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Putting Jim Donnan's Tenure with the Georgia Bulldogs Into Perspective

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Permit me to begin by apologizing for a content-free Sunday here at Dawg Sports. We had a fairly busy day in the King household---Thomas and I went to get haircuts after church, then we returned home and I mowed the back yard---but I had planned to post something in the evening. Unfortunately, we had an unexplained power outage in our neighborhood that started right before my son’s bedtime and lasted until I decided to call it a night. Mea culpa.

In the interim, there has been a little buzz in the blogosphere about Jim Donnan’s recent induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Now, I have no intention of continuing to flog a dead horse, but the latest apologia penned by mealy-mouthed Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Mark Bradley (for whom the defense of the 1990 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and Coach Donnan are recurring themes, just as Homer Rice and Bobby Dodd are for Furman Bisher, and just as race and more race were for Terence Moore) raised a rhetorical question that is deserving of a response.

After considering several of the games that did not go Coach Donnan’s way, Bradley wondered, "Had Donnan won one or two of those, would Michael Adams have acted as he did when he did?"

The answer to that question is: "Probably not." That answer does not well serve Coach Donnan’s cause.

I wasn’t in the room when those conversations occurred, and you probably weren’t, either, but the reports that came from those meetings indicated that Vince Dooley did not favor making a move at that time and Michael Adams did. I am no friend of Dr. Adams, but, if what the University president is reputed to have said was in fact what he said, we have proof once again that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

If we don’t do this now, Adams is supposed to have asked, is there anyone here who doesn’t think we’ll be sitting in this same room having this same conversation a year from now?

Evidently, no one had an adequate answer. This, I believe, is because there ultimately is no effective retort to an unassailably correct position. When knowledgeable Bulldog fans are able reasonably to conclude that the fourth-best win of a coach’s career came against a team that finished 4-7, that fellow’s resume is just a bit lacking.

Paul Westerdawg, who gives Coach Donnan his due without being either a constant detractor or an earnest defender of the man, evaluates pretty fairly the tenure of Mark Richt’s predecessor. Coach Donnan took Georgia as far as he could, which was farther than Ray Goff was able to do but nowhere near as far as Coach Richt has. (Coach Donnan’s 19th loss came in his 58th game as the Bulldogs’ head coach. Coach Richt’s 19th loss came in his 84th game as the Bulldogs’ head coach. Case closed.)

Paul’s position is that "the measure of a coach is...did you leave the program better than you found it? And, did you stay out of trouble? The answer was yes." I’ll concede the first point---although, really, short of the second coming of Johnny Griffith, it would have been hard for Coach Goff’s successor not to have left it better than he found it; Ron Zook would have been an upgrade---but Georgia stayed out of trouble on Coach Donnan’s watch only by the most narrow of definitions. No, we didn’t get put on probation, but the laxity of discipline generated far too many rumors for any reasonable fan to doubt that, where there was smoke (pardon the pun), there was fire.

Finally, Paul makes a pretty good point when he notes one of the things that would have aided Jim Donnan as Georgia’s coach:

Quincy Carter never being admitted to UGA. If he had stuck with his Tech commitment, we would've had Nate Hybl. Hybl left UGA because Quincy was clearly more talented after the '98 season, and he went on to win a Big 12 title at Oklahoma as QB. Quincy was supremely gifted, but he was a Coach Killer.

Let’s not undersell how horribly Coach Donnan mismanaged the quarterback controversy in 1998. His premature anointment of, and doe-eyed commitment to, Quincy Carter drove Daniel Cobb, Jon England, and Nate Hybl from the program. Whatever fault may be found with Coach Richt over how he handled his signal callers in 2006 applies to the Bulldogs’ struggles in four or five games; Coach Donnan’s blown call hampered the Red and Black for three years. There plainly is no doubt that Coach Donnan dropped the ball, yet he says he wouldn’t do it any differently if he had it to do again.

Coach Donnan seeks to curry favor with his former fan base by trotting out the fact of his "loyalty," pointing out that he turned down three different lucrative opportunities to remain in Athens. Even if we take him at his word that all three of those overtures actually were offers, these facts remain:

  • Two of those offers (from North Carolina and N.C. State) came from programs that are not remotely on a par with Georgia historically.

  • All three of those offers (including the one from Oklahoma) came from programs that were not remotely on a par with Georgia at the time.

  • One of those offers (from North Carolina) only was rejected because (or perhaps briefly was accepted until) Michael Adams sweetened the pot with a secret side deal to pay him more money.

  • The only way you can turn down three specific salary offers is if you listen to three specific salary offers. By that logic, Mark Richt has been less "loyal" than Jim Donnan because Coach Richt has declined even to entertain overtures from other prospective suitors. If you go to a singles bar after work, flirt with a girl and buy her drinks until she invites you back to her place, and make it as far as the front door to her apartment before deciding to decline the opportunity before you, you don’t get to go home and tell your wife how faithful a husband you are. The "loyalty" argument lost all weight with me when he crossed the North Carolina border the first time.

I note all that not to skewer the guy, who served as well as he could but not well enough for a program of the caliber of ours, but to answer the question Mark Bradley raised. Another win here or there wouldn’t have made any long-term difference. (I doubt whether it would have made much short-term difference, in fact; Jim Donnan was 4-0 in bowl games because his regular-season failures caused the ‘Dawgs to receive subpar bowl berths. Had he beaten Auburn, Florida, Georgia Tech, or Tennessee a little more often, the likely consequence would have been higher-tier postseason dates against opponents he was incapable of beating.)

There is a saying that the two happiest days of a boat owner’s life are the day he buys his boat and the day he sells it. Jim Donnan was a boat we were happy to buy but should have been even more pleased to sell. Michael Adams’s decision that fateful day in 2000 unmistakably was the correct one, and Coach Donnan’s firing delayed would have been Coach Richt’s hiring denied. In that respect, we should be grateful that Coach Donnan did not get the bounces that would have saved his job, and Bulldog Nation should regard the Bulldogs’ 2000 loss to Georgia Tech (like the 1963 loss to the Yellow Jackets that resulted in the hiring of Coach Dooley or the 1927 loss to the Ramblin’ Wreck that resulted in the building of Sanford Stadium) as a minor short-term setback but an enormous long-term benefit.

Go ‘Dawgs!