In Phillip Fulmer’s first full seven seasons as Tennessee’s head football coach, the Volunteers won 72 games and a national championship and posted five years with 10 or more wins.
In Mark Richt’s first seven seasons at Georgia, the Bulldogs won 72 games, finished second nationally one year, wound up third nationally another and won 10 or more games five times.
We all know how Fulmer’s career ended.
Is Richt headed for the same sad fate with Georgia somewhere down the road?
This is the question on much of the Bulldog Nation’s minds this week after UGA’s 45-19 loss at Tennessee on Saturday. Now 3-3 for the first time in Richt’s nine years, Georgia suddenly looks like anything but a program that began 2008 as college football’s preseason No. 1.
Moreover, a closer look at the three victories to date over South Carolina, Arkansas and Arizona State reveals a team that could easily be 0-6 this morning, since UGA was behind in all three contests.
Of course, Richt’s supporters might justifiably argue, if the Bulldogs hadn’t had their hearts ripped out by an awful celebration penalty against LSU, they might stand 4-2 or even 5-1. Emotion wins and loses lots of football games. Had the Dogs hung on against LSU, they might have entered Neyland Stadium a much different team.
Beyond that, if they stood 4-2 today instead of 3-3, no one in red and black would be grumbling much about anything, since this always figured to be something of a rebuilding year.
But the situation is compounded by remaining games against Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech. Even Vanderbilt and Kentucky look somewhat difficult. So the question concerning Richt’s long-term future grows, especially after UGA athletic director Damon Evans told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution via e-mail on Monday that “I do have some concerns about where we are at this point in the season.”
Less than a month after Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton voiced similar words about Fulmer last season, the 16-year boss of the Vols was gone.
Then again, Evans also said, “I have total confidence that Coach Richt will properly evaluate our team, address concerns and prepare the right path that will direct us back into the position we all want to be in — competing for championships.”
So is Evans walking the fence? Is he grandstanding for a fuming, frustrated fan base? Is he behind Richt or bailing on him?
More to the point, is Richt showing early signs of becoming the next Fulmer? Or is this merely one bad year after eight good to great ones?
Richt’s problems are at least threefold, perhaps four-sided.
No. 1 is defensive coordinator Willie Martinez. Georgia hasn’t really been special on defense since coordinator Brian VanGorder left for the NFL following the 2004 season. Three times a national top-10 scoring defense in VanGorder’s four seasons, Georgia is surrendering an average of 30.7 points a game this fall.
Under Evans’ seeming edict to “address concerns,” Martinez must be job one.
Close behind, however, may be offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who seems almost as vulnerable as Martinez but perhaps shouldn’t be. Yes, the Dogs looked awful everywhere save the kicking game against Tennessee, but they’re still averaging 26 points a game despite a banged-up offensive line and an average quarterback. Richt may ultimately replace Bobo for PR purposes, but it doesn’t look as cut and dried as with Martinez.
Richt’s third problem may be himself. With the crusty, grumpy VanGorder around, Richt could play Good Cop to VG’s Bad Cop. That was an easy, natural role for both men, much as David Cutcliffe was Bad Cop to Fulmer’s Good Cop. With VanGorder gone, the perception — right or wrong — is that there are too many soft-spoken guys on this staff to win consistently in the cold, cruel SEC.
Lastly, when does this turn around? What ultimately did in Fulmer was the perception that it wasn’t going to get better any time soon. Many Georgia fans are beginning to experience that same feeling. Especially after Saturday.
Tough as it is to stomach Florida’s domination, falling behind Tennessee again in the SEC East would almost assuredly remove Richt. There’s also Auburn to consider. If the Tigers begin regularly winning the SEC’s oldest rivalry, Evans’ bite will become much more painful than his bark.
Two seasons ago, the Bulldogs having just battered Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, none of this seemed possible.
But two seasons ago Richt had never said, as he did Saturday, “We haven’t had a game this season where we played a really solid football game.”
None of this will cost him his job this season, nor should it. But to coach beyond 2010, Richt needs to end his comparisons with Fulmer’s tenure now, when such numbers are still cause for congrats rather than concern.
E-mail Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...