Mark Richt's First Eleven Years with the Georgia Bulldogs: An Assessment (Part Three)

Each year, I take a look at Mark Richt’s record in comparison to that of his predecessors after an equal number of seasons spent strolling the Sanford Stadium sideline. Thus far this offseason, I have looked at Mark Richt’s record against infrequent and minor SEC foes, and also at Coach Richt’s record against major rivals. We now turn to his overall ledger, broken down along several lines.

As before, in order to compare apples to apples to the greatest extent possible, I will be looking at the first eleven seasons in the respective tenures of Wally Butts (1939-1949), Vince Dooley (1964-1974), and Mark Richt (2001-2011). Due to significant changes in college football over the survey period (including a dramatic increase in the number of bowl games, steady increases in the numbers of total games and SEC games played in a single season, and the addition of a conference championship game), I will be placing greater emphasis upon winning percentages than upon absolute numbers of wins and losses. (For instance, I will not be comparing ten-win seasons, as that indicator would be skewed heavily in favor of more recent campaigns.)

Here now, I give you the pertinent data:

Overall record:
Butts: 83-33-4 (.708)
Dooley: 79-38-5 (.668)
Richt: 106-38 (.736)

As one would expect from a program’s three winningest coaches, the respective rates of claiming victory all fall within a fairly narrow range: Coach Dooley won just over two-thirds of his games; Coach Richt won just under three-fourths of his games; Coach Butts fell between them. It is clear, though, that Coach Richt is outpacing his predecessors in overall winning percentage, and it is telling that Coach Dooley lost exactly as many games in his first eleven years as Coach Richt, even though the younger man coached 22 more games---the equivalent of two full regular seasons---than the athletic director who hired him. Coach Butts had five fewer losses in 24 fewer outings.

Conference record:
Butts: 35-22-3 (.608)
Dooley: 42-23-2 (.642)
Richt: 62-30 (.674)

Here, ultimately, is where the rubber meets the road: Georgia coaches are judged by their performance against their SEC coevals, and Coach Richt has been successful better than two-thirds of the time, including (as the above record does) a pair of SEC Championship Game victories. In absolute terms, he has eight more losses than Coach Butts in 32 more tries, and seven more losses than Coach Dooley in 25 more tries. On a season-by-season basis, Coach Butts had losing records in conference play in four of his first eleven autumns (though, to be fair, one of those four years was in 1943, when every letterman from the 11-1 national championship team of 1942 was off fighting World War II), Coach Dooley had two losing SEC ledgers in that same span, and Coach Richt’s teams have finished below .500 in league play once.

Non-conference record:
Butts: 48-11-1 (.808)
Dooley: 37-15-3 (.700)
Richt: 44-8 (.846)

Amid all the fan clamor for a nine-game SEC schedule, now might be an opportune time to note the steady decline in non-conference games---from 60 in Wally Butts’s first eleven years to 55 in Vince Dooley’s to 52 in Mark Richt’s (and that’s counting eleven bowl opponents for Coach Richt, as against eight for Coach Dooley and six for Coach Butts)---even as the fall campaign has lengthened steadily. Coach Richt edges out Coach Butts by about four percentage points while outpacing Coach Dooley by a whopping 15 per cent differential. In Coach Dooley’s defense, though, he is the only one of the three to have played both the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the South Carolina Gamecocks as non-conference rivals. (I’d like to credit it to the fact that Coach Dooley also had to face the Clemson Tigers more frequently than his two colleagues, but Vince was 8-1 against the Fort Hill Felines in his first eleven seasons, though that worm certainly turned in subsequent years.)

Bowl record:
Butts: 4-1-1 (.750)
Dooley: 4-4 (.500)
Richt: 7-4 (.636)

Due to the proliferation of postseason contests, raw numbers alone are unrepresentative; had the current number of bowl games been around since the 1930s, Coach Butts would have sent teams to lackluster holiday destinations in 1940 (5-4-1), 1943 (6-4), and 1944 (7-3). As it stands, though, Coach Butts was the undisputed “bowl master,” winning postseason tilts at a 75 per cent clip during his first eleven seasons. Coach Richt, weighed down by exasperating bowl losses in each of the last two seasons (by a combined seven points in games marred by timid offensive play-calling in the red zone), falls just about smack-dab between his two long-tenured predecessors.

Championships won:
Butts: 3 SEC, 2 national
Dooley: 2 SEC, 1 national
Richt: 2 SEC, 0 national

There are pretty significant asterisks to be attached to two-thirds of those national championships: Coach Butts’s team in 1946, and Coach Dooley’s in 1968, were ranked No. 1 by the Williamson and Litkenhous polls, respectively. Frankly, those national titles are footnotes in the media guide, not championships we actually claim, as the only such flags flying over Sanford Stadium commemorate the Bulldogs’ two consensus national crowns, not the handful of others conferred by minor selectors of questionable legitimacy. What can I tell you; as we have demonstrated by our consistent institutional conduct for the last 65 years, we just don’t value national championships of dubious validity.

Discounting those two titles, therefore, Coach Butts---who captured three conference crowns and the 1942 national championship (Georgia won the Rose Bowl, so the Ohio St. Buckeyes can bite a hog in the hindquarters)---clearly was the most accomplished Georgia coach through eleven seasons in this category. Coach Richt is keeping pace with Coach Dooley, but the glaring, and galling, zero in the incumbent Bulldog skipper’s crystal football column is what causes critics ignorantly to opine that he “is pretty clearly a B+ head man competing for titles against an A+ coach in the state to the west” when familiarity with basic math confirms that the “B+ head man” has a better career winning percentage than, a better bowl record than, more top ten final rankings in the coaches’ poll than, more seasons with double-digit wins than, the same number of consecutive double-digit win seasons as, the same number of SEC Championship Game appearances as, and the same number of finishes of no worse than tied for first place in the division as the “A+ coach” in question.

Seasons at or below .500:
Butts: 2 (5-6 in 1939, 4-6-1 in 1949)
Dooley: 3 (5-5-1 in 1969, 5-5 in 1970, 6-6 in 1974)
Richt: 1 (6-7 in 2010)

2010 was a miserable experience in Bulldog Nation, but let’s keep it in perspective: Mark Richt had only one such season, fewer than his predecessors. Wally Butts lost more than four games in two of his first eleven seasons; Mark Richt lost more than four games in two of his first eleven seasons, too, despite playing longer regular seasons, five more bowl games, and four SEC Championship Games.

Here is where raw numbers become rather telling: After eleven seasons on the job in the Classic City, Wally Butts had 33 losses; Vince Dooley, 38; and Mark Richt, 38. That is to say, with eleven years under each of their belts, Coach Butts averaged three losses per year, Coach Dooley averaged three and a half, and Coach Richt averaged three and a half. Meanwhile, Coach Butts averaged 7.55 wins; Coach Dooley, 7.18; and Coach Richt, 9.6. Our current skipper is coaching more games than his predecessors, but he isn’t losing more games than they did. The extra outings are translating into extra victories, and not because of softer scheduling, either; Coach Butts played Tennessee Tech as many times in his first eleven seasons as Coach Richt did in his. There never has been any shortage of weak sisters on the Bulldogs’ slate, and the only meaningful difference today is that the tougher out-of-conference games now have been replaced by SEC contests.

Conclusion

In just about every category except national titles won, Mark Richt has outstripped the historical average for Georgia coaches, and he has compared favorably with his conference contemporaries by every measure other than that one. (Mark Richt has taken his teams to four SEC Championship Games, matching Nick Saban and outpacing Urban Meyer by one. Coach Meyer, Coach Richt, and Coach Saban are three of only seven coaches in the history of the league---Coach Dooley, LSU’s Bernie Moore, Florida’s Steve Spurrier, and Alabama’s Frank Thomas are the other four---to have won two SEC titles in their first five years. Coach Richt and Coach Saban are two of only six coaches in the history of the league---Bear Bryant, Vince Dooley, Phillip Fulmer, and Steve Spurrier are the other four---to have strung together four consecutive ten-win seasons.) The glare of the crystal football has blinded many observers to the steady reliability of Mark Richt’s performance, which places him in the company of such coaches as Frank Beamer, Bobby Bowden, Mack Brown, Vince Dooley, and Tom Osborne, whose quiet excellence for many years was overshadowed by their failure to finish No. 1 in the final polls. (Four of the five of them eventually got there, incidentally.)

This is not to say Mark Richt is above criticism; he isn’t. There have been deficiencies, some of which went unaddressed for far too long, and some of which arguably have not been addressed yet. Stability, on occasion, has led to stagnation, and, while Coach Richt has not rejected change, he sometimes has resisted it for longer than he ought to have. As a Christian, he would be the first to tell you he isn’t perfect, he’s just forgiven.

The criticism that Mark Richt, while winning at a greater rate than his predecessors, has not won at a rate commensurate with such national title-winners as Urban Meyer, Les Miles, Nick Saban, and Steve Spurrier is a fair one, though (as demonstrated above) it is nowhere near as fair as many outsiders seem to suppose it is. Moreover, that criticism is muted somewhat by the fact that he has been able to benefit neither from the oversigning practiced by his SEC West rivals nor from the lax drug and alcohol policies which have enabled his SEC East rivals to levy half-game and no-game suspensions. Whether these policies are changing or ought to change are matters about which reasonable fans are able to disagree, but this much is clear: Mark Richt is a nice guy who finishes first often, if not as often as we might like. If he is not an A coach, then Georgia has never had an A coach. We should be pleased, but not content, with his performance.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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