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In Defense of Damon Evans and Mark Richt

When Tommy Perkins expressed his fear that Florida was on the verge of becoming the Southern California of the S.E.C., I responded to his cri de coeur by offering my view that the Gators did not stand astride the Southeastern Conference like the Colossus of Rhodes and that we would do well to remember the example of "Ozymandias" when contemplating a future under our new Gator overlords . . . whom we have right where we want them.

Yes, the Gators are good, but let's not get carried away here.

However, 34hawk wrote to register his disagreement with this position. In so doing, he made a point both admirable and unexceptional: Georgia must match Florida's commitment to excellence if Bulldog Nation hopes to attain the dizzying heights now occupied by the hated Gators.

Obviously, no conscientious Georgia booster could quarrel with 34hawk's premise that we must be willing to bear the burden and pay the price that is required for athletic achievement on the uppermost of elite levels. However, I must take issue with some of 34hawk's specific contentions in defense of his unassailable ideal. For instance, he writes:

Florida has no intrinsic advantage that predisposes them [sic.] to achieve more than we. The "natural resources" for excellence are as abundant and readily available in Georgia as they are in Florida. Our in-state high school programs, [a]lumni support, financial standing, facilities, weather patterns, etc..... are all on par with Florida's.

The difference is simple: Florida has had a great athletics director for over a decade. During that time we've had a retired and beloved football coach and his young protege serving in that capacity.

Jeremy Foley has set a standard of excellence at Florida that our AD must match. We will not overtake Florida by aiming low or waiting for them to stumble. Billy Donovan was a great hire. Ron Zook was a great fire. And Urban Meyer was a great hire.

Damon Evans has done a good job so far, and shows great promise. Now is the time for that promise to be fulfilled. Will he risk excellence? Does he have what it takes to be great? Or will he settle for being good?

34hawk's first paragraph not only is correct, it is a sufficiently succinct summation of precisely the proper perspective that it ought to be printed out, photocopied, and taped to the office door of everyone who works in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall. After that, though, 34hawk and I begin to part ways.

For one thing, there is a bit of selectivity in his characterization of Jeremy Foley's tenure as Florida's athletic director. Billy Donovan was a great hire. Ron Zook (more about whom in due time) was a great fire, but can Foley really be credited with running the Zooker out of town on a rail when he was the last Gator convert to the "Fire Ron Zook" movement?

Indeed, wasn't it Foley who hired Coach Zook in the first place, after whiffing on his first two choices to succeed Steve Spurrier? At best, Foley fell on his own fumble . . . and he did that only grudgingly, after much dragging of feet, to avoid having to fall on his own sword. Among Florida fans, there is far from unanimity regarding affinity for Foley, so we should be wary of being overly admiring of the verdancy of the lawn on the other side of the state line.

Beyond that, Urban Meyer definitely was a good hire, but it is too soon to claim that he was a great hire. As a basketball coach once said, a lot of guys have won one in a row. Given Coach Meyer's tendency to ease on down the road after a couple of years, there is little certainty regarding his longevity in Gainesville and, at this point, we do not know whether Coach Meyer is capable of winning consistently with his own players. There remains the very real possibility that, a few short years hence, the Gator faithful will feel exactly the same misgivings about, and frustration with, Urban Meyer that Kentucky fans felt with regard to Tubby Smith before he wisely bolted for Minnesota.

Once you've won a national championship in your school's most important sport, your job security is guaranteed, right?

Let us assume for the sake of argument that 34hawk is right that Jeremy Foley is "a great athletics director," though; what evidence suggests that Damon Evans is not a younger, shrewder, more energetic paragon of excellence in athletic administration? He has demonstrated appropriate levels of commitment both to Dennis Felton and to basketball facilities, marketed the Georgia "brand" nationally, dramatically upgraded the Bulldogs' out-of-conference scheduling in football, made Georgia's the nation's most profitable athletic program while investing in the future, been responsive to his constituency, and kept the athletic department free from scandal since negotiating the fallout from the J*m H*rr*ck fiasco.

What, precisely, is Damon Evans not doing that should be done? He has not yet been called upon to make a significant coaching hire, but he evidently is keeping Mark Richt, Dennis Felton, Andy Landers, Suzanne Yoculan, David Perno, and their coevals happy enough that they are not looking elsewhere.

Where are there financial needs that are not being met? Evans, a graduate of the Terry College of Business who has been recognized by the school with an "Outstanding Young Alumnus" award, structured an agreement to outsource Georgia's marketing rights that more than doubled the university's sponsorship revenue.

Because the use or depiction of any official University of Georgia symbol undoubtedly would get me in trouble with the logo cops, I have included instead the foregoing utterly gratuitous photograph of Kristin Davis.

Who still has a job that needs firing? Evans cleaned house when he took over as athletic director and, while the ticket office hasn't functioned nearly as well since Freddy Jones was canned, Evans's commitment to clearing out the dead wood in order to run an efficient operation is on full display.

Evans is providing the sort of smart management and purposeful leadership that is already well on the way to leaving the old guard of athletic directors who rose from the coaching ranks in the dust. While Foley came through the ticket office rather than off the sideline, it is not much of a stretch to suppose that a 54-year-old man who earned degrees in psychology and sports administration before America celebrated the Bicentennial might be a bit less energetic and innovative in the 21st century than a 36-year-old man who earned degrees in finance and sports administration in the 1990s.

In short, Paul Westerdawg is right that the perception of Georgia's inferiority to Florida in any athletic endeavor other than basketball---an area in which the administration is focusing attention and concentrating resources---has more to do with the psychological side-effects of crossing the state line on the way to Jacksonville than with any tangible cause capable of being measured and expressed using numbers. While we all know what the Sunshine State is shaped like (and what most Florida fans act like), there is no cause for "Gator envy."

More baffling still, though, is this passage from 34hawk's diary:

My fear is that Mark Richt is Georgia's Ron Zook. Richt is better than Ray Goff, and so far, better than Jim Donnan though not by much. He's certainly no Steve Spurrier. Last year[']s losses to Kentucky and Vanderbilt were inexcusable and reminiscent of Zook's losses to less[e]r teams.

I will grant that Mark Richt is no Steve Spurrier . . . Coach Richt (who is 2-1 against the Evil Genius as the head coach at Georgia and who was 5-3-1 against Darth Visor as the offensive coordinator at Florida State) neither practices lax discipline nor offers half-baked excuses.

I didn't enjoy losing to Vanderbilt and Kentucky any more than any other denizen of Bulldog Nation, but those setbacks were hardly "inexcusable and reminiscent of Zook's losses to less[e]r teams." Coach Zook was canned for losing to a team that lost to Division I-AA Maine; Vanderbilt, on the other hand, has been fairly competitive in the Bobby Johnson era, as evidenced by these final scores:

Vanderbilt wins:
2003 - Kentucky (28-17)
2004 - Mississippi State (31-13)
2005 - at Arkansas (28-24), Mississippi (31-23), at Tennessee (28-24)
2006 - at Georgia (24-22)

Vanderbilt losses:
2002 - at Mississippi (45-38), South Carolina (20-14), Florida (21-17)
2003 - Mississippi (24-21), Georgia Tech (24-17), at Mississippi State (30-21)
2004 - at Mississippi (26-23), at Navy (29-26), at Kentucky (14-13), Tennessee (38-33)
2005 - at South Carolina (35-28), at Florida (49-42), Kentucky (48-43)
2006 - at Alabama (13-10), Arkansas (21-19), at Mississippi (17-10), Florida (25-19)

When a team is hanging tough with at least four or five legitimate Division I-A opponents each and every year (including both S.E.C. division champions last fall), it's going to pull off an upset every so often. I don't like the fact that it came against my team in 2006, but it happens . . . as evidenced by the fact that the 11-game winning streak Georgia had over Vanderbilt from 1995 to 2005 tied the longest such streak in series history.

As for Kentucky, the 2006 Wildcats were no slouches. The Blue and White won eight games (including the Music City Bowl against Clemson in a game that was not as close as the final score indicated) and lost road games at Louisville, Florida, and Tennessee in which the Wildcats mounted a furious comeback after being down 31-0, led the eventual national champions with 30 seconds remaining in the first half, and held a fourth-quarter lead on the Volunteers.

Once again, I don't enjoy losing, but the 2006 Wildcats were the best Kentucky team since at least 1998 and, arguably, since 1984. Had the 'Dawgs beaten the 'Cats in 2006, it would have tied the longest winning streak Georgia has ever enjoyed over Kentucky, so we should not presume that U.K. is incapable of fielding competitive teams, even if only intermittently. (Mark Richt, by the way, went 5-0 against the Blue and White in his first five seasons on the Georgia sideline, making him the only football coach in Georgia history to have gone 2-0 in his first two series meetings with the Wildcats.)

Granted, losing to this over-the-hill retread still stinks, though.

If we are going to disparage Coach Richt for how his team played during the middle of last season, though, it is only fair for us to give him credit for playing the eventual national champion down to the wire while in the midst of a tailspin, ending the season with three straight wins over ranked opponents, and displaying enough wisdom and flexibility to settle on Matthew Stafford as the quarterback and promote Mike Bobo to offensive coordinator. Not since a similar season in 1973 have the Bulldogs begun an in-season collapse and righted the ship before the autumn was finished.

This is part of why I don't buy the idea that Mark Richt is "better than Jim Donnan though not by much." Actually, Coach Richt is better than Coach Donnan by leaps and bounds, not least of all because he ended the 2006 campaign on a 3-0 run. Is anyone willing to claim with a straight face that, if Jim Donnan had been coaching the Bulldogs for the final three games last fall, Georgia wouldn't have lost to Auburn, lost to Georgia Tech, and beaten some Conference U.S.A. also-ran in the lowest of lower-tier bowl games?

The gap separating Coach Richt from Coach Donnan is not a narrow one, as I demonstrated in detail last August:

Coach Richt's predecessor was a poor evaluator of talent. His multiple recruiting miscues (e.g., Jasper Sanks) attest to this and Coach Richt rather clearly has the better eye for assessing quality. Remember the widespread criticism that accompanied his decision to extend a scholarship offer to Thomas Brown but not to Darius Walker? Does anyone now regret that choice?

It is true that Coach Donnan won more bowl games, going 4-0 in postseason play, as compared to Coach Richt's 3-2 ledger. However, four of Coach Richt's five bowl games were played on or after New Year's Day; Coach Donnan played after New Year's Eve just twice and his team was in action as early as Christmas Eve on one occasion.

Many exemplary coaches have had less than stellar bowl records. Tom Osborne's Nebraska squads lost seven straight bowl games from 1987 to 1993, all of them against speedy Southern teams. Bear Bryant was 0-7-1 in postseason play between 1967 and 1974, but six of those setbacks came in Dallas, Jacksonville, Miami, or New Orleans. In his head coaching career at the Division I-A level, Steve Spurrier has compiled a postseason ledger of 6-7 to go with his sparkling regular-season record. Vince Dooley was 8-10-2 in bowl games, but half of his postseason losses were in Cotton or Sugar Bowls.

I would rather see my team lose a Sugar Bowl than win a Peach Bowl. Coach Donnan's teams emerged victorious from bowl games so frequently because those squads underachieved in the regular season so consistently. Had the 1997 Bulldogs beaten Auburn, they would have been in contention for a major bowl berth, not an Outback Bowl bid. Had the 1998 Georgia team not squandered a fourth-quarter lead at home against Georgia Tech, the Red and Black would not have been consigned to the Peach Bowl. Had the 1999 'Dawgs played even a modicum of defense against Auburn, a better postseason destination than Tampa would have come Georgia's way.

Coach Donnan's unblemished bowl record is a testament to his lack of success during the regular season, as he got winnable bowl berths by losing rivalry games. Is anyone really proud of that 2000 Oahu Bowl championship? Coach Richt's teams, by contrast, routinely have met expectations and often have exceeded them.

82 makes a fair point that Coach Donnan's teams faced Florida and Tennessee squads that won national championships. What must not be forgotten, though, is that the Volunteers, who largely lucked into the 1998 national title, came into Sanford Stadium as the underdog and soundly thrashed a Georgia squad that was expected to beat them. Coach Donnan doesn't deserve credit for his failure to defeat teams that accomplished great things only because his Bulldogs fell short.

Besides, but for an upset in the 2001 S.E.C. championship game, Coach Richt's first Georgia squad might well have beaten a national title-winning Tennessee squad that year. As it stands, both coaches were 0-2 against eventual national champions: Coach Donnan, against Florida in 1996 and Tennessee in 1998; Coach Richt, against L.S.U. in the regular season and in the conference championship game in 2003.

I will, however, concede the point that Coach Donnan faced better Florida and Tennessee teams than Coach Richt has faced. Last season aside, though, the Volunteers have not fallen so far that this alone can account for the disparity between Coach Donnan's 1-4 record against the Big Orange and Coach Richt's 4-1 ledger against U.T.

Moreover, there are other teams Coach Richt has faced, as well. For instance, Coach Donnan never had to play Alabama or Clemson, making him the first Georgia coach since Joel Hunt never to have taken on the Tide or tangled with the Tigers. Coach Richt has faced both longstanding rivals twice each . . . and he is 4-0 against them.

Coach Donnan was 2-0 against L.S.U., beating by back-to-back one-point margins a pair of Bayou Bengal squads that would go a cumulative 7-15 in 1998 and 1999. Coach Richt is 2-2 against Louisiana State after having faced a trio of Tiger teams that posted a collective 33-6 ledger from 2003 to 2005. Both losses came to the eventual national champion.

Finally, it is true that Coach Donnan and Coach Richt have compiled identical 2-3 records against Auburn. Coach Donnan's teams faced War Eagle squads that went 35-25, had two losing seasons, and won no S.E.C. titles. Coach Richt's teams faced Plainsmen units that went 46-17, went undefeated in 2004, and captured an S.E.C. crown. Could it even seriously be argued that Coach Donnan faced Auburn teams remotely as tough as those Coach Richt has encountered?

As long as we're comparing the difficulty of the schedules faced by Georgia's most recent two head coaches, it should also be noted that Coach Donnan was 1-5 against ranked opponents between the hedges, whereas Coach Richt is 7-2 against ranked opponents on the road. Unless anyone would care to argue that it's easier to beat a top 25 team in its house than it is to beat one in your house, Coach Donnan's record isn't at all comparable to Coach Richt's.

Obviously, last fall's wins over Auburn, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech serve only to bolster my case, but I will grant that an argument may be mounted on behalf of Coach Donnan, even though Coach Richt's superiority seems quite clear to me . . . as it should to anyone who is able to appreciate the distinction between a 40-19 record and a 61-17 ledger. (The former, of course, was compiled by Coach Donnan between 1996 and 2000, while the latter has been amassed by Coach Richt since 2001. Coach Richt's tally is far more comparable to Coach Meyer's 61-12 career mark, especially since Coach Richt's 21-5 record in his first two seasons as an S.E.C. head coach matches almost exactly Coach Meyer's 22-4 ledger in his first two years in the Southeastern Conference.)

Maybe it's just me, but winning two S.E.C. titles in a four-year span seems to me to be more than just a little bit better than this.

The idea "that Mark Richt is Georgia's Ron Zook," though, is sheer nonsense. (Ray Goff was Georgia's Ron Zook . . . or, more precisely, Ron Zook was Florida's Ray Goff, much as Karl Dorrell may be U.C.L.A.'s Ray Goff.) Although the comparison of Coach Richt to Coach Zook is absolutely ludicrous, this position has been advanced, so it ought at least to be refuted, if only so we may dispense with it altogether and move on to matters more deserving of serious consideration.

Here is Mark Richt's record for the last five years:

2002: 13-1, 7-1 S.E.C. (1st East, S.E.C. champions), won Sugar Bowl (26-13), A.P. No. 3
2003: 11-3, 6-2 S.E.C. (T-1st East, won tiebreaker), won Capital One Bowl (34-27), A.P. No. 7
2004: 10-2, 6-2 S.E.C. (2nd East), won Outback Bowl (24-21), A.P. No. 7
2005: 10-3, 6-2 S.E.C. (1st East, S.E.C. champions), lost Sugar Bowl (38-35), A.P. No. 10
2006: 9-4, 4-4 S.E.C. (T-3rd East), won Chick-fil-A Bowl (31-24), A.P. No. 23

Here is Ron Zook's record for the same period:
2002 (Florida): 8-5, 6-2 S.E.C. (2nd East), lost Outback Bowl (38-30), unranked
2003 (Florida): 8-5, 6-2 S.E.C. (T-1st East, lost tiebreaker), lost Outback Bowl (37-17), A.P. No. 24
2004 (Florida): 7-4, 4-4 S.E.C. (T-3rd East), team lost Peach Bowl (27-10) after he was fired, unranked
2005 (Illinois): 2-9, 0-8 Big Ten (11th), no bowl, unranked
2006 (Illinois): 2-10, 1-7 Big Ten (T-10th), no bowl, unranked

Let's recap:
In the five years from 2002 to 2006 . . .
  • Mark Richt's teams went 53-13, never losing more than four games in a season. Ron Zook's teams went 27-33, never losing fewer than four games in a season.
  • Mark Richt's teams went 4-1 in bowl games, with the one loss coming by three points to a B.C.S. conference champion that wound up ranked fifth in the final A.P. poll. Ron Zook's teams went 0-3 in bowl games, with the closest loss coming by eight points, the final loss coming under an interim coach after he was fired, and none of the losses coming against a team that either finished higher than third in its league or wound up ranked higher than eighth in the final A.P. poll.
  • Mark Richt's teams went 18-3 on their opponents' home fields. Ron Zook's teams went 9-14 on their opponents' home fields.
  • Mark Richt's teams went 8-6 at neutral sites. Ron Zook's teams went 2-4 at neutral sites.
  • Mark Richt's teams attended three S.E.C. championship games and won two conference titles. Ron Zook's teams attended no S.E.C. championship games and won no conference titles.
  • No Ron Zook team ever finished ahead of a Mark Richt team in the conference standings or in the A.P. rankings.

In addition, Mark Richt implemented mandatory character education classes for incoming freshmen and invariably handed down punishments (often including suspensions for important games) within 48 hours of learning of a player arrest. Ron Zook became infamous for getting into a profane shouting match with students at a fraternity house and his recruiting success has aroused suspicion.

Likewise, Mark Richt took over a program that had been mired in mediocrity for nearly a decade, ended the longest drought without a conference championship in school history, and brought about the program's third extended period of excellence (after the glory days of the early 1980s and the teams of 1941, 1942, 1945, and 1946 whose collegiate careers underwent a two-year interruption during the Second World War). Ron Zook took over a program that had attended seven S.E.C. championship games in the previous decade, ended the greatest period of sustained success in school history, and drove the Gators into the sort of doldrums they had not known since the scandal-plagued days of the late 1980s.


So, like, yeah, there's a difference, or something, O.K.?

34hawk worries that Mark Richt will turn out to be Georgia's Ron Zook and wonders whether Damon Evans is up to the challenge of matching the achievements of the athletic director who hired Florida's Ron Zook. I am not entirely certain whether those two concerns are reconcilable, but, even if they are, they represent phobias rather than fears, bogeymen easily driven away by shining the light of knowledge upon a darkened room full of childhood anxieties over mere chimeras.

Let me put 34hawk's mind at ease: Georgia's achievements are equal to Florida's everywhere except on the basketball court and the athletic administration in Athens has made closing that lone gap a priority. With all due respect to Vince Dooley, the best athletic director in University of Georgia history didn't finish his tenure in 2004 and the best head football coach in University of Georgia history didn't cease to stroll the sidelines in 1988; in fact, the two men deserving of those accolades are on the job in the Classic City this very day.

Damon Evans and Mark Richt not only are not afraid to "risk excellence," they are demanding it, and getting it, at the present moment. I've said it before and I'll say it again . . . the glory days are now.

Go 'Dawgs!