Bulldogs vs. Tigers
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn
ATHENS, Ga. — Vince Dooley managed a pained smile as he empathized with the heat being felt by Mark Richt in Georgia’s disappointing season.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been through it,” Dooley said.
Yes, even Dooley dealt with doubting fans on his way to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Fans hung Dooley in effigy on Georgia’s campus in 1967, only one season after the young coach won his first Southeastern Conference championship and beat SMU in the Cotton Bowl.
It was then that Dooley felt he had earned his coaching stripes.
“It was right before the Auburn game after Florida beat us,” Dooley, 83, said Tuesday. “I told the team ‘Look, I’m a full-fledged coach now. I’ve been hung in effigy. If you haven’t been hung in effigy, you haven’t been around long enough.’ And we did great. We went out and beat Auburn.”
Richt is facing similar heat before another stress test at Auburn on Saturday. The Bulldogs (6-3, 4-3 SEC) were favored to win the SEC’s Eastern Division but instead fell out of contention by losing three of four games. Most appalling to fans were lopsided losses to Alabama and Florida.
Last week’s 27-3 win over Kentucky provided only temporary relief for Richt and his staff. The calls for a coaching change would be renewed if Georgia doesn’t finish strong against Auburn, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech. The most impatient fans wouldn’t be satisfied even if a bowl win were to give Richt his second straight 10-win season.
It’s the pressure that comes with a high-profile coaching job. Dooley lasted 25 years as Georgia’s coach. As athletic director, he hired Richt in 2001.
Richt survived another crisis following his only losing season in 2010 and two straight losses to open the 2011 season.
“Mark came back and responded with two Eastern Division championships,” Dooley said, referring to Richt’s last crisis. “It’s just the nature of the business. You’ve got to be able to survive crisis.”
Last week was packed with challenges for Richt and his top two assistants, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Richt and Schottenheimer faced heavy criticism for giving quarterback Faton Bauta his first start against Florida and leaving Bauta in the game to throw four interceptions in a 27-3 loss.
With the heat on Richt like never before, he tried to insulate his players from what he called the outside “noise” while coming up with a new plan at quarterback. Then, in the middle of the week, he suspended freshmen Natrez Patrick and Chauncey Rivers for the Kentucky game following their arrests on marijuana charges.
Finally, when rumors of infighting on his staff led to speculation that Pruitt would be replaced, Richt used his Twitter feed to say Pruitt was on the job, preparing for Kentucky as usual.
Even after the Kentucky game, Richt still was bewildered by the Pruitt rumor, saying “that made zero sense.”
With Greyson Lambert reinstalled as the starting quarterback and Brice Ramsey sharing the load by playing two series, Georgia rolled past Kentucky.
Richt is 142-51 in 15 years with two SEC championships and five SEC East titles. Only five active FBS coaches have been in their jobs longer: Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and TCU’s Gary Patterson. Beamer is retiring after the season.
Richt praised his players, coaches and staff for remaining on track against Kentucky “because in some ways we are all we had.”
A win over Auburn (5-4, 2-4 SEC) would carry more weight with the fans. Georgia needs a win in a rivalry game following the losses to Tennessee, Alabama and Florida.
Richt is hoping there will be fewer distractions before Saturday’s game.
“I think the mindset of the team is pretty healthy right now,” he said. “I think that they handled last week well.
“The message this week is, you know, we can’t let up. We’ve got to build on this past week. We can’t go backward. We can’t relax in any way, shape or form.”
Richt need not worry. Georgia fans won’t allow any coach to relax.