A man who knows the inner workings of Georgia athletics looked at me before Saturday’s game at Georgia Tech and cocked an eyebrow. “What’s that definition of insanity?” he said. “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?”
That’s when I pretty much knew. If Mark Richt had lost this man – a Bulldog of long standing, a Bulldog through and through – he hadn’t just lost one man. He’d lost the backing of his superiors. I walked away from a long conversation with athletic director Greg McGarity last December believing he wanted more from his football coach but wasn’t ready to fire him. After the Alabama game and especially the Florida game of this season, McGarity had seen enough.
(Here I must note: The man mentioned in Paragraph No. 1 is not Greg McGarity. Our conversation Saturday went thusly: “Hi, Mark.” “Hi, Greg.”)
Say what you will about McGarity, but he’s himself a Bulldog through and through, an Athens resident grown up to be the man in charge. He’d been in this job since the summer of 2010, meaning he’d seen Richt go from 6-7 and a loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl to the brink of a BCS title game berth in 2012. In the days after 6-7, McGarity had sounded all the right notes of support. But I could tell last year that his support had come to carry conditions.
After Georgia won the Belk Bowl, McGarity essentially gave Richt everything he wanted — a raise and a contract extension, money to hire high-salaried assistants, even the promise of the apparently all-important indoor practice facility. Some say president Jere Morehead leaned on the AD to grant these wishes, but the key point is that they were granted. But they carried conditions, too. My read has long been that McGarity said to Richt: “I’m giving you all this; will you give me a championship?”
The answer was no. The SEC East was wide open in 2015 – anyone who watched Florida muster all of two points against Florida State on Saturday knows how flimsy the Gators were – and again Georgia couldn’t win it.
And it wasn’t just that Richt’s Bulldogs lost to Florida for the 10th time in 15 tries; it was that Richt, for reasons unknown and surely unknowable, started his third-string quarterback in Jacksonville. Had he stuck with the underwhelming Greyson Lambert and just had him do his game-managing thing, Georgia would have had a real chance. With Faton Bauta throwing 33 passes, the Bulldogs lost by 24 points.
The no-show against Alabama was bad, but Alabama can have that effect on people. The second consecutive blowout loss to Florida surely tore it. The regular season’s final four games didn’t much matter. (Although being taken to overtime by Georgia Southern was a shock to the system.) McGarity had all the pertinent information. No championship would be forthcoming. Florida changed coaches and won the East. Georgia kept its guy and lost to Florida again.
Nobody wanted to be the guy who fired Mark Richt, who had amassed a mountain of good will over 15 years. But if an AD has become convinced that his coach cannot play for championships, what’s the alternative? What’s that definition of insanity?
(Georgia has announced that Richt is stepping down, but let’s be clear: This was essentially a firing. Richt had said he wanted to keep coaching the Bulldogs, and now he isn’t. What other interpretation is there?)
It could well be that the Bulldogs won’t find a better coach than Richt. They could fall back, as opposed to springing forward. There’s massive risk involved. There was massive risk involved when Michael Adams fired Jim Donnan to hire Richt, and that was rewarded with two SEC titles in five years. But those were a decade ago. The Richt of the past 10 years had become a known commodity: He could take Georgia so far and no further. Now someone else gets to try.