For the first time in a decade and a half, Georgia will begin a search for a new football coach.
Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity announced Sunday that head coach Mark Richt would step down after 15 seasons at the school. A day earlier, the Bulldogs capped a 9–3 regular season with a 13–7 win over Georgia Tech. In a statement McGarity said Richt will have the opportunity to coach in the program’s bowl game and serve in a different capacity at the university, if he chooses.
Richt also released a statement thanking Georgia for his long career. “I appreciate the opportunity of serving the University as well as considering any other options that may present themselves in the future,” Richt said.
The news of Richt’s dismissal felt like the end of a long, drawn-out process, one that had been the topic of conversation in Athens for several years. Few doubted Richt’s ability to win at a high level as a college football coach. He compiled a 145–51 record at Georgia, winning two SEC titles along the way. In an industry hardly conducive to longevity, Richt averaged 9.6 wins per season for a decade and a half.
He knew how to lure talent to Athens, as well. In the last 12 seasons Georgia sent 72 players to the NFL draft. The school had eight players chosen in both the 2002 and ’13 NFL drafts, marking the most Georgia players ever selected in a single season.
Moreover, Richt earned a reputation as man of character who routinely kept Georgia out of trouble and was willing to punish players who made mistakes. At most schools, the combination of such successes would earn a coach a bronze statue on campus.
But Richt’s problem, of course, was an inability to take Georgia to the next level. Though he won two SEC championships with the Bulldogs, the program’s most recent crown came in 2005. Even though Georgia won the SEC East six times under Richt, it never played for a national championship. That standard of success was never enough in the talent-rich state of Georgia.
Moreover, the Bulldogs often found themselves on the wrong end of head-scratching losses under Richt, setbacks that sometimes kept the program out of national title contention during the BCS era. In 2010 Georgia lost to three unranked teams (Mississippi State, Florida and Colorado). In 2013, the Bulldogs entered the year as the preseason No. 5 team in the country before finishing 8–5, a campaign that featured losses to unranked Vanderbilt and Nebraska squads. Then there was the embarrassing 38–20 loss to rival Florida last season, a Gators squad that eventually fired its head coach, Will Muschamp. That loss effectively kept Georgia out of the SEC title game.
But it was a loss earlier this season that might have ultimately sealed Richt’s fate. Georgia, which had been picked to win the SEC East and play for the conference title in 2015, dropped its Oct. 31 matchup with Florida and first-year coach Jim McElwain 27–3. Perhaps Georgia brass saw that result as a power shift in the East; indeed, Florida went on to earn a spot in Saturday’s SEC title game against Alabama.
There’s no doubt Georgia is rolling the dice by dismissing Richt. When an athletic director lets go of a proven winner, he or she is banking on hiring an upgrade. In this instance Georgia hopes its next coach can exceed Richt’s 9.6 wins-per-year average and throw in a national championship or two along the way. That’s a high benchmark, and schools like Tennessee and Texas are case studies of what happens when you don’t respond to coaching changes the right way. It’s very possible the Bulldogs take a step back before taking two steps forward with a new regime.
Defending Richt’s tenure at Georgia is easy. The program is three seasons removed from nearly reaching the BCS title game, after all. But it’s difficult to argue Richt got the raw end of a deal in Athens. Fifteen seasons is a lifetime in college football, and if Richt couldn’t bring a national title to the Bulldogs during that span, perhaps the best option for both parties is to move on.
Names like Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart have already floated around as possible replacements for Richt. Whoever Georgia hires will inherit (assuming he can hang on to it) a 2016 recruiting class that currently ranks sixth nationally, per Rivals.com, and boasts the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the country in Jacob Eason. Plus, the state of Georgia itself is a constant recruiting goldmine.
Perhaps Richt didn’t win big enough at Georgia, but he likely won’t remain unemployed for long. Miami, where Richt played quarterback from 1979-82, is looking for a coach. Virginia fired Mike London on Sunday.
Most programs would do backflips for a coach with Richt’s record. But Georgia isn’t most schools, and for the Bulldogs, Richt simply didn’t do enough. Now comes the tough part: finding a coach who can do more.