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How Mark Richt Saved Christmas

Merry Christmas! I hope everyone had a happy and healthy holiday, and I extend my thanks to downindixie for filling in at the last minute by bringing you today’s edition of Dawg Bites. It had been my hope (and my expectation) that the opening item of today’s link rundown would concern the release of the 2012 Southeastern Conference slate, for which we continue to wait. The delay, however, affords us an opportunity to pause and consider one of the many blessings for which we in Bulldog Nation ought to be thankful this season; namely, the fact that Mark Richt is still the head coach of the Red and Black.

When I walked out of the Georgia Dome following the Georgia Bulldogs’ season-opening loss to the Boise St. Broncos, I thought Kirby Smart would have been introduced in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall by now, but the Classic City Canines haven’t been guilty of playing that poorly for 60 straight minutes since, and, in retrospect, Boise State was a darned good football team.

The question was asked forthrightly about Coach Richt in August: “Can he change and adapt enough to turn those close losses into wins?” It certainly didn’t appear that way when the Broncos roundly outplayed the Bulldogs on Labor Day weekend, and that situation was not helped by the fact that Georgia played markedly better yet still lost a nailbiter to the South Carolina Gamecocks between the hedges seven days later. The truth, though, was that the adaptations already were occurring, in the form of staff changes and recruiting victories, and, sure enough, the close losses of 2010, which reflected systemic problems but also resulted from statistical anomalies, soon were succeeded by scores like 20-12, 33-28, 24-20, and 19-10, all in victories, all as part of a ten-game winning streak that left Coach Richt more than halfway to breaking Vince Dooley’s school record for victories.

Looking back now, it seems slightly silly that we were all so worried. A fellow doesn’t put together six ten-win seasons, four first-place finishes in the division, three Sugar Bowl appearances, and two SEC championships in his first eight years on the job without having a pretty good idea what he’s doing; Mark Richt didn’t forget how to coach, any more than Wally Butts or Vince Dooley did during their respective downcycles . . . but there were a lot of lean years under Coach Butts before he ended his career on the sidelines on the upswing with a 1959 conference crown and a four-game winning streak over Bobby Dodd’s Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The kind of patience displayed by the University of Georgia administration in the 1950s was long gone by the 2010s, so such forbearance was not to be forthcoming. Coach Richt had to win, and he had to win now, and he did.

I freely concede that, to a disproportionate degree, my emotional well-being is tied up in Mark Richt’s success, in a way it wasn’t in Jim Donnan’s or Ray Goff’s or even Vince Dooley’s. Part of it has to do with the fact that I became a father during Coach Richt’s stewardship of the Georgia program, so I am more conscious of the role models I am establishing for my children, even if only accidentally, through the intensity of my sports fandom; it matters to me that I am not creating cognitive dissonance in my son by taking him to Sanford Stadium on Saturday and taking him to church on Sunday.

This, then, was not merely a matter of eleventh-hour redemption to transform 2012 from a season of transition to a season of expectation, though it was that; more than that, though, it was a much-needed reminder, at the end of a scandal-plagued year that showcased much of the worst in college football, that, as a matter of fact, nice guys can finish first, and a head coach---which is to say, a human being---may be at once admirable and successful. That was a nice lesson to have underscored for us this Christmas season, as we prepare for the dawning of a new year, with the high hopes such a fresh start brings, high hopes which seem, going forward, much less like airy aspirations than like strong possibilities whose realization, for us, at least, will be only a matter of waiting.

Is it football season yet?

Go ‘Dawgs!

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