs were 1-10 against Florida from 1990 to 2000 and 6-5 against South Carolina from 1988 to 2000, so the Mark Richt era has seen incremental improvements in both rivalries, though not restorations of the previous trends that saw Georgia go 33-7-2 against the Gamecocks through 1987 and 44-22-2 against the Gators through 1989.

Aside from those division foes, the Athenians otherwise have fared well, and frequently very well, against the other opponents on the schedule under Mark Richt in comparison to the coaches who have come before him.

To be continued . . .

Go ‘Dawgs!

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