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Right Result, Wrong Reasons: Why Mark Richt Really Isn't on the Hot Seat

When SB Nation’s SEC weblog, Team Speed Kills, took a look at Mark Richt’s path to becoming the dean of league coaches, I lifted a two-sentence excerpt from Year2’s analysis and characterized that brief passage as "the only part of Year2's examination of Mark Richt's longevity as the head coach of the Bulldogs with which I take issue." C&F subsequently cited my reply while examining whether Coach Richt was on the hot seat.

While I agree with Senator Blutarsky’s assessment of the overall reasonableness of C&F’s posting, I (also like the Senator) feel the need to answer his evaluation of what I wrote. Said C&F:

Kyle is right in that the statement is objectively true as far as it goes. But he's wrong in addressing Year2's point. First of all, the statement was about Richt's 10th season. So the five-season yardstick is completely off-course. If you use ten seasons as the actual measure, Georgia is 4-4 (counting Richt). So Georgia has seen just as many coaches with shorter tenures than Richt's as coaches with equal or lengthier terms. And the last of those coaches before Richt to have 10 seasons or more in Athens was Vince Dooley, who was hired in 1964 and retired in 1988. College football was certainly a different game 22 years ago, let alone 46 years ago.

The last two head coaches before Richt didn't last more than 10 years. Ray Goff was the head coach in Athens for seven seasons and Jim Donnan was head coach for five.

Also: It wasn't hard to retain coaches like Wallace Butts and Vince Dooley; they won football games. That's not something unique to the culture of Athens; winning football coaches tend to keep their jobs.

None of this is a slam against Georgia. It's just an acknowledgment that the program is just like anywhere else: Win and you generally keep your job; lose and you don't. And fans are getting more impatient looking for the latter. (Arguably even at Georgia. Jim Donnan's career winning percentage was 70 points higher than Butts', but Donnan only got six years.)

But here we get back to the point about the hot seat not being merely about numbers. Butts won a national title in his fourth year (1942) and eighth year (1946) as well as an SEC title in 1948 before an awful string that included six losing seasons in ten years, including four in a row (1955-58). Donnan had a grand total of one losing season -- his first -- but never claimed the conference or national crowns. But even with all Butts' accomplishments, it's hard to see him surviving the 14-25-1 stretch before his fourth SEC championship in today's environment.

There’s a lot to unpack there, so let’s begin at the beginning. Regarding C&F’s point that "Georgia has seen just as many coaches with shorter tenures than Richt's as coaches with equal or lengthier terms," he evidently stopped quoting me one paragraph too soon, because I made that very point:

Since the SEC came into being, the Red and Black have been led by coaches who served ten years (Harry Mehre), 22 years (Wally Butts), and 25 years (Vince Dooley). As long as Mark Richt is not fired before the end of the 2010 season, half of the head football coaches to have served in Sanford Stadium in the SEC era will have lasted a decade or more between the hedges.

I fail to see how I was "wrong in addressing Year2's point" when I answered it by citing the very fact C&F considers critical. It seems perfectly fair to rebut Year2’s claim "that we're not used to SEC coaches sticking around for that long" by pointing out that 50 per cent of the Georgia coaches who have served since the league was founded have stuck around for that long.

Put another way, 2010 will be the 78th football season since the Southeastern Conference came into being, and it will be the 62nd such autumn in which the Bulldogs are overseen by a head coach who spent at least a decade stalking the sidelines for the Red and Black. Why, precisely, would we not be accustomed to a state of affairs that has been the norm in the Classic City for all but sixteen years in the last three-quarters of a century?

Beyond that, while C&F is correct that the world has turned more than once in the 22 years since Vince Dooley notched his 201st coaching victory, and certainly in the 46 years since he opened his career in Athens, the institutional memory of a university which was chartered two years before the delegates convened to draft the U.S. Constitution is both long and strong, so there is a tendency to take the long view in the building where Mark Richt’s office is located.

That building is named for two of the last three football coaches to have remained at Georgia as long as Mark Richt will have by the end of this autumn, and the edifice is part of an athletics complex named for the third. The passage of time has done little to disrupt the continuity of an athletic association that has, since literally the day John F. Kennedy was shot, been led by the man who hired Coach Dooley, Coach Dooley, and the right-hand man Coach Dooley personally groomed to succeed him. The consensus in Bulldog Nation is that the next athletic director to take the helm in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall should be an Athens native and University alum who served as an administrator under Coach Dooley. Times change, but the culture in the Classic City remains consistent, if not constant.

A bit of cherry-picking has gone into C&F’s blanket declarations that "Wallace Butts and Vince Dooley [were retained because] they won football games" and "Jim Donnan's career winning percentage was 70 points higher than Butts'." The latter statement, like Barry Switzer’s observation that he had a higher winning percentage as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys than Jimmy Johnson had, is accurate but removed from context. A lengthy downcycle during most of Coach Butts’s final twelve years on the job dragged down his winning percentage, and Coach Donnan’s ledger is buoyed by victories over Vanderbilt and bowl wins against subpar opposition. Coach Donnan posted losing records against Auburn, Florida, Georgia Tech, and Tennessee, and he never coached versus Clemson, so, against the Bulldogs’ five biggest rivals, he accomplished absolutely nothing. Firing such a coach involved clear thinking, not impatience.

Coach Butts and Coach Dooley certainly won football games; each retired as the winningest coach in school history at the time, and, between them, the two men won ten SEC championships and eight conference coach of the year awards. Coach Richt, for the record, has two of each, and he has cause for confidence about the future, based on the fact that Coach Butts won his third coach of the year award and his fourth conference championship in his 21st season, while Coach Dooley captured his fifth coaching honor, his fourth league crown, and his first national title in his 17th season. Perhaps patience is a virtue.

It certainly was in the cases of Coach Butts and Coach Dooley. Coach Butts’s early success earned him the forbearance of his employers, which was rewarded with the 1959 SEC championship. Coach Dooley’s early success similarly caused the administration to stand by him through a six-season span from 1969 to 1974, during which the ‘Dawgs finished at .500 three times and colossally flopped following a lofty preseason ranking in 1972. (Some commentators even picked the Red and Black to finish No. 1.)

Over the course of his career, Ray Goff had a losing ledger in league play, but the University’s loyalty to one of its own bought Vince Dooley’s successor an extra year, and probably two. Jim Donnan lost 19 games in five years and led what he touted as his best team to an eight-win season; Mark Richt lost 19 games in seven years and led his worst team to an eight-win season. Coach Goff and Coach Donnan accomplished nothing to earn the patience Coach Butts and Coach Dooley received, but Coach Richt has.

At the end of the day, I concur with Senator Blutarsky’s argument that this largely is a semantic debate. I don’t believe Mark Richt is on the hot seat because I believe there is no realistic scenario under which Mark Richt is not Georgia's head coach in 2011. (By contrast, I would contend that Les Miles is on the hot seat, because it appears that there are realistic scenarios under which LSU could have a new head coach next year.)

As I have maintained consistently, Mark Richt bought himself at least an extra year by cleaning house on the defensive side of the ball. Accordingly, in the absence of a total collapse---and even 5-7, while bad, would not constitute a total collapse; I'm talking about going 4-8 or worse---I believe there is no realistic scenario under which Mark Richt is not Georgia's head coach in 2012, as well. If I can say, "I'm confident that this head coach will be the head coach at his present school for at least the next three seasons," that coach is not, in my view, on the hot seat. Since I am able to make that statement about Mark Richt, I agree with C&F’s conclusion that the Bulldogs’ head coach is not in peril with any degree of immediacy.

Nevertheless, I disagree with portions of the reasoning by which C&F reached the proper conclusion. (For instance, I’m not terribly concerned about the dips in Georgia’s offense, since defense wins championships, and, in the SEC, we don’t need no stinking offense.) On the whole, C&F’s assessment of Coach Richt’s status is reasonable, but, since I was quoted in his analysis, I thought my point warranted clarification. While last season shook my faith in Mark Richt, his decisive action restored my confidence in him as a coach and caused me to share the view expressed by Demarcus Dobbs: "It’s just a new beginning." Bulldog Nation has traveled this road successfully before, and, since we are familiar with the way, we will stay the course, secure in the knowledge that it’s the same distance from the outhouse to the mansion as it was from the mansion to the outhouse.

Go ‘Dawgs!