ATHENS, Ga.- Georgia's Mark Richt is one of only seven coaches in major college football history to rack up 90 victories in his first nine seasons, sharing company with those as recent as Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops and as distant as Amos Alonzo Stagg.
Richt's 10th season did nothing to place him among the best.
Last year's Bulldogs had more losses than wins and produced a third consecutive season of dwindling victories. After finishing 11-2 and No. 2 nationally in 2007, the Bulldogs have gone 10-3, 8-5 and 6-7, and Georgia players are fielding questions about their coach's job security.
"It's extreme motivation to hear people say that Coach Richt might be on the hot seat," defensive end Abry Jones said this past week. "This is the man who had so much faith in us when we were in high school. He brings us to his school and pays for our education, and for us to be the players to put him in this kind of position gives us extreme motivation to help him out and show the great coach that he actually is."
As the Bulldogs prepare for the 2011 season, Richt is providing upbeat responses when asked about the hot-seat topic. Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity gets asked about Richt as well, and he continues to express full support.
McGarity was in attendance this past Wednesday morning at 6:15, when 105 players went through the annual endurance test that precedes the start of preseason camp.
"I think things have really been good lately," McGarity said. "There is no question you have a dedicated bunch of kids out there who are raring to go."
Richt directed Georgia to an 8-4 record in his first season in 2001, which was highlighted by an upset of Tennessee and a win over Georgia Tech that halted a three-year series losing streak. The Bulldogs went 13-1 in '02 and won the Southeastern Conference championship for the first time in 20 years, and they capped that season in the Sugar Bowl by defeating Florida State.
Georgia played for the SEC title again in '03, losing to eventual national champion LSU, and won it again in '05. Some of the best days of the Richt regime came late in the '07 season, including the memorable end-zone celebration against Florida and jersey blackouts against Auburn and in a 41-10 rout of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.
There was a third jersey blackout in 2008 against Alabama, but the Crimson Tide embarrassed the Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium, and Georgia has not been viewed in a lofty stature since.
On coacheshotseat.com, Richt is ranked No. 5 nationally as being in trouble. Ahead of him are Washington State's Paul Wulff, New Mexico's Mike Locksley, Mississippi's Houston Nutt and UCLA's Rick Neuheisel, not that Richt has that website among his favorites.
"It hasn't been an issue in this building at all," Richt said. "That's not to say a guy hasn't heard it, but when we're out on the practice field or in the strength room and all that stuff, everything is geared toward this season and the excitement of it and the fact we have a chance to have a great year. I really am just as optimistic this year as any year I've been at Georgia, and I think the players are sensing that it can be a great year.
"That's really all we think about and focus on."
Seven months passed between Georgia's 10-6 loss to Central Florida in last season's Liberty Bowl and Thursday's start to preseason drills. That is an eternity in today's multimedia age, and Bulldogs players admit they have heard the hot-seat talk and have discussed it with one another.
"He's why I committed," quarterback Aaron Murray said. "Coach Richt is a tremendous religious man. He is a man that's going to make you a better person, not just a better football player. We all want him to be here for the entire time that we're in college."
Said center Ben Jones: "That would just crush us if something happened to Coach Richt because of us. He's everything to us."
Richt is the only SEC coach who has guided his current program for more than a decade. LSU's Les Miles and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier are next on that list, with each beginning his seventh season.
The last league coach to last beyond a decade at one school was Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, who was fired in 2008.
"It's not difficult if you win nine, 10 or 11 a year and win the SEC every three or four years," Richt said. "It's not a problem at all. It's when you go 6-7. That's when it's a problem, but greater days are coming.
"The best is yet to come."