With kickoff to the 2010 college football season a little more than a week away, Mark Richt is about to embark on his 10th year as Georgia's coach.
Alabama's Nick Saban believes such longevity at the same Southeastern Conference school is worthy of recognition, yet recent history shows that SEC coaches who reach the decade milestone are on the verge of trouble. Of the past eight coaches in the league who lasted at least 10 years at one school, only Steve Spurrier left without being shown the door or under significant duress.
"He may have been the wisest of everybody," former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said Monday. "It's human nature to think you can fix everything where quite often you may have become a product of your own success. I had two or three chances to leave and do other things, and it's one of those things where loyalty doesn't seem to go both ways sometimes."
Fulmer and former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville are the two most recent cases, as each went 5-7 in 2008 and did not return in '09. Tuberville resigned after 10 seasons with the Tigers and now is in his first year at Texas Tech, while Fulmer was forced to resign in his 17th season with the Vols.
Even Spurrier's announcement after the 2001 season that he was leaving Florida for the NFL was far from cheery, as he repeatedly pointed out that 12 years at his alma mater was long enough.
"I think it's harder to last now than it's ever been, because of the scrutiny and the pressure to win consistently," Fulmer said. "You've got a guy (with a restless fan base) at LSU (Les Miles) who's won more than 10 games a year, a lot like we did, and it's the same thing with Mark Richt at Georgia. It's almost - I shouldn't say this - it's almost silly to expect the same program to stay on top year in and year out."
Richt enters his 10th season with a 90-27 record and two conference championships, but he already is sensing the warning signs. The Bulldogs slipped to 8-5 last year, Richt's worst, and wound up in the Independence Bowl.
Three defensive assistants, including coordinator Willie Martinez, were casualties of Georgia's slide, which has been followed by Richt appearing on several "hot seat" lists entering this season.
"I understand the business," Richt said. "I understand just how things go, so I don't worry about it. My goal is to focus on the important things and the things I can control."
To make it 10 seasons at the same SEC school often requires a fast start or continued improvement. Ed Orgeron recruited well in his three seasons at Ole Miss from 2005 to '07, but he was fired after the Rebels went 3-8, 4-8 and 3-9.
Others, such as former Alabama coach Mike Shula and former Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, showed improvement for three or four years only to backtrack sharply and pay the price.
"You don't have time to build a program," Florida's Urban Meyer said. "That's well-documented. Those days are done. You have to go perform and win some games immediately, or else you've got a problem."
Meyer had no such problems, winning SEC and national championships in his second (2006) and fourth (2008) seasons with the Gators. That also wasn't an issue for Richt, who ended a three-year losing streak to Georgia Tech during his first season in 2001 and won the league championship the following year.
Georgia's '02 SEC title was the program's first in 20 years.
"I didn't know what it was going to take," Richt said. "I just knew that I was going to go about my business in a certain way. My goal was to represent the University of Georgia with the utmost integrity and try to coach in a first-class manner within the rules.
"I've always relied very heavily on God, on my Lord and savior. I know that I don't have all the answers."
Richt is the dean of SEC coaches by a healthy margin, as Meyer, Miles and South Carolina's Spurrier are next with five seasons each in the books. Richt doesn't consider himself the dean, however, pointing out that Spurrier and former Arkansas and current Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt have been in the league longer.
Still, reaching the decade mark is cause for admiration.
"Anyone who can have a consistently successful program for 10 years, I think, deserves a tremendous amount of respect in terms of what they've been able to accomplish," Saban said. "It's because of the challenges of the league itself, the great competition and the other great coaches that you compete against. There is no doubt in my mind that anyone who coaches for 10 years deserves some kind of special medal of honor relative to this league."
And from this point forward?
"Keep winning, brother," Fulmer said. "That's the best advice I can give."