Mark Richt And The Fierce Urgency Of Win-Now
Georgia's dismissal of Mark Richt shows how demanding college football coaching has become, at least in the SEC.
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In the grand scheme of life, I am not overly concerned about Mark Richt. I imagine he'll be just fine. On Sunday, after a 13-7 victory over rival Georgia Tech, news leaked that Richt would be fired as the University of Georgia's head coach after 15 seasons in order to either take a cushy administrative job in Athens or chase a coaching job at another university. There is little doubt, given his reputation as a top-rate recruiter and perhaps the nicest coach in major college football, that Richt will be offered another position somewhere if he wants it. It's possible he will land at a university where he will have the opportunity to work from the bottom up, and to rebuild a floundering program—say, Maryland or Miami—into a national power.
It's extremely plausible, in other words, that Mark Richt will find himself in a far better position than existed at Georgia, where certain snark merchants (ahem) could feast upon his repeated inability to win the big game, year after year. But I think this says something about the modern reality of coaching at the elite level of college football, and reinforces the fact that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift.
Richt's was a job that long felt like it might be in jeopardy, and then all of a sudden, even after four straight wins to end this season, he was gone. This was not a coincidence. In the second year of the playoff era, at a moment when television revenue has exploded, coaches are making more money than they ever have, but they also are subject to more intense public scrutiny. Maybe that sounds like a fusty complaint, given that coaches at Georgia—and coaches in the Southeastern Conference as a whole—have always been subject to public scrutiny. Much of that is deserved, given those salaries. Still, there is clearly something deeper going on when Richt loses his job and LSU's Les Miles nearly loses his job in the same week. The well of public impatience has grown deeper, and a great deal of this has to do with the ongoing hegemony of Nick Saban, the coach with whom Miles and Richt and everyone else in the SEC are constantly compared. But a lot of it also has to do with the fact that the majority of first-tier college football coaches can no longer afford to work in cycles.
Let us briefly examine the career of Vince Dooley, who spent 25 seasons at Georgia and won 201 games. In many ways, Dooley's career was similar to Richt's, with one glaring exception: Dooley won a national championship in 1980. (Perhaps if Richt had been gifted with a few more seconds in the 2012 SEC Championship game, things might be different today.) Yet the most interesting thing about Dooley's tenure—and the tenure of Joe Paterno, Dooley's peer, who often publicly expressed his theory on the notion of three or four-year coaching cycles at the college level—is that he had periods where he didn't win, periods where his teams were no doubt too young and inexperienced to compete in the SEC, periods where the fan base was not exactly content, but willing to point an eye toward the future. In 1968, after going 8-1-2 and winning an SEC title, Dooley won 5 games the following two seasons; after going 11-1 in 1971, Dooley didn't win another SEC title until 1976. The only stretch of consistently elite play in Dooley's tenure came from 1980-83, when Georgia won three straight SEC titles and a national title, thanks largely to the presence of Herschel Walker during the first three of those seasons.
"Down cycles come in football, and we're in one of them," Dooley told the media in 1984, after Georgia went 7-4-1 in the regular season, and back then, when your best players often redshirted as freshmen and tended to stay in college for at least three seasons before turning pro, those kinds of statements were considered acceptable.
If you could compete on a national level roughly every three or four years then, as Dooley did, you could stick around for quite some time. Richt found himself coaching in a different era; Richt coached during a time when the SEC was winning national championships season after season, and Georgia seemed good enough to be on that list but wasn't. Because the SEC won everything for so long—and because Saban continues to win and/or compete for titles, year after year—there is no patience or perspective anywhere within the conference. If Gus Malzahn has another subpar season at Auburn, it's very possible he could be fired three years after coming up a few plays short of winning a national championship.
Vince Dooley was perceived as a legendary coach because he won one big game in 1980 and worked in cycles; Richt ultimately failed because he was perceived as a coach who could win consistently year after year, but could never win that one big game.
There will, obviously, be no shortage of coaches who will go after the job at Georgia, including Saban's defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, a Georgia graduate. The problem for Smart, if he gets hired, is that he will immediately be measured up against his former boss; the problem for any coach who takes the Georgia job is that they will be expected to win immediately and consistently, and to beat the teams that Richt couldn't. It's no longer enough in the SEC to work in cycles, or to win consistently without capturing championships. The paradigm is different. "I don't know what the world is coming to in our profession," Saban said on Sunday. "Mark Richt has been a really good coach."
There is some strange poetry in that statement, given that Saban is the one who assured that just being "good" was no longer enough within the SEC. But I wonder if someone as placid as Richt never quite belonged in this kind of pressure chamber to begin with; I wonder if he'll be better off at a place where he can weather the down cycles, where he can feel like he is not constantly coaching to save his job, year after year, but is gradually and continually working toward a greater goal. That used to be the ideal for a college coach, but at least when it comes to the SEC, we don't live in that time anymore.