Photo Credit: Sean Taylor / UGA Athletic Association
“Win the East or we’ll drop you faster than a pass from Tim Tebow.” New head coach Kirby Smart (left) with athletic director Greg McGarity at his introductory press conference Dec. 7.
I finally got my wish.
After a 9-3 season in a bad SEC East, with losses in the three biggest games of the season and shoddy performances down the stretch, Mark Richt was axed by athletic director Greg McGarity after a 15-year run and replaced by former UGA safety, Alabama defensive coordinator and Nick Saban acolyte Kirby Smart.
After railing for the firing of Richt for a while, it was a strange feeling when it happened, largely because even though I wanted it, I really didn't expect it. I must admit I did feel some sadness seeing Richt go. Regardless of his problems the last few years, Richt is the No. 2 coach in UGA history right behind Vince Dooley, and he brought this community some wonderful memories. And he ran a clean program—something hard to find in this age—that fans were proud to cheer on. In a perfect world, Richt would've won enough to secure him for life and retired a Dawg. In a different era, that may have been true, but he was the victim of a changed college football landscape.
Like it or not, we've entered an era when anything but a top-four finish is seen as a failure by the nation's best college football programs. A 9-3 record and post-New Year’s bowl bid used to be almost as good as you could do in college football. Now it's downright mediocre. No one will remember if Georgia or Penn State won the TariffMurderer Bowl in five years. It's a glorified scrimmage. The inability to win the SEC East in some of its worst years in conference history and failing to have any shot at a national championship was Richt's undoing. And it will be Smart's, too, if it turns out he isn't the coach everyone thinks he can be.
There are definite risks (and potential rewards) to hiring Smart, an unproven coordinator. He could be Nick Saban, or he could be Will Muschamp, who failed at Florida before South Carolina gave him a second chance. More than likely, it will be somewhere in between. However, there are a few lessons he can learn from Richt's shortcomings that could help him steer the program in the right direction.
One of Richt's biggest problems, specifically in the latter part of his tenure, was his unwillingness to change up his offense. Richt is a pro-set guy, and he will be until he dies. But we live in a time when pro style is less effective. High schools all around the country run the spread, and more and more recruits intimately know spread systems. I'm not saying we need to become Oregon, but Richt's offense was antiquated. And Alabama—the team everyone else must go through to get an SEC Championship—devours pro-style teams alive. Saban's done it the last three times we played. By incorporating few to no spread elements, Richt pretty much invited Saban to annihilate us.
However, Smart is staying true to the pro-style offense, hiring Pitt offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to lead the offense. He's also bringing in Sam Pittman, a fantastic offensive line coach from Arkansas. It may not be what I imagined ideally, but it is playing to the team's strength. In all the turmoil, we've almost forgotten that next season we have Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and they'll be the focal point of the offense for at least one more year.
Many of the passing-game problems will be dealt with if we lock up all-everything quarterback Jacob Eason, who's been committed for two years but opened his recruitment after Richt's firing. Getting Eason is huge, since our QB situation is a tire fire. If we want success soon under Smart, we'll need Eason under center.
Another huge possible hire would be if Smart brought Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran with him. Cochran is the best strength coach in the country, and the main reason Alabama players look like men and their opponents look like boys. His training regimen is much more progressive and effective than anything Georgia's done in the past. Under Richt, UGA fell behind in strength because of his loyalty to Joe Tereshinski, UGA's old-fashioned and ineffective former strength coach. Cochran could help move us to the front of the class, which is a good chunk of the winning equation. If we're bigger and faster, we have a better chance to win.
Regardless of what Smart does, I'm interested to see what direction UGA football moves. The future is unknown and full of possibility, which is also why it's so exciting. Maybe he ends up just like Richt—or worse. Or maybe he ends up the best coach in the country. Either way, what we were doing wasn't working. Even if this hire doesn't work out, I'm happy we're trying something. We've finally reached a place where anything less than the best doesn't cut it, and that's where Georgia should be.