Somewhat predictably, any time a program with sky-high expectations like Georgia has a disappointing 9-win season, people look for someone to blame. And since Jeremy Pruitt's honeymoon hasn't run out yet and Mike Bobo's offense was one of the best in the SEC this year, it's probably natural for the focus to fall squarely on Mark Richt. And if you've read the comments in, well, pretty much any thread at Dawg Sports this week, you know that the vehemently outspoken fan frustration being directed at the head coach is approaching 2010 levels.
If you've read this site for any length of time, you probably also know that I'm generally a pretty staunch Mark Richt supporter. I'm also open-minded enough, however, to consider arguments against my position that are well-founded and fairly challenge the opinions I've espoused about his stewardship of the program. And I completely agree with a management maxim made famous by Jeremy Foley: "What should be done eventually must be done immediately," specifically with regards to retaining or firing a coach. So let's look at the question: Should Mark Richt still be the head coach at the University of Georgia?
As you might imagine, I'm going to start with a historical perspective and a few stats that might or might not be applicable in any way:
Mark Richt has about a 73% career winning percentage at Georgia so far. (Specifically, it's 73.77%.) In a 13-game season (12 regular season games plus a bowl game), that averages out to about 9.5 wins per year. (Note, though, that in a 14-game season, which UGA would have in years they made the SEC Championship Game, this clip would be about 10.2 games per year. And in years they made the college football playoff, if they also went to the SEC Championship Game, they would have the potential to play 15 games, and they would have to win 11 games in those seasons to keep the 73% win rate going.)
Here is a complete list of the coaches other than Mark Richt who have won at least 73% of their games at Georgia, along with the seasons in which they patrolled the sidelines in Athens:
- Robert Winston (1894): 5-1
- Herman Stegeman (1920-1922): 20-6-3
Winston was only the coach for 1 year back in the nascent days of Georgia football, and Stegeman is an Athens legend for his work with the basketball team. In fact, when Stegeman was hired, he was basically the head coach for every athletic team on campus (football, basketball, baseball, and track & field). He handed off the baseball job after 1 year and the football job after 3. Is that datum relevant? Probably not. At any rate, Mark Richt has the best overall record, by win %, of any coach who has led the football team for more than 3 years.
Mark Richt also has taken Georgia to 13 bowl games, in which he has an overall record of 8-5. Here is a complete list of the other Georgia head coaches who have had a winning record in the bowl games they attended:
Wally Butts (5-2-1)
Jim Donnan (4-0)
You can't deny Butts' exceptional record, especially since he coached in an era where the only games that existed were essentially the level of what we'd call "BCS Bowls" today. And Donnan's record looks good until you consider the fact that those 4 bowls included 2 Outback Bowls, 1 Peach Bowl, and 1 O'ahu Bowl. Not exactly a murderer's row of competition. But still,both Butts and Donnan had a better bowl winning percentage than Richt.
Finally, Mark Richt has led the Red and Black to two SEC Championships. Here is a complete list of the other Georgia head coaches who have won multiple conference championships at UGA:
Wally Butts (4)
Vince Dooley (6)
Simply for the sake of statistical validation here, it's worth noting that Richt has had to win his championships via the SEC Championship Game, not by just having (or being tied for) the best SEC record on the season, the way Butts and Dooley were able to accomplish the feat. If we were to retroactively go back and assign SEC Champion/Co-Champion status to Richt's teams for the sake of making an "apples to apples" comparison, Richt would have 3 SEC Championships at this point. (2002, 2007, and 2012) It's also true, however, that Richt has only been in Athens for 14 years, while Butts and Dooley compiled their accomplishments in 22 and 25 years, respectively. After their first 14 years, both Butts and Dooley had 3 SEC titles under their belts... just as Mark Richt does by using the "overall record" method.
So, with the exception of bowl winning percentage, Mark Richt has been the most successful coach in Georgia history, at least through the first 14 years of his coaching career.
The most effective counter argument, however, to the statistics I just presented is that the college football landscape has changed dramatically since those previous coaches were patrolling the sidelines in Athens. And, indeed, the college football picture has changed dramatically... just in the time that Mark Richt has been at UGA, in fact. You still have to win games, of course (coaching has always been about that)... but the number of games you need to win in order to be considered "successful" has steadily risen, even during Richt's tenure.
The first argument most frequently used by Richt supporters (including notable UGA partisans like Jeff Dantzler) are variations on the adage, "If you keep consistently producing an elite-level team, eventually it will all come together one of these years." Admittedly, that's a long-term view, and the long-term view is one of the most out-of-favor arguments to use in today's world. But let's look at the statistics behind that argument.
During Richt's 14-year tenure, 9 different schools have won a national championship (pending the 2014 result): Alabama (3 times); Florida, LSU, and USC (twice); and once each for Auburn, FSU, Miami, Ohio State, and Texas. Of those 9 schools, all of them had a head coach that was in his first 4 years at the school, excepting only Texas (Mack Brown) and Alabama (Nick Saban's first national championship was won in his 3rd year at the Capstone, but his 2 subsequent titles were won in his 5th and 6th years, respectively.) Not only that, but of the coaches who have won a national championship in their first 4 years at a school, only Nick Saban has won a national championship outside of that first-4-years window. Also, the only coaches who have won a national championship in the last 14 years who are still at the same school are Saban, Les Miles, and Jimbo Fisher. In the last 14 years, longevity has not been a benefit for national championship winners without the last name "Saban."
As you continue looking back farther in the record book, though, you see that the current 14-year trend has been a very significant historical shift. In the decade of the '90's, the national championships were won by the following teams and coaches (# of years at that school at the time in parentheses):
- 1999: FSU, Bowden (24)
- 1998: Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer (7)
- 1997: Michigan and Nebraska, Lloyd Carr (3) and Tom Osborne (25)
- 1996: Florida, Steve Spurrier (7)
- 1995: Nebraska, Osborne (23)
- 1994: Nebraska, Osborne (22)
- 1993: FSU, Bowden (18)
- 1992: Alabama, Gene Stallings (3)
- 1991: Miami and Washington, Dennis Erickson (3) and Don James (17)
- 1990: Colorado and Georgia Tech, Bill McCartney (9) and Bobby Ross (4)
So in the decade of the '90's, there were only 3 national championship coaches with 4 or fewer years of experience at their current school, and only 1 of those coaches won the championship outright (at Alabama, because obviously). I won't post the records for the '80's to save the page space, but that decade's record was more mixed, with Miami winning the title with a couple of short-tenured coaches and Notre Dame giving Lou Holtz his moment of glory in his 3rd year at the school (not to mention Danny Ford in his 4th year as a Country Gentleman). But Joe Paterno, Barry Switzer, Howard Schnellenberger, LaVell Edwards, and Vince Dooley were all members of the "old guy" contingent that won titles during that decade, as well.
So, on the surface, we see that in the 20 years before Mark Richt became the head coach of the Red and Black, long-tenured coaches did very well on the national stage, but from almost the moment Richt stepped onto campus, the "old boys" were no longer de rigueur. Can we draw the conclusion, then, that philosophy of having a coach on the sidelines for a very long time is an outdated notion that has outlived its usefulness... at least, if you want to win a national championship? I would say that with nearly a decade and a half of data, you can conclude that at this point in time, the answer is unquestionably "yes." If you want to win a national championship in the current college football climate, your chances are dramatically better if you have a coach who is in his first 4 years at your school (unless your coach's name is "Nick Saban").
This leads me to what I believe is the most important question as it relates to a head coach, though: What are your goals as a football program? And this is not as simple a question as it may seem at first glance. Certainly, every football program wants to win games, and ultimately win championships. But what are the other goals a major college football program who aspires to be "elite" sets for itself? Here is a list that I've come up with, and I think it fairly represents the goals of most major programs:
- Win the national championship.
- Win your conference championship.
- Beat your rivals.
- Recruit the best players.
- Help your players graduate.
- Help prepare your players for life outside of football, since the large majority of them won't be playing in the NFL, and most of those that do go pro won't be in the NFL very long.
- Avoid getting into trouble with the NCAA.
- Build goodwill/Establish a reputation of contributing positively to the community and the world around you.
Note that I haven't assigned numbers or otherwise listed a priority designation to the goals above, because the order and relative importance of those goals will vary virtually from person to person.
I've already discussed the championships and his overall winning percentage, so let's look at the other goals. When it comes to Georgia's rivals, let's assume that includes South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech. Richt's record against those 5 teams is a collective 44-26, and the only team against which he has an overall losing record is the Gators. (Carolina is the next-closest, at 8-6 overall.) So, although 2014 was a bad season on this front (in which all 3 of our losses were to teams from that list), Mark Richt has been beating our rivals year in and year out.
On the recruiting numbers, I'm probably not qualified to authoritatively speak on how well Richt has been doing among his contemporaries, but it seems to me that he's been solidly in the top 25% of the SEC consistently, and has been among the best in the last couple of years.
As for the player-related goals, I'm going to declare that no coach in the entire country is better than Richt in actually caring for his players as though they were his own sons, which is something virtually every coach promises every recruit's momma when he's sitting in their living room. Coach Richt has repeatedly shown his willingness to do everything within his power to help his players grow into not just great players, but great men, and to help give them all the tools they need to succeed in life after football. Just look at those HBO "Hard Knocks" shows and see how many NFL players you see in a locker room wearing a "Coach Richt is my Dawg" t-shirt... that says volumes about how his players feel about him. Even when players make serious mistakes and are kicked off the team, Coach Richt has been adamant in wanting what is best for the kids, even if it might hurt UGA in the short-term, and not preventing them from going to schools that will be playing Georgia in the future. (Specifically, I'm looking at Nick Marshall and Zach Mettenberger here.) Ultimately, you can talk about faith-based issues and being a "nice guy" all you want, but nothing helps steer recruits to your program like the ironclad promise, based on multiple past results, that you will always try to help them succeed, even if it isn't with UGA.
As for staying out of NCAA trouble... well, from an objective standpoint, you can't really give Mark Richt a gold star on this point. Over and over the NCAA applauds UGA for fully cooperating with them, but Richt's teams have repeatedly had issues with losing their best players due to NCAA suspensions and sanctions. A.J. Green's sold jersey cost him 4 crucial games, Todd Gurley's autographs, the whole Isaiah Crowell debacle, the check-cashing scheme that ultimately cost us 4 players... those are all examples of legal and/or NCAA trouble under Richt's watch. And that's not to mention the violations UGA self-reported for Richt circumventing official channels to pay for assistants' raises out of his own pocket (i.e. unreported to the NCAA). And then there's the Kolton Houston saga, which drew the ire of a self-righteous group of NCAA blowhards when we kept petitioning for the reinstatement of a player who consistently tested above the allowable levels of a PED in his system. I mean, you're getting into trouble "for the right reasons" in those situations... but you're still getting into trouble with the NCAA.
Finally, regarding building goodwill... nobody's going to argue that Mark Richt is great on this account. He's the kind of guy we all like, which makes it harder to want to fire him. If you're going to entrust the care of your child to any person, you'd want that person to be a man like Mark Richt. There's a lot to be said for that. Of course, it'll only take you so far, but it's still a significant statement.
So, what does that all boil down to? Should Georgia fire Mark Richt? Well, it depends on how you order and prioritize the goals I listed above. If all you care is about winning a national championship and nothing else, then Mark Richt should definitely be told to hit the bricks. The statistics just aren't in his favor, and as I said near the beginning of this post, what should be done eventually must be done immediately.
Let's be honest, though; most fans care about more than just winning a national or SEC championship. I can't speak for everyone else, but I'll speak for myself: winning championships is at the top of my list, certainly. But I would not make the trade of winning a national championship for the side effect of having it all vacated by the NCAA a few years down the road (as was the case with USC) or only to find out later that a system of preferential treatment for elite players meant that the top guys could basically do whatever they wanted with impunity (as was the case at Florida). And don't get me started with the morally ambiguous business of oversigning and greyshirting, which was utilized to great effect by Alabama and LSU, but has been outlawed (at least in its original form) by the NCAA for the last 2 years.
Again, I'm simply speaking for myself here, but I want to be able to look at my son (when he's old enough to understand such things) and be able to tell him, "This program we follow so fanatically is led by exactly the kind of man I try to be like, and someone you should try to be like, as well." Winning with honor is more important to me than simply winning. If that means we lose some great players from time to time and losing those players causes us to lose a critical game or two... well, that's a price I'm willing to pay. I don't insist that our coach be a saint, and even when Jim Donnan (the anti-saint) was the head Dawg, I was still a UGA fan. And if Donnan had won a national or SEC championship, I would have cheered just as loudly as I did in 2002 and 2005 in the Georgia Dome under Mark Richt. The question here is what I would prefer, however... and I greatly prefer having a man like Mark Richt at the head of the UGA program.
You can absolutely reach the top of the mountain in college football by aggressively operating a "moral grey area," but I'm not willing to pay that price. If that means that we can't have a national championship... well, that's a price I'm willing to pay. But I don't see that price as a foregone conclusion. If a random tip of the ball hadn't gone against us on the last play of the SEC Championship Game in 2012, we could have been lifting the crystal football in that season. Or if Ohio State hadn't barely scraped by against Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Penn State, Purdue, Illinois, and Michigan to go undefeated in 2002, we would have been able to play Miami for the championship in Mark Richt's second season in Athens. (Seriously, look at how many close calls that '02 OSU team had against some terrible B1G opponents... it was insane.) We've been on the cusp at least twice before. I see no reason to conclude that we absolutely can't win it all eventually, even though I acknowledge that statistics from the last 14 years aren't in our favor.
If Mark Richt starts to field teams that aren't among the best in the SEC and don't regularly beat our rivals, I would revisit my decision, because no matter how upstanding and honorable you are, you still have to win football games. But today, at the end 2014, I look at the state of the Georgia football program, and my conclusion is that Mark Richt is still exactly the right person to be leading the Georgia Bulldogs.
Let me know what you think in the comments.