When Kevin Bailey looked down to see why his phone was vibrating in church Sunday morning, it was from someone letting him know the breaking news he didn’t want to see transpire: Mark Richt’s 2015 season as the coach of the University of Georgia football program would be his last.
University of Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity had the less-than-desirable task of informing the 15-year Bulldogs coach veteran of the decision during a closed-door meeting Sunday, just a day after beating Georgia Tech 13-7 to wrap up the regular season at 9-3. McGarity described the decision as a “mutual agreement.”
The perception among Georgia football fans that the program was not performing up to par started as far back as 2010, but reached its peak in 2015 with ugly losses to Alabama and Florida, and a 21-point lead squandered against Tennessee for another loss this season in Knoxville.
It’s understandable that Bailey would have a much stronger opinion about the decision. Kevin’s son, Sterling, who is an East Hall High graduate, is a senior starting defensive end for the Bulldogs. Kevin said if he had a younger son, he would want him to play for Richt too.
“I love coach Richt to death,” Sterling’s father said Sunday, disappointed with the decision. “Coach Richt is a man of God, a Christian man.
“We knew Sterling could go to coach Richt any time he needed to talk.”
The news spread fast of Richt’s looming departure at Georgia with the help of social media. And just like any polarizing issue, everyone had an opinion.
Richt, who will reportedly coach Georgia in the bowl game, compiled a 145-51 record during 15 years as Georgia coach.
He had two SEC titles (2002 and 2005), a pair of Sugar Bowl victories, six top-10 finishes in the rankings, and came within a whisker of playing in the 2012 national championship game. Richt’s winning percentage was close to that of the legendary Vince Dooley, who was 201-77-10 and won one national championship during his 25 seasons.
“Coach Richt’s record speaks for itself,” said Bailey. “It took Vince Dooley 17 years to win a title at Georgia, and Frank Beamer spent 29 years at Virginia Tech and never won a title.”
However, Richt’s record was just 8-17 since 2010 against ranked opponents. In 2015, Georgia looked greatly outmatched in its biggest games: a 28-point loss to Alabama, and 24-point defeat at the hand of the Gators.
Just two weeks ago, it took overtime for Georgia to claw out a 23-17 win against Georgia Southern in Athens, which hardly instilled faith in fans on the fence about Richt’s coaching ability.
Injuries played a part in this season, a disappointment even in Richt’s assessment, when sophomore running back Nick Chubb went down with a season-ending knee injury.
In 2014, it was a similar script as Georgia had to soldier on when leading running back Todd Gurley was suspended for a good chunk of the regular season, then went down with a season-ending knee injury in November.
This season was also marked with quarterback chaos in Athens, fluctuating among Greyson Lambert, Faton Bauta and Brice Ramsey.
The most avid of local Georgia fans certainly have major reservations about the decision to go in a different direction from Richt. Longtime Gainesville High athletic director Wayne Vickery summed it up as a “bold move” on Georgia’s part when you consider all the factors at play.
“I’m not real happy about it,” said Greg Smallwood, of Gainesville, who has been a Georgia season-ticket holder since 1976. “It’s definitely a risky move to get rid of Mark Richt.”
“I think it’s shocking, kind of a sad day,” said Bradley Lawson, also a longtime season ticket holder, who was unhappy with the move. “My first question is, ‘Who is Georgia going to get to replace him?’”
The biggest rub with fans who wanted Richt replaced — almost entirely on the merits of wins and losses — was the fact his amazing recruiting classes year after year (almost always in the top 10 nationally) didn’t equate to the same success on the field. Others, who were solidly in his corner, typically pointed to the fact Richt had a far-reaching impact on players for life after football.
That’s where you have to weigh priorities: Is chasing national titles or running a program of exemplary moral character more important? Some fans didn’t hide the fact that Georgia should be able to attract coaches of the caliber of Alabama’s Nick Saban (four national titles) and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (three national titles).
This is another glaring example of how major decisions in life are not always black and white.
The risk-and-reward factor is very high for Georgia. For every Saban and Meyer, there’s a situation like Tennessee and Nebraska, both programs forced to rebuild from the ground up after letting successful coaches go. The Volunteers are on their fourth head coach since kicking Phillip Fulmer (74.3 winning percentage) to the curb in 2008, while Nebraska took a major step back this season after letting go of Bo Pelini (71.3 winning percentage).
If McGarity flops with his new pick as coach, it will be viewed as his fault. Richt loyalists will not forget this moment any time soon.
“The pressure’s on McGarity,” said Vickery. “I sure hope he’s got a No. 1 candidate in mind.”
The leading name to replace Richt is Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who played at Georgia in the 1990s, and is also a top candidate for the job at South Carolina. Is it a smart move to hire someone like Smart, who is a stellar coordinator but has no head coaching experience? Only time will tell.
No matter the outcome, this will go down as a turning point in the history of Georgia football — good or bad. Lawson believes that Georgia could be looking at an entirely new coaching staff in 2016. Whether top recruits, such as No. 1 quarterback prospect Jacob Eason, decide to stick with their commitments and sign with Georgia is also anyone’s guess.
“It’s a very risky move,” Smallwood added. “But it could end up working out either way.”
Bill Murphy is sports editor of The Times. He can be reached at email@example.com