ATLANTA — On one side is Mark Richt, whose popularity has soared off the charts in this season of breaking character, coming up with all sorts of motivational gimmicks and seeming to make every right move in putting Georgia on the brink of a major bowl.
On the other side is Chan Gailey, who was booed loudly by his own fans, will likely have to settle for another minor bowl and may need to beat the sixth-ranked Bulldogs just to keep his job at Georgia Tech.
Two coaches couldn’t be farther apart than these guys, who will face each other today in a game that’s vital for both programs.
Richt’s legacy at Georgia already was assured when he won two Southeastern Conferences titles in his first five years as coach; not bad for a school that had gone two decades without a championship. Still, as improbable as it may seem, his approval ratings are higher than ever in his seventh year between the hedges.
First, Richt made the unselfish decision to turn over the play-calling to quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo, and the Bulldogs put together three straight 40-point games — two of them against rivals Florida and Auburn — for the first time since the 1940s.
With more time on his hands, Richt has made an effort to be closer to his players, which is clearly paying off with the Bulldogs (9-2) on a five-game winning streak and closing in on a BCS bowl invitation. Also, he’s added a human touch to his once-staid personality, whether it’s showing more emotion on the sideline or letting his players wear black jerseys, which gave them a huge emotional boost against Auburn.
"So far it’s worked out good. I do enjoy encouraging people. I do enjoy trying to help people succeed," Richt said. "I don’t feel like I need anything personally to make myself feel good. Some people might have to be the play caller. I don’t think I have to be that at all. I enjoy trying to help coaches succeed. I enjoy trying to help players succeed on and off the field. That fires me up."
Over at Georgia Tech, the fans aren’t too fired up about Gailey, who supposedly had a team capable of contending for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship but wasn’t able to follow through. The Yellow Jackets (7-4) are bowl eligible but will likely wind up at one of those nondescript games such as the Emerald Bowl.
In Gailey’s six years, Georgia Tech has never had a losing season but has climbed above seven wins only once, and even that comes with a bit of an asterisk. The Yellow Jackets reached the ACC championship game a year ago, but closed the season with three straight three-point losses.
Most troubling to the gold-clad faithful: Gailey has never beaten the Bulldogs, who have a six-game winning streak in the series overall.
"The rivalry games are huge games," he conceded. "Everybody puts a lot of weight on them and everybody takes a lot of pride in winning them and it hurts when you lose. When you don’t win, it makes you feel bad and everybody around you feels bad. And you live with it for 365 and try to win next year."
Gailey may not have a next year if he doesn’t win this year.
Athletic director Dan Radakovich, whose less than two years on the job and inherited the football staff, has yet to issue a vote of confidence about the program’s direction. He keeps saying he will evaluate the situation when the season is over.
"My only focus concerning our football program this week is giving our football team its best opportunity to beat a very talented University of Georgia football team," Radakovich said in a statement earlier this week. "We are asking for maximum effort and support from everyone associated with our program — our administration, coach Gailey and his staff, our coaches and certainly our Georgia Tech fans."
Those fans let their feelings be known during a dismal 27-3 loss to Virginia Tech three weeks ago. When Gailey was shown on the video board delivering a public-service announcement late in the game, the home crowd booed loudly.
Gailey keeps insisting that he’s not thinking about his future.
"Hey, my job is to be the best I can to win football games and to do what’s right for the kids and do what’s right for the program," he said. "Anything else I can’t control."
The Bulldogs can’t control their place in the SEC East. Tennessee will win the division on a tiebreaker with a victory over Kentucky, a game that kicks off about two hours earlier than Georgia-Georgia Tech. If the Vols stumble in Lexington, Georgia will win the East and return to Atlanta a week later to face LSU for the conference title.
"I don’t think I want to know," Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "I just want to focus on our game. If I figure it out, it doesn’t really matter. We’re trying to win Saturday. That’s the biggest deal for us. We’re trying to win 10 games."
Even if Georgia doesn’t play for the SEC title, there could be a nice consolation prize waiting for the Bulldogs, assuming they beat Georgia Tech for the seventh year in a row. One of the hottest teams in the country, they would certainly be in line for an at-large bid to one of the major bowls.
No one on the Yellow Jackets side has ever beaten their biggest rival. The last three defeats were especially bitter, all by a touchdown or less.
Said linebacker Philip Wheeler, "Everybody hates Georgia around here."