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Fourth and Wrong: Mark Richt, the Georgia Bulldogs, and the Difference Between the Plays That Win SEC Titles and the Plays That Lose Liberty Bowls

My initial gut reaction was to punt it, but we had two time outs. I just felt confident that we could get what I thought was about 10 inches.

Mark Richt (August 31, 2002)

With 103 seconds remaining in the Bulldogs’ 2002 season opener against Clemson between the hedges, the Georgia offense trotted back out onto the field holding a 31-28 lead. The line of scrimmage was the Red and Black 29 yard line. After gaining nine yards on their next three plays, the Bulldogs faced fourth and inches at their own 38 with 40 seconds left.

The Classic City Canines were 62 yards shy of the opposite end zone, yet second-year head coach Mark Richt called a play ordinarily reserved for goal line situations. The ball went to Musa Smith, who had been Georgia’s leading rusher (105 yards on 23 carries) and leading receiver (16 yards on four catches) of the night. Extending the ball as though attempting to break the plane for a touchdown, the Bulldog running back dived over the top for the first down that allowed the Red and Black to run out the clock.

Despite receiving a well-articulated invitation to do so, I am not inclined to froth at the mouth, although I understand and appreciate why some feel such a need. However, as I noted earlier, I keep coming back to that fourth down call from eight seasons ago. It showed confidence in the offense to get the job done, confidence in the defense to hold if the play failed to gain, and a commitment to "finishing the drill" and playing to win that produced an SEC championship that season.

I cannot reconcile that fourth down decision with the one in the Liberty Bowl about which the same coach said this: "Well if I’d known what the final score was, yeah. But I think it was the right thing to do at the time. I think a couple players were upset that I didn’t go for it at that time. But I was like, if you wanna make it, make it on third and one, don’t tell me you wanna go for it on fourth and one."

I am now essentially in the same place that I was before this game, recognizing it for its important implications but taking the view that (a) a head coach who won a pair of conference championships early in his career has earned the right to try to turn it around, particularly in light of the fact that the last two coaches to have been in this situation (Wally Butts and Vince Dooley) delivered additional SEC titles when given time in which to do so, and (b) it makes little sense to debate at this juncture what Seth Emerson stated plainly was the case: "I'm confident that if the powers-that-be feel Richt isn't the man for the future, they'd make a move now. The decision to go forward with Richt in 2011 was made months ago, and there's no sign that's changed."

With apologies for reusing the political analogy I offered before, it was one thing to debate whether to impeach Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton when the House of Representatives was considering whether to exercise the Constitutional power to accuse a president formally and subject him to trial and the risk of removal from office, but, even if you think George W. Bush or Barack Obama deserved impeachment, it is silly to argue over such things, since the possibility of such a thing happening is nonexistent. Mark Richt will be the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs in 2011. Debating whether he should be was rendered moot the moment Greg McGarity told us he would be, and we certainly have more pressing subjects about how the program might be turned around, given the givens.

From recruiting to the offensive line to play calling to the ability to win the fourth quarter, the program is plagued by many issues in need of correction, but, ultimately, the mindset underlying that fateful, and perhaps fatal, fourth down call may be the single biggest reason why I share the viewpoint Anthony Pace has expressed so well.

I want Mark Richt to be the Bulldogs’ head coach, but I cannot state the reality more plainly than this: Mark Richt must jettison the attitude of December 31, 2010, and resurrect the attitude of August 31, 2002, in 2011 if he hopes to be employed in Athens in 2012.

Go ‘Dawgs!