Georgia Coach Kirby Smart Entering Pivotal Year Facing Richt Comparisons
In just four seasons as head coach of the Georgia football team, Kirby Smart has climbed almost every mountain the sport has to offer. Keyword, almost.
Smart has led the Bulldogs to three-straight SEC Eastern Division Championships, a conference title and a playoff victory in 2017, and an overall record of (44-12). One gigantic mountain remains, and its a mountain Georgia hasn't reached the peak of since 1980, the national championship.
Until Smart leads the Bulldogs to a drought-breaking championship, comparisons to previous Georgia football coach Mark Richt, whose record after four seasons is very close to Smart's, will persist.
After four seasons in Athens, Richt had a record of (42-10) with a pair of SEC East titles and an SEC Championship in 2002. The presence of the playoffs and Georgia's win in the Rose Bowl are all that separate the two.
It's worth noting that comparisons to Richt's early years aren't a bad thing. Those were great teams with some legendary players. It's the comparisons of Richt's middle years that Smart needs to avoid.
After winning the SEC Championship in 2005, Georgia entered a roller-coaster era that lasted into the next decade. The era was made even more painful by Florida and Auburn capturing national titles. So, what can Smart do to avoid putting the Georgia fan base through a similar period of turbulence?
Wait and see how the recent coaching changes pan out.
Richt's failure to lead Georgia to a national title can be largely blamed on his inability to build a strong coaching staff. After the 2004 season, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left Athens to join the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. VanGorder's defenses were fantastic. Georgia allowed just 16.16 points per game across four seasons, turnovers were in abundance and the Bulldogs only allowed 30+ points once.
When VanGorder left, Richt promoted defensive backs coach Willie Martinez. The new era started out fine, Georgia won the SEC title, the issues in 2006 had more to do with the offense, and the 2007 team was great. Weaknesses that were present, but tolerable compounded in 2008. The issues worsened in 2009, leading to Martinez's firing at the end of the season.
To replace Martinez, Richt hired Todd Grantham from the Dallas Cowboys. Georgia embraced Grantham early on for bringing a level of aggression back to the Bulldog defense that wasn't present during the Martinez era. But that aggression came without discipline, something Georgia's opponents exploited in 2012 and 2013.
While Georgia's defenses struggled, the offense became a strength under offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Without a defense that could keep the Bulldogs out of shootouts, the program was left wondering "what if."
What if Georgia's defenses properly complemented the offenses during this period? How many SEC titles would Richt have? Would the Bulldogs have finally won another national title? No one can answer those questions, but the 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2013 seasons would have yielded a lot more success.
That brings us to the present day where the program is still wondering "what if?"
What if Georgia's offenses under Jim Chaney and James Coley properly complemented the defense? How many SEC titles would Smart have entering year-five? And would Georgia finally have a national title?
Entering the 2020 season with a new offensive coordinator in Todd Monken, Georgia football, and Kirby Smart have reached a fork in the road. The direction Georgia takes hinges on how much the offense improves under Monken.
One direction is a period of turbulence similar to what Richt's Bulldogs faced in the late 2000s to the mid-2010s. The other direction leads to more success, more championship trophies, and possibly a National Championship. This year is a chance for Smart to show he can excel where Richt arguably failed the most; building a coaching staff.
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