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Where Should the Georgia Bulldogs Turn if Greg McGarity Must Replace Mark Richt as Head Coach? (Part Two)

As I indicated previously, we are shelving "Don’t Bet On It!" this week and focusing instead on the topic occupying everyone’s thoughts. I wish to repeat for the record that I believe Mark Richt should be and will be the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs in 2011; I believe Mike Bobo, like Willie Martinez before him, was and is a capable position coach who was promoted past his level of competence; I believe Coach Bobo should be retained as the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks coach, and, even if he keeps the title of offensive coordinator (a post Neil Callaway also nominally held), Coach Richt should take over the play calling duties again. In short, no one should mistake the postings in this series as an indication that this is the sports weblog equivalent of Lyndon Johnson losing Walter Cronkite on Vietnam. (I apologize if that reference confuses some folks, but, if reading this weblog helps anyone to learn a little history, so much, the better.)

This is what Bulldog Nation is discussing, so let’s have the discussion. If the time has come to bring in a new head coach, which candidate is the best choice for the job? We’ve heard from rbarnes and Afghan Dawg, and I have identified the coaches who should not be on the list. That just leaves us with the real contenders. In order of preference, these are they:

Kirby Smart (Defensive Coordinator, Alabama)

No, I don’t think he burned any bridges last year. When Coach Smart previously was contacted about the vacant defensive coordinator post at his alma mater, there appeared to be no good reasons for him to consider accepting the offer. Alabama had just completed its second consecutive undefeated regular season and was expected to contend for a second straight national championship in 2010, while Georgia was coming off of its worst season under Mark Richt and the fans were grumbling.

The move was lateral by title and downward in program strength. On paper, that’s a poor career move. Nevertheless, Coach Smart appears to have considered the offer seriously, and his comments about his and his family's connection to Georgia sounded heartfelt. He’s still a damn good ‘Dawg, and no one should hold his decision of a year ago against him.

Given the recent success of the Nick Saban coaching tree (Will Muschamp, Derek Dooley, Jimbo Fisher), it was reasonable for Coach Smart to suspect that his next career move would be upward, to the head coach's chair, and his willingness to consider accepting a coordinator spot at Georgia strongly suggests that, if the Georgia head coaching job came open, he would be interested. While I would prefer Coach Muschamp, I don’t believe the Longhorns’ head coach in waiting would bolt Austin for Athens if asked (although some Texas fans disagree with me upon that point); Coach Smart, by contrast, showed real interest in returning to his alma mater, and it should be noted that, in last year’s head-to-head meeting for the national title, Coach Smart’s team got the better of Coach Muschamp’s team.

No candidate is perfect, of course, and Coach Smart is an unproven commodity as a head coach; as outsidethesidelines put it: "Given this train wreck, Georgia is probably not going to hire a defensive coordinator under the age of 40 with no head coaching experience." That should give us at least some pause, given the mixed record Georgia alumni have compiled as head coaches in Athens (the two least successful Red and Black coaches since the late 1920s both were former Bulldog players) and the fact that the jury remains out on the aforementioned Nick Saban coaching tree (we don’t yet know whether Derek Dooley, Jimbo Fisher, or Will Muschamp will pan out over the long haul).

To me, that level of uncertainty is a strong argument for retaining Mark Richt, as the likelihood of improving upon his level of success over the last decade is low. However, the three head coaching hires the Bulldogs have made in my lifetime took the three available avenues of approach: promote from within (Ray Goff), bring in a head coach who had been successful with a smaller program (Jim Donnan), and hire an up-and-coming young coordinator from a national championship-caliber program (Mark Richt). There’s no question which one of those three approaches worked out the best, so, if a change must be made, I would prefer to chart the course that appears most likely to produce positive results.

When asked for his take, Roll Bama Roll’s kleph noted that Coach Saban "urges his assistants to take advantage of job opportunities as long as they are advancements"; last year’s offer from Georgia was not, but this year’s offer from Georgia would be. Coach Smart’s salary currently is tied with Todd Grantham’s as the highest in the SEC for a defensive coordinator, so the next logical step for Coach Smart is to the head coaching post I predicted in the preseason he would accept this December.

A return to his alma mater would be a good move for Coach Smart, since, as kleph observes (in characteristic lower-case), "he stays in the SEC where the style of play he's learned under [C]oach [S]aban has proven successful and where he won't be competing annually against his mentor. . . . [F]rom a [G]eorgia standpoint it makes sense in that you get a young coach who[’s] been behind the resurgence of one of the sport's greatest defensive powers. [I]t makes even more sense when you consider [C]oach [G]rantham is already a year into the transition to the 3-4 both as a scheme on the field and in terms of recruiting players."

Finally, kleph points out an interesting historical parallel. In 1929, Wallace Wade left Tuscaloosa to go to Durham, and he recommended that Alabama’s president, George H. Denny, hire a Georgia assistant, Frank Thomas. Denny heeded Coach Wade’s advice, and the hire worked out well for the Crimson Tide, so, really, they owe us one. Consider Kirby Smart the head coach to be named later in the Frank Thomas trade.

On the whole, then, I believe Coach Smart is an excellent candidate, I believe he would take the job if offered, and I believe Greg McGarity's first call should be to Kirby Smart if the time comes to replace Mark Richt. Still, every plan must have a backup, which brings us to my second choice:

Gary Patterson (Head Coach, TCU)

While Boise State has grabbed most of the mid-major headlines on behalf of the weak WAC, Texas Christian has been as strong a program in the toughest non-AQ conference. (The two teams have split a pair of bowl meetings in the last two seasons.) Currently, the Horned Frogs rank fifth nationally in scoring defense (making this the fifth straight year that TCU has been a top ten team in that category) and third nationally in total defense (after finishing first in the country in that category for the past two years).

In addition to being stout defensively, the Horned Frogs have won consistently and have acquitted themselves capably against teams from the "big six" conferences. Texas Christian has won ten or more games in six of the last eight seasons, including four of the last five. Against opponents from AQ leagues, Coach Patterson’s TCU squads have gone 15-4 in the last nine seasons, with wins over Northwestern in 2002, Vanderbilt and Arizona in 2003, Northwestern in 2004, Oklahoma and Iowa State in 2005, Baylor and Texas Tech in 2006, Baylor and Stanford in 2007, Stanford in 2008, Virginia and Clemson in 2009, and Oregon State and Baylor in 2010.

It still seems crazy to me to fire a head coach whose accomplishments from 2001 to 2010 include a 91-31 overall record, a 50-25 conference record, a 7-2 bowl record, and two conference championships. If you’re going to go that route, however, it makes sense to hire a head coach whose accomplishments from 2001 to 2010 include a 90-27 overall record, a 54-18 conference record, a 5-3 bowl record, and three conference championships. (By the way, Coach Patterson led the Frogs to a 27-10 record in his first three full seasons in Fort Worth, fell to 5-6 in 2004, and turned it around with an 11-1 record the following year and a 47-10 run ever since. Coaches who’ve been successful before oftentimes find ways to turn it around and become successful again after stumbling.)

Coach Patterson seems to be a no-nonsense guy, and TCU's pedigree (a former Southwest Conference member that regularly takes on current Big 12 teams) suggests that he is more likely to be able to move up in weight class than Boise State's Chris Petersen (who is weighed down by the baggage of Dirk Koetter's and Dan Hawkins's faceplants after leaving Idaho for larger programs) or a former Georgia hire, Marshall’s Jim Donnan (who was moving up from the Division I-AA ranks). Moreover, Coach Patterson's coaching staff includes Dick Bumpas, whom many Georgia fans wanted to see hired as the Bulldogs' new defensive coordinator last December.

In short, I believe that, if Kirby Smart turns the Georgia job down, Greg McGarity's next call should be to Gary Patterson if the time comes to replace Mark Richt. Nevertheless, it may not be as simple as placing a phone call from Athens to Fort Worth, according to Mountain West Connection’s Jeremy Mauss. Jeremy reminds us that "Gary Patterson is really comfortable at TCU, plus his base salary is $1.3 million which is one of the highest in the non-BCS ranks and better then a handful of BCS league coaches. . . . I just do not see Gary Patterson leaving for the Georgia job unless they pay him a boat load of money, which we know they can. I could be naive in thinking he is a TCU lifer, but he seems to be a Texas guy and would perhaps go to Texas A&M before he heads to Georgia."

While agreeing with me that Chris Petersen’s advancement has been hampered by his predecessors’ failures on a larger stage, Jeremy notes that "TCU has on a smaller scale the same stigma for head coaches failing once they leave," given the state in which former Horned Frogs skipper Dennis Franchione left Alabama and Texas A&M when his tenure at those two schools ended.

Jeremy wonders, "The way TCU has gone the past few years why would he go for Georgia besides the money?" Coach Patterson has taken the Horned Frogs to a BCS bowl game, and Texas Christian is being considered for membership in an AQ conference. At the end of the day, therefore, Jeremy believes that, "if Patterson is in the BCS title game, or even a BCS game, I do not think he would leave."

As before, nothing in life is certain. Gary Patterson is a qualified candidate who has produced a solid track record of success as a head coach in the Division I-A ranks, but we cannot be certain that he would come to Athens if asked, nor can we be certain that he would succeed in the SEC if he did. There’s a good bit of guesswork involved even in what appears to be the surest of sure things.

Accordingly, at the risk of being repetitive, redundant, and repetitive, I think Mike Bobo should stick to coaching quarterbacks and Mark Richt should go back to calling plays. If, however, we find ourselves in the position of needing to hire a new head coach, those are the two names that ought to be on the list. Your thoughts, of course, are welcome in the comments below.

Go ‘Dawgs!