Several years ago I did something no self-respecting, middle-aged man should ever have to do in the glacial dead of winter: I went to a breakfast meeting at 6 a.m.
More than 500 people filled a downtown building in Birmingham, while another 250 people were in an overflow room watching on closed circuit television. We were all there to hear Mark Richt, the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, who were the preseason favorite to win the 2008 national championship.
Richt's talk was brilliant, weaving Old Testament passages with humorous tales from his distinguished career. He was gentle and didn't offend, inspiring the audience members to leap to their feet with a thunderous standing ovation when he finished. I was the first one up and the last one to sit down. Finally, I realized what everyone meant when they talked about "Richt being such a great guy!"
Today Richt is fighting to keep his job, and his prospects look rather bleak in the wake of a heartbreaking 45-42 loss to South Carolina that gave Georgia its first 0-2 start since 1996.
Is Richt a quality man as illustrated by his work in the community, his faith and the fact that he has adopted two children from the Ukraine? Absolutely.
Should those qualities be mitigating factors in determining his future at Georgia? Absolutely not.
The 51-year-old Richt will likely be replaced at the end of the season because he can longer motivate players to win with any degree of consistency in the barbaric wars of the SEC. Some might say there's no crime in losing to Boise State and South Carolina, ranked No. 4 and No. 11 respectively. Perhaps. But this has become the norm in Athens, a town that has seen five of its SEC brethren win national championships in recent years while the hometown team more closely resembled an EKG screen during cardiac arrest.
Richt has a weighty résumé, having won two SEC titles and managed six top 10 finishes since arriving in 2001. But what's happening to Richt now has happened to others before him, and it's usually a precursor to disaster. Phillip Fulmer won a national title at Tennessee before the program began to sputter and was eventually fired. Tommy Tuberville had a perfect season at Auburn in 2004 before rolling down the hill.
Richt's 2008 team failed to meet expectations, finishing 10-3 after starting as the preseason No. 1, and Georgia has kept imploding since. The Bulldogs went 8-5 in 2009 and a cataclysmic 6-7 last season. Now they're 0-2 to start the year. That makes Georgia 14-14 since the beginning of 2009, including 7-10 in SEC play.
Not to pile on, but Richt did not beat a school with a winning record last year. Three of the wins he's managed in Georgia's last 15 games came against Idaho State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Vanderbilt. Richt is under .500 against the SEC East the last four seasons and .500 in the the last two seasons. The only team he has a winning record against within the division is Vanderbilt, which has gone 1-15 in the SEC during that stretch.
Pundits will argue Richt has done well recruiting, has the talent to win and appears to finally have a handle on the program's discipline problems. It's true Richt could save the 2011 season because of a favorable schedule that has Georgia avoiding the three-headed SEC West monster of Alabama, LSU and Arkansas. But potential landmines remain with matchups against Mississippi State, Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech, plus the Florida game on Oct. 29 in Jacksonville.
Beating Florida would certainly soothe some open wounds. But what's the chance of that, considering Richt has become Florida's annual piñata, going 2-8 against Georgia's top rival?
Nice guy or not, the facts don't lie: Richt is on the verge of losing the program and the support of his fans. Georgia fans, among the most mild and merciful in the South when it comes to expectations (the program's last national title came in 1980) and demands on the head man, are slowly getting disgusted and running razor thin on patience.
Leading the Fellowship of the Miserable is Fran Tarkenton, perhaps the most famous ex-Georgia player with more gray hair than Herschel Walker. Back in January, Tarkenton told Atlanta station 680/The Fan that Richt "is a wonderful guy. He is a good Christian guy. He wants to be a missionary. He goes on missions. That is a wonderful thing. But do you know the religion of Nick Saban? Or Gus Malzahn? Or Chip Kelly playing for the national championship? I don't think we care. We hire them to be football coaches. ... Right now our program has had three years of regression, and I don't see any way this thing is going to get out of the ditch."
By the way, Tarkenton is the son of a Pentecostal minister. And when it comes to the sermon on Richt, he is preaching the gospel.