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Why Winning the 2010 Liberty Bowl is Critical to the Future of Mark Richt and the Georgia Bulldogs

Although I formally previewed the Georgia Bulldogs’ Liberty Bowl date with the Central Florida Knights in yesterday’s installment of Too Much Information, there is more to a proper look at Friday’s showdown than any mere examination of statistical minutiae may reveal. I am referring not to the subsequent confirmation of Caleb King’s presumed unavailability for the game, but to the potential significance of the contest at this juncture in the history of Red and Black football.

The Bulldogs’ first trip to the Liberty Bowl came at the end of the season immediately following Vince Dooley’s first SEC championship campaign. Georgia’s second trip to the Liberty Bowl came at the end of the season immediately preceding Coach Dooley’s final season on the Sanford Stadium sideline. Neither game functioned as a de facto referendum on our head coach’s continued fitness for his post.

In the strictest sense, of course, neither does the Bulldogs’ third trip to the Liberty Bowl; Mark Richt’s retention, vel non, in 2011 is not dependent upon the outcome of this outing, in the way that, say, Rich Rodriguez’s continued employment by the University of Michigan appears at least partly to be. To the extent that Coach Richt is "embattled," it is because of expectations that will follow him into next autumn. We all know, though, that, barring a highly unlikely Lane Kiffin/Damon Evans/Bobby Johnson moment between New Year’s Day and Labor Day, Mark Richt will be at the helm in the Classic City in the coming fall.

There will, however, be a mandate to deliver better performance on the field and better results in the won-lost record, even if no defined benchmarks are stated publicly and even if no explicit "significant improvement" edict is issued openly by Greg McGarity. Oddly enough, the year in which the quoted euphemism entered the lexicon in Bulldog Nation also was the last year before this one in which I attended Georgia’s bowl game. That 1995 season, like the 2010 regular season, produced six wins, six losses, and a divided fan base marred by varying degrees of doubt that a head coach of whom almost everyone was fond personally was capable of breaking through the glass ceiling that was so glaringly evident above his head.

Equally obvious, though, are the critical differences between that coach and this one. Mark Richt’s ceiling is substantially higher than Ray Goff’s was, because our current coach’s record of achievement far outpaces that of Vince Dooley’s former quarterback turned successor. After seven seasons in command in Athens, Coach Goff had a 46-34-1 record, two bowl victories, and one ten-win season; at the same point in his career at Georgia, Coach Richt had a 72-19 record, five bowl victories, and five ten-win seasons. He also had three division titles and two conference championships. The only similarity between the two coaches’ achievements was their shared lack of success in Jacksonville, although Coach Richt had one more win against the Florida Gators than Coach Goff did.

I will carry more anxiety with me into the stadium for the 2010 Liberty Bowl than I brought with me to the 1995 Peach Bowl because the earlier game was one the Bulldogs really never had any business winning---even then, an ACC championship meant more than a Conference USA championship does---and the fate facing our head coach already was known. We knew going in that we were watching Ray Goff’s last game on the Georgia sideline, so even the heartbreaking ending of that game produced more numbness than pain or outrage; we were just relieved that three straight seasons of disappointment were done and that what followed would have the virtue of being something new and different, which offered a glimmer of hope that it might be better.

In fact, it was better, though not right away, and, even when improvement occurred, it still was not good enough. The bar continually has been raised, and Mark Richt has done by far a better job of clearing it than anyone, Vince Dooley included, since Erk Russell’s last class of recruits hung up its silver britches. The expectations under which Mark Richt labors partly are of his own making, as his previous success has spoiled us.

Those expectations only partly are Coach Richt’s doing, though; at any program with this much history, this many advantages (financial and otherwise), and this much passion, outsized (if not outlandish) expectations are the norm, and a portion of Coach Richt’s problem is that he did so much to reassure us of the reasonableness and justifiability of those expectations. Nevertheless, only part of those expectations and only a portion of that problem may be attributed to Mark Richt.

Also among the blameworthy are Gene Chizik (pending the outcome of the Auburn Tigers’ bowl game), Phillip Fulmer, Urban Meyer, Les Miles, Nick Saban, and Tommy Tuberville. Regardless of whether this ought to be the case, the fact that Mark Richt has been utterly unsuccessful against just one of those six coaches essentially is irrelevant. Had Urban Meyer been South Bend-bound when leaving Salt Lake City and had Nick Saban remained the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, we might not even be having this conversation, but the fact that all those coaches have led other SEC teams to undefeated seasons and/or national championships in the last 13 years (with five of them doing so on Mark Richt’s watch) provides the context within which the notion that the dean of Southeastern Conference coaches was on the hot seat was able to go from daffy to plausible.

Since Coach Richt passed the seven-season mark looking like he might lap the field en route to becoming the winningest coach in our history, the Bulldogs have gone 24-14, winning two more bowl games yet turning in three straight seasons of diminishing returns. The Red and Black have recorded back-to-back campaigns containing five or more losses for the first time since Ray Goff’s aforementioned last season in 1995 and Jim Donnan’s first season the following fall. (For whatever it might be worth, the last four stretches during which the ‘Dawgs lost at least five games in each of two consecutive seasons---in 1957-1958, 1969-1970, 1989-1990, and 1995-1996---were followed by seasons of 10-1 in 1959, 11-1 in 1971, 9-3 in 1991, and 10-2 in 1997.)

A loss on Friday would leave Georgia below .500 for the first time in 14 years. Such subpar results became the norm during a period of decline in the Classic City as the Red and Black endured eight losing seasons in the eleven years between 1953 and 1963, but, from the time Vince Dooley took up residence in Athens in 1964 to the time Mark Richt completed his ninth campaign as a head coach last year, the Bulldogs finished with more defeats than victories four times in 46 seasons.

A fifth such season in a 47-year span would not be the end of the world, nor even necessarily the end of an era; at this point, a 7-6 final record would do far less to mitigate the disaster that was 2010 than a 6-7 ledger would do to exacerbate it. The importance of avoiding a losing season is chiefly cosmetic, but even substantially symbolic accomplishments can have meaningful psychological consequences, so the bestowing of this year’s Liberty Bowl victory trophy will be an event that has a significant impact upon Bulldog Nation’s sense of itself heading into the offseason, from the coaches to the players to the fans.

Even a loss in Memphis on Friday would not mean that Mark Richt necessarily had entered the same territory once trod by Wally Butts, whose first decade as Georgia’s head coach featured three SEC championships and shares of a pair of national championships but whose next decade in Athens produced six losing seasons and no conference crowns or bowl wins, but a Liberty Bowl setback would add another short stack of pennies to the unfavorable side of the scale, shifting the balance ever so slightly and causing another small drop in the wrong direction. As it concerns the future of the Bulldog football program, this is a minor bowl with major implications.

Tomorrow, my family and I will board an airplane for Memphis on a trip we gave ourselves as a gift for Christmas, the season whose familiar sounds include the peal of bells. There, we will end the week by attending the bowl symbolized by the bell that has shared its name since the Liberty Bowl came into being in Philadelphia in 1959. That theme will carry over from December 31 as we ring in the new year, and the result of this season-ending clash will leave the icy Athens night either warmed with the resonance of the Chapel Bell’s song or chilled by the question for whom the bell tolls.

Go ‘Dawgs.