Photo Credit: Emily Selby/UGA Athletics
Kirby Smart at his introductory press conference Monday, Dec. 7.
As even UGA X has probably heard by now, UGA fired Mark Richt and hired Alabama defensive coordinator and former Georgia safety Kirby Smart as head coach. I won’t get into the football aspects of this decision—between talk shows, gossipy sports blogs and your annoying Facebook friends, you’ve heard enough opinions on that—but I do want to write a little about the politics of it and what it means for Athens.
College football in the South is political. Georgia fans who were calling for Richt’s head flip-flopped faster than John Kerry once athletic director Greg McGarity actually fired him—and politicians noticed. The story deflected attention away from Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office accidentally releasing six million voters’ personal information. Another Athens resident, Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols, called on fans to honor Richt by wearing black. Richt was even mentioned as a potential candidate for governor in 2018 (which was never gonna happen, even more so now that he’s coaching his alma mater, Miami).
Any office is political—none more so than the offices of high-ranking administrators at UGA. Former university president Michael Adams famously won a test of wills with legendary coach Vince Dooley, forcing him to retire as athletic director. In the same way, this will be a test for current president Jere Morehead. He’s made a lot of personnel changes since taking over for Adams in 2013, which is his prerogative, but none so public or unpopular as this. And make no mistake: Morehead signed off on Richt’s firing. Keep in mind that, in his long-standing role as an Athletic Association board member and chairman, Morehead had a hand in hiring McGarity, but not Richt. It’s a testament to Richt’s coaching and people skills that he was able to last through two presidents and three athletic directors. Both Morehead and McGarity will be judged on the success of Richt’s replacement, Smart.
While administrators and many fans believed Richt wasn’t capable of taking the Bulldogs from good to great, the coaching change is about more than trophies. The Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that fans spend more than $20 million a season in Athens. They park, eat, drink, stay in hotels and buy souvenirs, and that money reverberates and multiplies throughout the city. When the Dawgs are in the hunt, more fans come to town. When the fan base is deflated—like it’s been towards the end of the past three seasons—many of them stay home. Smart needs to succeed, and not just for the fans. A lot of jobs are on the line.