I usually reserve this spot for what I feel I know best: faith and ministry. However, I know Georgia Football pretty good, too, and as my description above says, it's one of the things I'm passionate about. A lot of Dawgs are hurting this week after a heartbreaking loss to Alabama. So, I thought I’d offer my words.
Saturday’s SEC Championship game marked my 86th game in a row. I haven’t missed since mid-season 2006 and I’ve only missed 7 in Mark Richt’s career. I love going to see the Dawgs play. I'm addicted to the atmosphere: the stadiums, the noise, the bands, the colors, and the pageantry. Something happens to you when you see all those games in person. It changes the way you view the games. You appreciate the simple victories, and you take the loses differently. You realize just how hard it is to win a game against every team, especially in their stadium, no matter who it is. Win or lose this past Saturday, I was planning on being at game 87 in a row. Though I would have gladly spent my retirement to see us play Notre Dame in Miami, the trip to Orlando will be much cheaper -- so there's that.
Saturday was a heart breaker. I’ve been going to games for 30 years, and it was the most painful loss I’ve ever witnessed. Never before have I seen us lose one so close with so much on the line. Nevertheless, it says something that we were able to play a game with so much on the line. And that’s the point that I think so many are missing.
I have been an ardent Mark Richt supporter, but my faith was shaken after the Boise State game in the Georgia Dome to start the 2011 season. People at church on Sunday asked me if I was said after losing to Bama. I told them I was sad after driving back from Memphis having just lost to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl and going 6-7 in 2010. That was sad. This was something different. I thought we might could pick up the pieces. I liked the idea of testing ourselves versus Boise, but we looked awful, just like in 2010. I thought we were done, Richt was done and we’d have a new coach by now. I couldn’t figure it out, but Richt and the team were missing something.
Then something happened. We played to the death against South Carolina the next week and lost, but I felt different. We played like champions and we were fun to pull for again. We lost a tough one, but we lost valiantly. I could live with that. We reeled off 10 straight wins, coming back to beat Florida after being down 17-3 and looking great for a half against an LSU team that had proved itself to be far and away the best team in the land. 2012 cemented my belief that Mark Richt has done the impossible. In this day and age of quick fix coaching hires, coaches rarely get the opportunity to right the ship once it starts sinking. Let me tell you, losing the Central Florida is called sinking. His previous success made him a victim of raised expectations, but it also gave him some slack with our administration, and I’m so thankful for that, especially seeing the train wrecks coaching changes have brought to some of our SEC rivals. I believe Mark Richt’s best days are ahead of him.
Richt is a bit of a renaissance coach, and I’m thankful for that. He’s not cut from the same cloth as some of the brightest stars of today in the coaching ranks. No one contacts Richt about jobs because he’d never consider it. He’s a Georgia man and wants to retire here. He’s building a program in which success will be built on top of success. It’s not a quick fix, and I think it’s taken us 12 years to get here for that reason. Some Dawg fans are so heart broken because we hadn’t been in this position in 30 years, and they wonder if we’ll ever get back in their lifetime. That’s really a loser mentality. I think Mark Richt is planning on being around the top 5 for a long time, and we’ve made changes to get us there in the ways we recruit, coach, and execute. We’re meaner than we’ve been in the past, and that’s a good thing. And we’re going to stay this way. Of course we’ll be back – and soon.
I’ve always said that Richt reminds me most of Tom Osborne. Osborne was a stoic figure on the Nebraska sideline for 25 years. He was a deeply devout Christian who did things the right way. He was criticized early in his career for ‘not winning the big one.’ His first 10 years saw 3 Big Eight championships and a lot of 2 and 3 loss seasons. They finished in the top 12 every year, but never higher than #7 until year 10, when the Huskers finished #3. Finally, in 1983, they went undefeated and played Miami in the Orange Bowl for a shot at the National Championship. Turner Gill’s 2-point conversion fell incomplete and, finally, when Osborne got his shot, they couldn’t do it. Maybe he would never win the big one. But that’s a stupid thing to say. Instead, Osborne had brought Nebraska football to heights it hadn’t seen in a long time.
The next 10 years Nebraska finished in the top 6 four times. They were hanging around with the elite. Sprinkled in were some more 3-loss teams. In his 21st season as coach of the Big Red, Osborne went 11-0 again, this time to face FSU in the Orange Bowl for the National Championship. A QB named Charlie Ward coached by a young QB Coach named Mark Richt stole the show and Nebraska missed a field goal at the end to win the game. FSU had finally won their national championship. Osborne still couldn’t win the big one.
But the next year they were there again, this time versus Miami (again) in the Orange Bowl for the National Championship. There would be no drama. Finally, in Osborne’s 22nd season as Nebraska’s coach, the Huskers won it all. The next year, in 1995, they utterly dismantled Florida in the Fiesta Bowl (and were the best team this guy has ever seen) to win back to back titles. In 1996, they lost their conference championship game in the final minute to Texas to halt their bid for a 3rd straight National Title. They would have played FSU in the Sugar Bowl. Then, in 1997, they went 13-0 and whipped Tennessee in the Orange Bowl, splitting the National Championship with Michigan. So, after not winning the big one, Osborne finished the last five years of his 25-year career by playing for the National Championship 4 times, winning 3 and barely missing out on playing for it all 5 years. He retired after the ’97 season.
Richt’s mentor, Bobby Bowden, started a string in his 12th year at FSU in 1987 of finishing in the top 5 for 14 straight seasons. But it took hanging around the top 5 for a while before finally breaking through in that 1993 season. From 1993-2000 (years 18-25 for Bowden), FSU would play for the National Championship 5 times. In most of those years, they went into the season finale versus Florida needing a victory to put them in the big game. They won some and lost some. Vince Dooley, UGA’s greatest coach, took 17 years and a special player wearing #34 to get to the big game. In years 17, 18, and 19, he had his team in a position for a National Title each year, playing for it twice. Dean Smith went to 6 Final Fours at UNC before finally breaking through to win a National Championship in 1982 in his 22nd season. After the game he told a reporter who had asked about finally winning the big one, “Do you really think I’m a better coach than I was 2 ½ hours ago?”
One of the problems with Georgia Football has been that we’ve been waiting on that ‘magical season’ again. I don’t think Mark Richt is working on that. I think he’s trying to string several fantastic seasons together in a row, and every once in a while you have a special player, get a break, or a ball bounces your way and you win it all. I don’t think Mark Richt is trying to win a National Championship – I think he’s trying to win several. Alabama went 12-0 in 2008 and got a date with Florida to go play Oklahoma for all the marbles. Florida was just better that day. Bama stunk it up in the Sugar Bowl versus Utah, then got back to work and started the run their on now by winning the BCS Championship in 2009.
I think Georgia’s about to go on a run, but it won’t be easy. There is more competition in our conference than there has ever been, and chances are we’ll have to win some heavyweight bouts in the Dome to get to the show. The joy of following sports is being there through the heartache to see the moment you've long waited for. It's no fun to be a fair-weather fan or a bandwagon jumper. As long as Mark Richt is our coach, I think we’ve got a shot, and I think he, like Smith, Osborne and Bowden is going to get better with age. Of course, having #3 and #4 on our team for the next 2-3 years won’t hurt.