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Mark Richt and Vince Dooley: Georgia Bulldogs Head Football Coaches on Parallel Courses?

Yesterday, I compared Mark Richt’s fourth down decisionmaking against the Clemson Tigers on August 31, 2002, and against the Central Florida Knights on December 31, 2010. The more I thought about that analogy, the more I was reminded of similar disparities in the calls made by Vince Dooley against the Country Gentlemen:

There also are coaches who demonstrate through such decisions when they have crossed the line between risk-taking and risk-aversion. Following impressive early successes in his first five years as the head coach at Georgia, Vince Dooley went through a rough patch in his next six seasons, finishing at .500 three times between 1969 and 1974.

The program again rose to a lofty level, led by Erk Russell’s "Junkyard ‘Dawgs" in the Cotton Bowl campaign of 1975 and the Sugar Bowl season of 1976. It was in that climate that the Red and Black welcomed Clemson to Sanford Stadium for the second game of their fall slate on September 17, 1977. The Tigers had not won in Athens since 1914 and Coach Dooley had gone 10-1 against the Country Gentlemen in his career.

In their first year under Charley Pell, though, the Fort Hill Felines held a 7-0 lead on the Bulldogs between the hedges with 25 seconds remaining in the game when Coach Russell’s defense held Clemson on fourth down. From the Georgia 42, quarterback Jeff Pyburn tossed a lateral to tight end Ulysses Norris, who hurled the ball downfield to flanker Jesse Murray. The Red and Black receiver came down with the ball in the midst of four Tiger defenders for a 50-yard gain to the Clemson eight yard line.

Two plays later, Norris caught a Pyburn pass in the corner of the end zone with six seconds left. Despite a five-yard delay of game penalty on the conversion attempt, Coach Dooley elected to go for two points and the win. Pyburn rolled out under pressure and threw too high for the leaping Norris to bring in the aerial, producing a 7-6 setback for the Classic City Canines.

The outcome altered the course of both programs, and of the rivalry. Georgia went on to post its only losing season of the 25-year Vince Dooley era. Clemson, which did not attend a bowl game between 1960 and 1976, received a Gator Bowl bid and became a regular fixture of the college football postseason in years in which probation did not prevent the Tigers from appearing in bowls. Between 1977 and 1987, the Bulldogs and the Tigers went 5-5-1 against one another in what became the country’s most closely-contested rivalry.

The lone tie came in 1983, when Georgia was coming off of a 33-3 three-year run during which the ‘Dawgs won one national championship, played for another, and captured three straight conference crowns. The Red and Black were ranked seventh in the coaches’ poll when they traveled to Death Valley on September 17, 1983, six years to the day after the failed two-point conversion against the Country Gentlemen.

Georgia trailed 16-6 heading into the fourth quarter. Defensive end Calvin Ruff recovered a Clemson fumble to set up a 14-play, 54-yard drive including a fourth-down conversion near midfield and a pair of third-down conversions inside the Tiger 20 yard line. An eight-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Todd Williams to tight end Clarence Kay with a little over nine minutes remaining made it decision time for Coach Dooley. The Bulldogs were behind 16-12 and had to choose whether to kick the extra point or go for two.

Coach Dooley sent in placekicker Kevin Butler for the point after and he made it a three-point ballgame. The game ended with a 76-yard Georgia drive that set up a 31-yard Butler field goal with 38 seconds to play. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, unaware at the time of the last-second heroics Butler would pull off against the Tigers one year later, published a photograph of the kicker the following day with the caption, "The Butler did it.")

Afterwards, Coach Dooley explained, "I thought we had momentum and I wanted to maintain that momentum. I did not want to do anything that would have killed our momentum – and going for two and not getting it would have surely done just that."

Against Charley Pell in 1977, Vince Dooley was 45 years old and barely two years removed from the day in the summer of 1975 that Fred Davison had stood up to mounting fan criticism by giving the coach a four-year extension at a time when he had just one year left on his existing contract. Against Danny Ford in 1983, Vince Dooley was 51 years old, ensconced as athletic director, and the winningest coach in Bulldog football history.

Was Coach Dooley too desperately reckless in 1977 or was he displaying the sort of intestinal fortitude that helped to turn the players who finished with a losing record as freshmen into the players who won a national championship as seniors? Was Coach Dooley too cautiously conservative in 1983 or was he displaying the sort of mature wisdom that led to six conference championships, 20 bowl appearances, and 201 victories?

In thinking back on Coach Dooley’s decisionmaking in those two games against Clemson, I cannot escape the realization that, when he went for two in 1977, the immediate result of the call was a loss but the long-term result of the mindset was a boatload of wins. In the five years following that season, from 1978 to 1982, the Georgia Bulldogs went 28-1-1 in SEC play, winning three conference championships and finishing second in the league twice.

A different attitude prevailed in Athens by 1983, when Coach Dooley eschewed going for two. The immediate result of that call was to avoid a loss but the long-term result of the new mindset was a series of disappointments. In the five years following that season, from 1984 to 1988, the Red and Black suffered two SEC losses each autumn and finished as high as tied for second place only once.

The simple reality is that, over the long haul, playing to win produces wins and playing not to lose produces losses. Going for the victory with gusto may cause a team to come up short in the moment, but such a coaching approach will produce many more wins than losses over the course of a career. We saw such a mentality in Mark Richt earlier in his tenure---in Knoxville in 2001, in Tuscaloosa and in Auburn in 2002---but we have not seen it nearly as much---we have not seen it nearly enough---lately.

Is it a coincidence that the one rival against whom the ‘Dawgs consistently have performed the most tightly and timidly also is the one rival against whom Coach Richt has a losing record? Is it a coincidence that the one time the Red and Black took the field against the Florida Gators with confidence also is the one time in the Mark Richt era that the Classic City Canines convincingly beat the Sunshine State Saurians? The wisdom of the running play at the end of the 2001 game against the Auburn Tigers is debatable, but, while the Bulldogs lost that particular outing, they defeated the Plainsmen in six of the next eight series meetings. Attitudes carry consequences that last even after the clock shows a trio of zeroes.

I do not wish to overstate the importance of an individual decision in a specific game; careers and their courses are not defined by single instances. Nevertheless, the English language contains the word "synecdoche" for a reason, and the fourth down call early in the Liberty Bowl was symbolic of a central problem.

The immediate result of Vince Dooley’s decision to go for the win instead of the tie against Clemson in 1977 was the loss that made the difference between 5-6 and 5-5-1; had Coach Dooley elected to kick the extra point, he would have prevented his team from suffering what turned out to be the only losing season of his 25-year career on the Sanford Stadium sideline. Nevertheless, the Bulldogs gained more than they lost that day, as became clear over the next several years.

Had Mark Richt decided to go for the touchdown instead of settling for the field goal against UCF last Friday, it might have made the difference between 7-6 and 6-7, thereby preventing the only losing season of Coach Richt’s tenure. It also might have made the difference between losing 10-6 and losing 10-3. The systematic mindset is more important than the discrete outcome, though; when the hobnailed boot was brought down, the reverberations continued to be felt at least as far away in place and time as the 2006 Chick-fil-A Bowl, when a gutsy call on a surprise onside kick saved the day against the Virginia Tech Hokies. Such intestinal fortitude did not remain on display when the same bold play worked for Auburn against the Red and Black in 2010.

Coaches, being human beings, change. Some become more conservative after building their reputations as riverboat gamblers; others adapt, as Bear Bryant did when he adopted the wishbone. The lesson of Vince Dooley’s later years could not be more clear, and the advice Mark Richt needs to heed can be distilled down to three simple words: no, not "finish the drill"; . . . "go for it."

If we are to fail, at least let us fail while daring greatly. This is not the time to play it safe. As John A. Shedd wrote in Salt From My Attic, "A ship in harbor is safe - but that is not what ships are for."

Go ‘Dawgs!