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Has Mark Richt Missed His Chance to Win a National Championship at Georgia?

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Last evening, skigator93 noted the likelihood that Mark Richt and Urban Meyer will conduct one of the great college football coaching rivalries over the course of the next several seasons. In reply, marktheshark linked to a pair of recent postings elsewhere in the blogosphere, in one of which C&F asked whether it mattered that Coach Richt has never won a national championship. Observed C&F:

Richt's record at Georgia has really been almost awe-inspiring: 82-22 overall (.788), 46-18 in the SEC (.719). He has two conference championships to his name, another pair of division crowns and six 10-win seasons to go along with his nine-win campaign and his inaugural eight-year season.

But he has never hoisted the crystal football. Never even played for it, in fact. . . .

I hope Richt wins a national title -- in part because he deserves it, and in part because it removes the possibility that some fans will always remember his record with an asterisk. We live in a society that measures sporting accomplishments by championships, real or mythical.

For Richt's legacy, like it or not, the crystal football matters.

The other piece cited by marktheshark came from Dr. Saturday, who had this to say about the man he called "the most successful coach today without a BCS title":

Richt has as many conference titles (two) as Meyer and Saban, and more than Miles (one). He's fifth among active head coaches in career winning percentage, behind (in order) Chris Petersen, Pete Carroll, Meyer and Bob Stoops, and well ahead of Spurrier, Saban, Miles, Mack Brown, Jim Tressel, et al.

He's among elite company by every measure except one -- all those coaches (with the exception of Petersen, who got Boise State as close as it will ever come with the undefeated season in 2006) have finished at the top of the polls. . . .

What's the difference between those heroic conquerors and Richt's best team in '02? The external circumstances broke in their favor, and they didn't for Georgia. So we can definitely affirm that he's not the luckiest coach. . . .

Everyone in Richt's peer group this decade has a crystal ball to his name; based on his record, there's no reason (except maybe the presence of rising juggernaut Florida next door) to think Georgia won't join that club eventually. But he shouldn't have to when the record is perfectly capable of speaking for itself.

Matt Hinton’s not inconsequential parenthetical exception notwithstanding, the good Doctor is right. What, then, are we to make of the disturbing facts that (a) Coach Richt is about to begin his ninth season in Athens and (b) Pete Carroll, Urban Meyer, Les Miles, Bob Stoops, and Jim Tressel all won national championships within their first three years at their current schools, while Nick Saban won one in his fourth year at his previous collegiate coaching stop?

Quite simply, there is no significance to the latter fact. It is unfair and inaccurate to tease out a trend that, because recent national champions have been led by head coaches who were early in their tenures, the new paradigm is to win ‘em early rather than late. To some extent, as Dr. Saturday regularly emphasizes, national championship game pairings are random . . . as evidenced by the fact that Larry Coker won a national title in his first year at Miami (and came within an oft-debated pass interference penalty of winning two in a row), yet no one thinks he is half the coach Mark Richt is.

Likewise, that list of 21st-century championship coaches must be leavened by the disconcerting insertion of the name of Mack Brown, whose No. 1 finish in his eighth year at Texas underscored the rule rather than the exception. That rule is this:

Coaches who keep their teams in contention, year in and year out, eventually will catch the breaks that make the difference between 11-2 and winning it all.

That is the lesson of Bobby Bowden, Vince Dooley, Tom Osborne, Joe Paterno, and Steve Spurrier. Although those coaches won a national championship for the first time later in their careers than the men who have claimed most of the titles in the last nine seasons, their experience parallels that of the latter-day Pete Carrolls, Urban Meyers, and Jim Tressels.

Consider these numbers:

  • 11, 11, 10, 10, 11, 11, 12, 10, 10, 11

  • 9, 9, 9, 11, 11, 10, 11, 13, 10, 10, 12

  • 6, 11, 12, 13, 12, 11, 11, 12

  • 9, 10, 9, 11, 10, 12, 12, 10, 10

  • 7, 13, 11, 12, 12, 12, 8, 11, 11, 12

  • 7, 14, 11, 8, 10, 12, 11, 10

  • 8, 13, 11, 10, 10, 9, 11, 10

Those are, respectively, the annual win totals for Bobby Bowden at Florida State from 1987 (the year the Seminoles began their run of top five finishes) to 1996, Mack Brown at Texas from 1998 to 2008, Pete Carroll at Southern Cal from 2001 to 2008, Steve Spurrier at Florida from 1990 to 1998, Bob Stoops at Oklahoma from 1999 to 2008, Jim Tressel at Ohio State from 2001 to 2008, and Mark Richt at Georgia from 2001 to 2008. The highlighted numbers represent the years those coaches won national championships. (Yes, I’m counting the 2003 Associated Press national championship for the Trojans; let’s not rehash that debate, shall we?)

The point should be clear, even without the inclusion of Nebraska’s Tom Osborne (who won ten or more games in nine of the eleven seasons between 1979 and 1989 before taking the Cornhuskers to four national championship games in a five-year period between 1993 and 1997) and Penn State’s Joe Paterno (who won ten or more games in ten of the 14 seasons between 1968 and 1981 before taking the Nittany Lions to three national championship games in a five-year period between 1982 and 1986). Elite coaches start out that way (or quickly rise to that level after initial growing pains as rookies) and stay that way.

If you win ten or eleven games a year every year, it’s all going to fall your way every now and again. Please note the comparative rarity of multiple national title winners: Coach Carroll’s first national championship, unaccompanied by a crystal football, has an asterisk next to it in the minds of many; LSU’s two recent titles came under different coaches; even Coach Meyer needed no small degree of lobbying just to get into the national title tilt at the end of the 2006 season.

For every Coach Stoops who wins a national championship early before enduring a (comparative) dry spell afterwards, there’s a Coach Brown who keeps plugging away until he wins one later in his career. The key, though, is the consistency; look at all those tens, elevens, and twelves, and you’d be hard pressed to identify which were the national championship seasons and which weren’t without my having highlighted them. If you fly high enough for long enough, you’ll get your turn to land atop the mountain.

The wait for the first one is longer for some than for others, but that often means less grousing from the faithful later. Consider the (largely preposterous) questions Coach Stoops and Coach Tressel have to offer about whether they’ve "lost it" and can no longer "win the big one."

Mark Richt seems destined to answer the question that followed his mentor, Bobby Bowden, for much of his career: "How does it feel never to have won a national championship?" One day, that question will go away; until then, though, he may take solace in the fact that, while he has never led an SEC team to an undefeated season, neither have Urban Meyer, Les Miles, Nick Saban, or Steve Spurrier.

Come to think of it, the last two guys who led SEC squads to unbeaten campaigns were Phillip Fulmer and Tommy Tuberville. How’d that work out for them? Maybe Mark Richt is better off, for now, having to explain why there is one---count it, one---lid he hasn’t quite knocked off yet, rather than having to answer the question, "What have you done for me lately?"

Go ‘Dawgs!