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Do I Still Have Faith in Mark Richt as the Head Coach of the Georgia Bulldogs?: A Reply to David Hale

David Hale (who, it should be stressed, was asking a question rather than advocating extreme action) called attention to such hardheaded coaching choices as the decision to put natural linebacker Richard Samuel in the offensive backfield for two seasons, and used such decisions as the jumping-off point for this inquiry:

Have all the offseason moves left you with as much confidence in Richt as you ever had? Or did two years of stubborn insistence on a largely unsuccessful approach shake your belief?

Or perhaps more to the point -- will you stick by Richt if Georgia finishes 8-5 again this year, but does it with a more fundamentally sound D, a better approach to kickoffs and a duo at tailback that understands how to play the position?

Senator Blutarsky gave his answer. Here is mine:

Hale is a professional journalist, so it shouldn’t surprise us that his questions get progressively more challenging. The first question is easy for me to answer: Mark Richt’s offseason moves, which were decisive and demonstrated a commitment to curing what ails us, left me as confident as ever that the right man is leading our football program.

The second question isn’t much tougher. While I agree with the characterization of the 2008 and 2009 seasons as "two years of stubborn insistence on a largely unsuccessful approach," a couple of down campaigns are not enough to overwhelm the achievements of the previous seven autumns, which included two SEC championships, three conference title game appearances, a trio of Sugar Bowl berths, four finishes of no worse than tied for first place in the division, and five double-digit victory totals. As NCT has pointed out, Vince Dooley survived downcycles considerably longer and deeper than those, and the Bulldogs have a 43-4-1 four-year run in the early ‘80s to show for their patience.

Hale’s third question also is his trickiest, in part because I appreciate the historical context into which his Samuel example must be placed and in part because I reject the premise of "Georgia finish[ing] 8-5 again this year" while demonstrating "a more fundamentally sound D, a better approach to kickoffs and a duo at tailback that understands how to play the position."

In an interview a good while back, I was asked which would matter more to me, a win over Florida without a national championship or a national championship featuring a loss to the Gators. Although I answered the question, I believe it posed a false dichotomy; today, unlike in the Ron Zook era, a victory in Jacksonville is a prerequisite to winning the division, which is a prerequisite to winning the conference, which is a prerequisite to winning it all. I feel the same way about Hale’s final question: I don’t believe a more fundamentally sound defense, a better approach to kickoffs, and an effective tailback tandem can fail to produce a record better than last year’s, particularly in light of what likely will be an easier 2010 schedule.

It is interesting to me, though, that David used Richard Samuel’s late-career position switch as his opening example. The reference reminded me of another Georgia player who spent a couple of years on the wrong side of the ball before being given the opportunity to play in his proper roster spot: Robert Edwards, who was a cornerback for two seasons before being moved to the offensive backfield.

Errors such as those occur on occasion. Even at his most pig- and thick-headed, though, Mark Richt has never come close to matching the misjudgment and mismanagement that plagued the program throughout the 1990s. I will grant that my faith was shaken by last year’s loss to Florida; after a six-year stretch (2002-2007) featuring two series wins and four losses by a touchdown or less, it was possible to believe that the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party was close to being back on an even keel, so the Bulldogs’ lopsided losses by the St. John’s River in the last two seasons set the Red and Black back by quite a bit.

The unfortunate reality, though, is that the 2008 and 2009 seasons attest more to the reasons for faith in Urban Meyer (and, on the other side of the league, in Nick Saban) than to the reasons for a lack of faith in their SEC coevals, our own coach included. Partly as a result of the fallout following the Saturday Evening Post scandal, Coach Dooley seldom faced Bear Bryant in head-to-head competition; Coach Richt must square off with Coach Meyer annually and with Coach Saban regularly.

Do I want Coach Richt to do better than he has done against the Gators? Obviously, I do. Could there come a point at which his other successes are overwhelmed by his inability to beat Florida, much as John Cooper’s losses to Michigan ultimately undid him at Ohio State? While improbable, it certainly is possible.

At the end of the day, though, it comes down to this: Joseph Heller was criticized for the fact that his first novel was his best, and, when challenged that he hadn’t written anything else as good as Catch-22, he replied: "Who has?" A couple of down years (one of which featured ten wins and a January bowl victory) will not prove to be Mark Richt’s undoing; if his time in Athens ends unhappily, it will be because he can’t beat Urban Meyer and Nick Saban.

With apologies for answering David Hale’s question with a question (a la "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"), therefore, I pose Joseph Heller’s question in reply: "Who can?" Until that question can be answered satisfactorily, my response to Hale’s third and final question must be in the affirmative.

Go ‘Dawgs!