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

We are halfway through our year-end review of Mark Richt’s performance as the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs after a decade on the job. In the first installment, we compared Coach Richt’s records against specific opponents to those of his predecessors in the first ten years of each of their tenures, and now we turn to an evaluation of the respective coaches’ ledgers in more general terms.

As before, in an effort to draw direct apples-to-apples comparisons (of the sort some commentators accuse me, incorrectly, of failing to draw), I will be setting the first ten years of the Mark Richt era (2001-2010) alongside the first ten years of the head coaching careers of Harry Mehre (1928-1937), Wally Butts (1939-1948), and Vince Dooley (1964-1973). Excluded from consideration are Coach Butts’s last twelve years (1949-1960), Coach Dooley’s last 15 years (1974-1988), and the years of service of all Red and Black head coaches who lasted less than a decade (including Alex Cunningham, who fielded eight teams in ten years because Georgia took the war years of 1917 and 1918 off). Though, admittedly, times have changed in many ways since the late 1920s, those changes generally have been of the "a rising tide lifts all boats" variety that provide equal benefits, or, at least, the equal opportunity to take advantage of the available benefits, to all comers; Mark Richt has more talent on hand than his predecessors did, but, then again, so does every opposing coach and program he faces, so the net differential is slight enough to make meaningful comparisons possible.

Got it? Good. Here is the tale of the tape:

Overall Won-Lost Record and Winning Percentage:
Mehre: 59-34-6 (.626)
Butts: 79-27-3 (.739)
Dooley: 73-32-5 (.686)
Richt: 96-34 (.739)

When looking broadly at overall records, I believe it is necessary to look at winning percentages, as well as at total wins, losses, and ties, because the longer regular season, the proliferation of bowl games, and the advent of the SEC Championship Game have produced rather dramatic increases in the total number of games teams play. This is underscored by the fact that, after ten years as the head man in Athens, Coach Mehre had led the Bulldogs onto the field 99 times; Coach Butts, 109 times; Coach Dooley, 110 times; and Coach Richt, 130 times.

In light of that reality, it is noteworthy how close the ten-year loss totals are for the four longest-tenured head coaches in Georgia football history. In his initial decade in Athens, Mark Richt coached the Bulldogs in 20 more games than Vince Dooley, 21 more than Wally Butts, and 31 more than Harry Mehre . . . yet Coach Richt carded the same number of losses as Coach Mehre and only two more than Coach Dooley.

Likewise, Mark Richt coached 21 more games in his first decade than Wally Butts did in his, yet those extra outings produced only seven additional setbacks. Consequently, the two men’s ten-year winning percentages are virtually identical, with Coach Butts’s .73853 narrowly edging Coach Richt’s .73846 in the same sort of battle of decimal places that differentiated George Kell and Ted Williams in the race for the 1949 American League batting title. In terms of overall won-lost record and winning percentage, it’s hard to argue that Mark Richt hasn’t been a good coach, unless one is prepared to argue that Georgia has never had a good coach. As we shall see, this is a recurring theme.

Bowl Won-Lost Record and Winning Percentage:
Mehre: 0-0 (.000)
Butts: 4-1-1 (.750)
Dooley: 4-3 (.571)
Richt: 7-3 (.700)

It wouldn’t be fair to hold it against Coach Mehre that he never took the Bulldogs to a bowl game; in an era in which all bowls were major bowls, his 1930 (7-2-1), 1931 (8-2), 1933 (8-2), and 1934 (7-3) squads did not qualify for postseason play, though all four of those teams would have gone bowling in the current climate. Coach Richt’s postseason success took a significant hit as a result of Georgia’s loss to Central Florida in last year’s Liberty Bowl, of course, but he continues to have the second-highest bowl winning percentage among the four longest-serving Bulldog coaches.

Conference Won-Lost Record and Winning Percentage:
Mehre: 29-25-5 (.534)
Butts: 34-18-2 (.648)
Dooley: 38-21-2 (.639)
Richt: 53-27 (.663)

Please note that, during the first five years of Coach Mehre’s tenure, the Red and Black competed in the Southern Conference, and that Coach Richt’s 2-1 record in SEC Championship Games is not incorporated into the above tally. Even excluding his .667 winning clip in conference title tilts, Coach Richt still has the best league winning percentage of any Georgia coach with a decade under his belt. Moreover, despite having led the Bulldogs in 80 regular-season SEC games, Coach Richt has lost only twice more than Coach Mehre (who presided over 59 conference contests), six more times than Coach Dooley (61), and nine more times than Coach Butts (54).

Yes, the critics will counter, but just look at the last five years, and see how Coach Richt has dropped off! It’s true; he has. From 2006 to 2010, Coach Richt was 23-17 in SEC play, posting a .575 winning percentage. This trails significantly Coach Butts’s 22-7 record and .759 percentage from 1944 to 1948. However, Coach Richt’s conference record in his sixth through tenth seasons still exceeds the .500 winning percentage of Coach Mehre (who went 12-12-2 in SEC outings from 1933 to 1937) and the .547 winning percentage of Coach Dooley (who went 17-14-1 in league play from 1969 to 1973).

The fairer criticism of Coach Richt is that, whereas Coach Butts (in 1946 and 1948) and Coach Dooley (in 1966 and 1968) both went undefeated in SEC play twice in their first ten years, Coach Richt has yet to complete a conference campaign with an unblemished ledger. The flipside of this is that, while Coach Richt has finished with a losing league record just once (3-5 in 2010), Coach Dooley did it twice (in 1969 and 1973), Coach Butts did it thrice (in 1939, 1940, and 1943), and Coach Mehre did it four times (in 1928, 1932, 1935, and 1937).

Non-Conference Won-Lost Record and Winning Percentage:
Mehre: 30-9-1 (.763)
Butts: 45-9-1 (.827)
Dooley: 35-11-3 (.745)
Richt: 41-6 (.872)

These numbers include bowl results, but do not include SEC Championship Game outcomes or the games against non-conference teams in the mid-1960s which counted as de facto league outings (which were included in the preceding set of figures). Bear in mind, as well, that Coach Mehre and Coach Butts faced the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets as a conference opponent, whereas Coach Dooley and Coach Richt locked horns with the Engineers as an out-of-conference rival.

Because SEC slates have expanded as regular seasons have lengthened, the four coaches faced comparable numbers of non-conference foes in their respective opening decades: Coach Mehre faced 40 non-league opponents; Coach Butts, 55; Coach Dooley, 49; and Coach Richt, 47. Of that quartet, Coach Richt has the fewest losses, the highest winning percentage, and the most undefeated seasons in non-conference play (5). Like Coach Butts and Coach Dooley, Coach Richt has never posted a losing record against non-SEC opposition in any of his first ten years, and the current Bulldog skipper has lost more than one out-of-conference contest in an autumn only once, last year.

Championships Won:
Mehre: 0 conference, 0 national
Butts: 3 conference, 2 national
Dooley: 2 conference, 1 national
Richt: 2 conference, 0 national

Rather a large asterisk needs to be attached to a couple of those national championships; Georgia’s only consensus No. 1 rankings came in 1942 (under Wally Butts) and in 1980 (under Vince Dooley), and the 1946 and 1968 titles were bestowed by the Williamson power ratings system and the Litkenhous difference-by-score formula, respectively. Those are the sorts of national championships the Alabama Crimson Tide are mocked for counting.

Still, the point remains: Mark Richt’s goose egg in the national championship column remains a sore spot among the faithful, though this likely has less to do with any deficiency inherent in our head coach than with the fact that the SEC has won five straight BCS titles---the last SEC champion not to take home the crystal football at season’s end was Georgia in 2005---and the disconcerting reality that four of Coach Richt’s current conference coevals (Gene Chizik, Les Miles, Nick Saban, and Steve Spurrier), as well as such former foils as Phillip Fulmer and Urban Meyer, all have ended the autumn ranked No. 1 at an SEC school. This shortcoming threatens to overshadow his having matched Coach Dooley’s first decade in number of conference championships won.

Seasons at or Below .500:
Mehre: 2 (4-5 in 1928, 2-5-2 in 1932)
Butts: 1 (5-6 in 1939)
Dooley: 2 (5-5-1 in 1969, 5-5 in 1970)
Richt: 1 (6-7 in 2010)

Even good coaches have mediocre seasons. It ain’t fun, but it happens, and it passes. Coach Mehre followed up his worst season with an 8-2 campaign in 1933; Coach Butts made up for the lone losing ledger of his first decade by improving steadily to 5-4-1 in 1940, 9-1-1 in 1941, and 11-1 in 1942; Coach Dooley erased the stigma of back-to-back .500 records by going 11-1 in 1971. In any case, Coach Richt has had exactly as many truly mediocre seasons as Coach Butts had had at the same point in his career, and fewer than Coach Mehre and Coach Dooley did.

Conclusion

As an admirer of concision, I must concede that Matt Wise said it best within the absurdly confining strictures of Twitter:

prior to last season 90-27. .500 or better vs every SEC school except UF (2-8). Still above Butts & Dooley pace. Relax

Any honest evaluation of the numbers in their totality necessarily leads to the conclusion that Mark Richt is the best Georgia head football coach of the last 50 years, and lends credence to the contention that he is the best of all time. The argument against Coach Richt---and it is far from a frivolous one---is that it matters not just that you win, but also when you win. Given the dramatic drop-off between Coach Butts’s first ten years and his last twelve seasons, there is a legitimate question whether evaluating the numbers in their totality is the most accurate approach to take, and no denizen of Bulldog Nation ought to have his fandom questioned for raising that inquiry.

Which, then, is the real Mark Richt? Is it the coach who went 52-13 and won two SEC championships from 2001 to 2005, or is it the coach who went 44-21 and failed to make it to a single conference championship game from 2006 to 2010? Is Coach Richt going through a bad patch, as Coach Dooley did between 1969 and 1974 before recovering and going on an impressive run from 1975 to 1983, or is he in the midst of a long decline, the way Coach Butts was between 1949 and 1958 before the short-lived resurgence of 1959?

At the end of the day, the way you answer those questions boils down to the way you answer this one: "Do you believe Mark Richt was right when he told the Bulldog Club that he knew what the hell he was doing?" According to the yardsticks established by Harry Mehre, Wally Butts, and Vince Dooley, there certainly appears to be a compelling case to be made for the proposition that he does . . . though the natives (including this one) justifiably are getting restless, so now would be a good time to prove that what we know was true in the past remains relevant in the present. Fortunately, there is cause for hope that the law of averages applies from season to season, as it does from series to series, inasmuch as 2010 was an autumn of significant statistical anomalies in which almost everything improved except the Bulldogs’ record.

Mr. Sanchez raises a fair question: "Can we do better than Mark Richt?" History is not necessarily destiny, but past definitely is prologue, and the heritage of Georgia football indicates that improving upon Mark Richt would be highly unlikely, and perhaps unprecedented. Anyone advocating a coaching change at this juncture must confront the fact that a grand slam hire would be required to take the program to a higher level over the next decade than the one it has occupied over the last one. A mere home run hire would not suffice; if Greg McGarity merely succeeds in bringing in the next Vince Dooley, we will be worse off, albeit only marginally so.

Of course, it remains plausible to presume Coach Richt has passed his prime. After all, his mentor, Bobby Bowden, undoubtedly did, and, among his long-lived predecessors in the Classic City, Wally Butts clearly did, while Vince Dooley arguably did. It remains the case, though, that, in order to improve upon Mark Richt, we would have to hire a coach who not only was better than our current coach, but who also was better than Harry Mehre, Wally Butts, and Vince Dooley, too. If we fire Mark Richt and hire someone else, either his successor undeniably will be the best coach the Bulldogs have ever had, or we arguably will have traded down.

The attainment of that goal is by no means an impossible dream. The Alabama Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators once faced the daunting tasks of improving upon Frank Thomas and Steve Spurrier, respectively, yet still they managed to find Bear Bryant and Urban Meyer. We know, therefore, that it can be done; we just need to be aware of the odds ere we elect to---as we may, and as we may have to---roll the dice.

Can we do better than Mark Richt? Yes, we can . . . but, historically, we haven’t, and we should proceed realistically with the full knowledge of our heritage. Lord Falkland said it best: "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." If the downward trend continues this fall for a fourth straight season, it will be necessary to change, but, if the program begins to ascend anew, the wisdom bestowed upon us by history counsels against making a change we do not need.

Coming Soon: Looking ahead to the 2011 college football season.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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