Mark Richt, Bo Pelini, And When Good Isn’t Good Enough
Echoing still from Sanford Stadium across Georgia, that dull roar you hear is the loud minority of Georgia fans coming out of their “Fire Mark Richt” woodworks in the wake of Georgia’s first loss to Georgia Tech in six years. It is a vocal minority, and even one that had a pretty decent case following the 2010 season– one which saw a 6-7 Georgia team lose to UCF in a no-name bowl game, followed by an 0-2 start in 2011.
We need to nip this one in the bud right now, though: Mark Richt isn’t going anywhere, nor should he.
We learned of the firing of Nebraska’s Bo Pelini this morning, and there are a lot of people who want to compare Pelini’s Nebraska program to Richt’s at Georgia. It’s a fair comparison, as Georgia’s .704 win percentage since 2007 is one percent lower than Nebraska’s in the Pelini era. Pelini has been a consistent winner at a historically strong program, and that was his downfall. He won 9 or 10 games in each of his seven seasons in Lincoln, and won or shared a division title in four of those seasons. Some may call that stagnant, I call it consistent.
Nebraska isn’t exactly a recruiting hotbed, as a large percentage of the Huskers’ best players over the years have hailed from Texas and California. As the game has evolved to incorporate more speed and less brute force, the country boys from Nebraska cornfields have been phased out of the game. After the ridiculous success of Tom Osborne and the underrated (58-19 in six years!) success of Frank Solich, it stands to reason that Nebraska fans would be spoiled.
In the modern landscape of college football, Nebraska is in a no-man’s land. I don’t think it will take long for the folks in Lincoln to realize they made a mistake firing a largely successful (albeit overly candid) head coach.
Which brings us back to Mark Richt at Georgia. As Andrew wrote this morning, Richt has done everything you can ask of a coach in an era where his conference happens to be the toughest conference in history. He’s averaged 9.6 wins a season (sound familiar?), moved swiftly to upgrade his staff when something hasn’t worked (see: Martinez, Willie; Grantham, Todd), and has weathered the storm of scores of new coaches’ “hey look what we’re building at _______!” recruiting pitches with yet another top class inbound in February.
Sure, there are losses that border on inexplicable for Richt. That’s the nature of the game of college football, and why we devote our falls to consuming, disseminating, and discussing it. One team wins, one team loses. But I would rather be in the hunt on a year-in, year-out basis than hold out hope for a magical run once every four or five years. That’s how you become Arkansas or Auburn.
There are people who say Georgia deserves a Nick Saban-type coach. There’s only one Nick Saban, and he is entrenched at Alabama. Although he seems it, not even Saban is impervious to the upset. He went 6-6 in his first year while establishing ‘the system’ in Tuscaloosa, and as demonstrated firsthand, that is not good enough in Athens. Also, what does the list of Sabanesque winners on the market look like right now? Unless someone knows something about exhuming corpses or cloning, I’ll wait for a good response.
A known quantity is generally better than the unknown, as tantalizing as the prospects of the unknown sound. Barring catastrophic injuries (as seen in 2013), Georgia is pretty much a lock to win 10, compete for the East, and finish in the top 15 in the country. Unless you are the ‘it’ program like a mid-1990’s Nebraska, early-2000’s Miami, mid-2000’s USC, or current Alabama, that’s all you can ask.
A new coach could be a coup a la Pete Carroll at USC, but could leave you with a scorching case of sanctions and Lane Kiffin. Or a new coach could be Lane Kiffin. Or Will Muschamp. Or Gene Chizik (minus Cam Newton). Or any other hot commodity that fails to prove he has the chops at the top level of the sport.
A new coach could bring in a ‘system’ that fails to fit the talents of his players, and leave the program in a spiral of mediocrity. Rich Rodriguez is proving again at Arizona that he can win almost anywhere, but Michigan didn’t give him the chance to fully incorporate his system. Now, a consistent power is struggling to reach six wins every year. (FWIW, Nebraska is going the way of Michigan.) If Georgia could drop everything and hire Chip Kelly tomorrow, would fans have the patience to wait out Kelly finding his mobile system QB, speedy receivers, and nimble linemen? I have serious doubts.
I bring that up because it underscores another beautiful Richtism: he and his assistants adjust the system to the talent, not the talent to the system. You have the #1 draft pick in Matt Stafford, or the SEC’s all-time leading passer in Aaron Murray? Go up-tempo and vertical. He did that. The best Bulldog since Herschel Walker in the backfield? Go 65/35 run. He did that too. In an ego-driven profession, coaches tend to think there is one way to go about things. Richt has the humility to see when things are wrong, and fix them. Good luck finding that again.
So yes, this is a little bit of a rant because of the (very real) similarities characterizing the current states of the Nebraska and Georgia programs. They’re both consistent winners, both historically and recently, and both stand to take a mighty tumble in the wake of a coaching change.
Let’s watch over the next couple of years how this Nebraska thing plays out. I’ll take my chances with CMR and another SEC and National Championship contender in 2015.