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TaxSlayer Bowl A Uniquely Bittersweet Moment For Longtime Bulldog Fans

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Chip Towers has a nice profile of interim head coach Bryan McClendon up over at the AJC. I'm not going to steal his thunder by going through all the details, but it's really worth your time to give it a look. In contrast with the click-bait that some of his colleagues regularly regurgitate on the digital page over there, Chip does some solid work. This is great example.

It also drove home a point that's been circling in my mind for a while now. To this point I've discussed Georgia's coaching transition objectively. We're fans here at Dawg Sports. That's why we're writing about Georgia sports here rather than a lot of other places where we might be discouraged from owning our allegiances. That's part of the culture of SB Nation as a network and a company. You wouldn't buy a car from a guy who won't tell you whether he prefers Fords or Chevys. You wouldn't eat barbecue at a place where the owner tells you he doesn't really have a preference between beef and pork or any opinions about what wood makes the best smoke. You shouldn't get your college football coverage from people who you know feel very personally about it, but won't tell you what they feel. It's disingenuous. And it ain't our style.

So while I've tried to cover the dawning of the Kirby Smart era with some degree of objectivity, I've also been struggling with how it affects me as a fan. As a 'Dawg. I'm sure this will change in the days and weeks ahead, but for now, here's what I've got.

This coaching transition is, in one sense, about a Bulldog coming home. I watched Kirby Smart play in Sanford Stadium when I was also in college. I've seen Kirby Smart, college student out in downtown Athens having a good time. So seeing him take the stage and addressing him as the head coach of the University of Georgia Bulldogs is a little surreal for me. It drives home, along with a mortgage and daycare bills, and a thousand other things, the fact that I and those of my age are the adults in the room now. Which is pretty frightening. Especially if you've met us. Really, some of us bought New Radicals CDs back when people still bought CDs. We're not to be trusted.

On another level, Smart's arrival also means the loss of an era in Bulldog history. One which has seen a lot of Bulldogs become something more than they were when it began. It means the departure of Thomas Brown and the above-discussed Bryan McClendon. I watched both of those guys in a Bulldog uniform when I was in law school and then working my first "real" job, while Kirby Smart was working his first "real" job as a young assistant at Valdosta State among other places, likely living off cold cuts and the occasional ramen if he was anything like the rest of us of that age. In my mind's eye, McClendon and Brown are still #16 and #20. I can still see Bryan McClendon blocking a punt against Arkansas to jumpstart a dominant SEC Championship Game win. It was one of the most joyous afternoons of a joyous season.

Unless and until Georgia wins a national championship I doubt that I'll ever enjoy a season of college football as much as I did that one. Frankly, I'm not certain even a title would trump the exhilaration of that 2002 season, but I'd love the chance to make the comparison. My wife and I watched that season's Sugar Bowl win against Florida State on the first night we spent in the first house we bought, by the way. The one to which we later brought our daughter home. The one in which I now sit writing this. Memories.

I'm happy for Thomas Brown to become the co-offensive coordinator at Miami. It's a well-deserved promotion, one for which I believe he is prepared. I am likewise happy for Bryan McClendon, also taking a co-offensive coordinator position. I'd be a lot happier if it weren't in Columbia, South Carolina and I wasn't going to have to see him on the visitor's sideline in Athens, but still. And yes, it's true that when McClendon takes the field on Saturday he will be the first African-American to helm the Bulldog football program on a game day. That is noteworthy, and it shouldn't pass without our recognition.

But for me the TaxSlayer Bowl will be momentous because, in some ways, it will be the last Bulldog game of my youth. Because as long as the Thomas Browns and Bryan McClendons and (until recently Mike Bobos) on Mark Richt's staff were still in Athens, it still felt like 2002. And somewhere deep down the fact that former Bulldog players were still so prevalent in the Classic City drove home the slogan of one of the University's television commercials. You remember it, the one where students and alumni (and future students/alumni) line up to take turns ringing the Chapel Bell. "You may leave it" reads the script over the image, "but it never leaves you."

We're leaving the Mark Richt era. It will never leave us. The best we can hope for is that Kirby Smart will prove that it was the right time to go. It will be some time before we know the answer to that question. It won't be next season. It won't be the one after that, in my estimation. I want Kirby Smart to win a national championship at Georgia. I won't say I believe he'll do it. Because the odds are against him. They're against every coach who sets out to reach that goal every season. College football is full of fiercely competitive people competing fiercely, to the exclusion of all other concerns, to win championships. The difference between those who do and those who don't win is, to an extent fans don't like to think about, luck.

I don't know if Kirby Smart is lucky enough to win a national title. I believe he's competitive enough. And intelligent enough. And energetic enough. But then I believed all those things about Mark Richt, too. His 2007 team was good enough to win a national title, just not lucky enough. Ditto 2012. Probably 2005. And I will go to my grave believing that 2002 team could have scored at least one more point than any damn football team in the nation that year. You'll never convince me Georgia didn't have the best football team in the country thirteen years ago, on December 31, 2002.

It's not 2002 anymore, of course. Time charges forward. People move on. Mark Richt is no longer the head coach of the University of Georgia. He called Athens home for at least twice as long in his lifetime as his successor has, but he's now "gone home" to a place I have trouble thinking of as his home, a place I did not believe he would be right now precisely because I did not believe he wouldn't still be in Athens. I'm excited for Kirby Smart. Make no mistake, this is his dream job. I want badly for him to succeed in it. But before moving confidently into the Kirby Smart era, I personally need Saturday to say goodbye to the Mark Richt era, and guys like Bryan McClendon who made it possible. To say a little, quiet thank you for the memories.

Until later . . .

Go 'Dawgs!!!