SEC 2010 // Is Mark Richt on the Hot Seat? No, Not Yet

This was intended to be a part of Georgia week. But it took a while -- and you'll be able to see why.

I've avoided saying too much about the "Mark Richt is on the hot seat" discussion over the offseason, in part because I wanted to address it once and then be done with it. Sure, it's been mentioned in the offhanded Sprints here and there when someone else brings it up, but this is the first and I predict likely only time I'll address it at any length.

In part because it's not really my place to do much more than present why you're hearing all this talk and what I think is likely to happen. I could present a case for keeping Richt, since I think that barring another couple of subpar seasons that firing Richt would be an act of gross stupidity, but I'm not a Georgia fan. That means that my thoughts on Richt's employment shouldn't mean much to anyone with a say in the decision.

But what I think should happen and what I think is likely to happen are the same. Georgia shouldn't fire Mark Richt, at least not now, and almost certainly won't. That could change if the Dawgs don't do well in 2010. But in that case, Richt only needs to worry about being on the hot seat in 2011. For now, he's safe.

'THE HOT SEAT' AND WHAT IT MEANS

The first thing I think we need to do is outline what being on the hot seat means and doesn't mean, because what I've seen from some Georgia blogs seems to indicate a sense of confusion. Or they're willfully making the situation murkier; because of my respect for most members of the "Dawgosphere," I'm going with the former.

  • It does not mean a coach should be fired. That sounds a little odd, I'm sure, but saying that someone is on the hot seat isn't an endorsement of actually firing the coach. It means that a coach could be fired if he doesn't have what the fan base considers to be a good season the following year. That's not saying that the team has to implode the following season; a subpar record could bring the end of someone's tenure at a school. That's also not, as some have suggested, the situation everywhere. Consider a scenario where Urban Meyer went 7-5 in the regular season this year. I don't think anyone with any sense of reality would call for him to be fired immediately. But two consecutive disappointing seasons in a row might be too much, and we know three would. (Ask Ron Zook.) Coaches are on the hot seat when they've had one too many of those seasons, and it's at different points for different teams and different fan bases. It's an attempt to predict whether a coach could be fired, not whether he should be shown the door.
  • It is not based entirely on objective merit. This is sort of a spin off of the first point, but it's aimed specifically at statements like "It’s a sad world we live in when somebody can compare the current resumes of Steve Spurrier and Mark Richt and conclude with an apparently straight face that Richt sits on the hottest seat in the SEC East." While I'm not arguing that Richt is on the hot seat, that doesn't really count as something that does away with the conversation, for a couple of reasons. First, the expectations are generally higher at Georgia than they are at South Carolina. This is, to an extent, what South Carolina is trying to change. But it would be hard to fire Spurrier over a string of non-losing seasons in Columbia when it's the longest string of non-losing seasons since the Gamecocks joined the SEC. Unless Blutarsky is actually arguing that Georgia will now accept South Carolina-level success, which he's welcome to do, the differences between Spurrier's record and Richt's doesn't apply.
  • Predictions about next season are largely irrelevant. Caveat: Unless the coach fails to meet expectations again. That's why I differ with the other part of the Get the Picture post I linked to above: "I’ve got a proposal for everyone who wants to indulge in this tiresome hot seat speculation: tell us what the 2010 belly flop will be and why. Otherwise, you’re just jerking our chains." Actually, I've outlined exactly why I think Georgia could have another subpar season next year. But, again, we return to the odd part of this whole hot seat conversation: You can be on the hot seat and have a good year, and odds are that you will then no longer be on the hot seat. Fans reward winning. But that doesn't mean you're not on the hot seat to begin with. If your contention that Richt is not in danger of losing his job is based at least in part on the notion that he's not going to have another subpar season next year, the question I would return would be: What do you think happens if your prediction that he will do well next season doesn't come true?

One more thing I feel like I have to address before getting to rest of this, and something that could be instructive: In response to Year2's post on the coaches Mark Richt has survived, the Mayor said:

In Athens, we are, in fact, "used to SEC coaches sticking around for that long." Counting the head coach whose tenure overlapped with the founding of the Southeastern Conference, the Bulldogs have had eight head coaches as an SEC member institution. Only two of those served fewer than five seasons in that role.

Kyle is right in that the statement is objectively true as far as it goes. But he's wrong in addressing Year2's point. First of all, the statement was about Richt's 10th season. So the five-season yardstick is completely off-course. If you use ten seasons as the actual measure, Georgia is 4-4 (counting Richt). So Georgia has seen just as many coaches with shorter tenures than Richt's as coaches with equal or lengthier terms. And the last of those coaches before Richt to have 10 seasons or more in Athens was Vince Dooley, who was hired in 1964 and retired in 1988. College football was certainly a different game 22 years ago, let alone 46 years ago.

The last two head coaches before Richt didn't last more than 10 years. Ray Goff was the head coach in Athens for seven seasons and Jim Donnan was head coach for five.

Also: It wasn't hard to retain coaches like Wallace Butts and Vince Dooley; they won football games. That's not something unique to the culture of Athens; winning football coaches tend to keep their jobs.

None of this is a slam against Georgia. It's just an acknowledgment that the program is just like anywhere else: Win and you generally keep your job; lose and you don't. And fans are getting more impatient looking for the latter. (Arguably even at Georgia. Jim Donnan's career winning percentage was 70 points higher than Butts', but Donnan only got six years.)

But here we get back to the point about the hot seat not being merely about numbers. Butts won a national title in his fourth year (1942) and eighth year (1946) as well as an SEC title in 1948 before an awful string that included six losing seasons in ten years, including four in a row (1955-58). Donnan had a grand total of one losing season -- his first -- but never claimed the conference or national crowns. But even with all Butts' accomplishments, it's hard to see him surviving the 14-25-1 stretch before his fourth SEC championship in today's environment.

Which brings us back to Mark Richt.

MEMES VS. REALITY

Most Dawg bloggers have been shrugging off the question of Richt's future as nothing more than a meme generated by Paul Finebaum and Co. I'm not about to defend Finebaum -- I have no doubt that writing about Richt's future is aimed at generating hits for his column and listeners for his radio show, if for no other reason than everything Finebaum does beyond sleeping and eating is aimed at generating hits for his column and listeners for his radio show.

The Mayor put it this way in our conversation with him Friday about the 2010 season:

In short, the "Mark Richt is on the hot seat" meme ranks right up there with "Steve Spurrier is going to quit this year and go play golf," "Urban Meyer is going to be the next head coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish," and "Nick Saban is going to be the next head coach of the Cleveland Browns." All of those are expressions of wishful thinking from rival fans and SEO-minded columnists, and none of them bears any relation to reality.

And while we've bashed all those memes on this blog at different times, memes don't simply fall from the sky. They are often grounded in some type of reality. Even as someone who has said Steve Spurrier wasn't going to retire in 2007, 2008 or 2009, I had to admit that there were times during some of his team's season-ending debacles that he looked like he would rather be a few hours to the east of Columbia, getting ready for a round of golf in Myrtle Beach the following morning.. Those who touted the idea of Meyer going to South Bend could at least highlight his earlier statements that Notre Dame was his "dream job." And Saban was arguably the most successful college-to-NFL coach in recent history and has yet to settle down.

The counterpoints, of course, we've gone over. Spurrier wants to prove he can do well in Columbia and it wasn't just the in-state Florida recruiting machine; Meyer has no reason to actually follow through on his "dream job" scenario given what he's done in Florida; and Saban now has the kind of job that is big enough for his ego and his talents.

So it's worth acknowledging what fuels the meme: Richt isn't doing as well as he used to. And it isn't just a problem confined to 2009, or to Willie Martinez's defense. And we've seen this pattern before.

THE DECLINE OF MARK RICHT?

From 2002-05, Richt won the SEC East three times. He was 10-2 in the other season. None of those teams failed to have a double-digit win total. Georgia was unquestionably the best team in the SEC East.

Then came the 2006 Sugar Bowl. The Dawgs got waxed by an underdog West Virginia team running the spread in the first half before recovering. It would be speculation to note that this was after Urban Meyer's first season at Florida and that, while the Meyer and Rodriguez spread offenses have their differences, it's not hard to think that Meyer got a few ideas from that postseason game. Florida has since gone 3-1 against Richt, including 39- and 24-point victories over the last two years.

Those same four years have seen the longest SEC East Championship drought of Richt's tenure and two of his three seasons of fewer than 10 wins. National championship hopes in 2008 ended with an annihilation by Alabama in late September and the first of those two Florida wins. Even Georgia Tech, the rival that had supposedly fallen so far behind the Dawgs, won the season-ending intrastate bout by a field goal.

There is no question that the main problem in 2008 was the defense. Georgia scored 30 points in the Alabama (though much of it came in something like garbage time, the fact that almost the entire second half was "garbage time" is itself an indictment of the defense) and 42 points in the Georgia Tech defeat. Kentucky, which had one of the worst offenses in the SEC in 2008, scored 38 points. So the narrative for this season was set: If Georgia failed to do well, the blame would rest with the defense. And Willie Martinez would be fired.

All of that happened, and all of that was more than fair. But it masks another problem in Athens that has more quietly taken root over the last few years: In comparison to the rest of the league, the offense ain't what it used to be, either in yards per game or yards per play.

Thericht_medium

To explain this graph a bit: The dark, horizontal line running through the middle of the graph is the league average. The red line is Georgia's yard per play average as a percentage of the league average, and the black line is the yard per game average as a percentage of the league average. From 2002-05, when Richt was ringing up SEC East titles on a regular basis, the yard per game average never failed to be higher than the league average -- something that's happened three times in the last four years. And the yards per play average was largely better in relation to the rest of the conference than it has been in recent years, though that number has been more erratic overall and in each period.

The spike there in 2008 is, of course, the final season of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno. That is something of an outlier of a season. Yes, Richt and Mike Bobo still deserve credit for having recruited and coached those two -- but counting on perhaps the two greatest players of your tenure to have a great offense isn't exactly a reliable strategy for continued success.

It's not a huge decline, particularly not on the yard-per-play numbers. But it becomes more significant when the defense isn't as good as it used to be.

SHOULD RICHT BE FIRED?

All that said, the question is whether or not this is a trend. The way those numbers are jumping around, it's hard to tell. If Richt and Bobo can turn the offense around or at least get it to remain at 2002-type levels and if Todd Grantham's scheme works, this will all be so much nonsense in a few years.

But those ifs are no more certain than the ifs accompanying those calling for another subpar year for Georgia.

Disclosure: As a South Carolina fan, I would like nothing more than to see Georgia show Mark Richt the door. I like Richt, but he would land a job somewhere else, so I wouldn't feel too bad about that. And I would love for Georgia to try to find someone else. (Actually, maybe they would hire Willie Martinez as head coach. I kid.)

In other words, I objectively agree with Georgia fans who say that Richt shouldn't be fired, at least not yet. And in a larger sense, as I've said, it's still not really my business. I don't necessarily appreciate other teams' fans saying whether or not my coach should be fired.

But the hyperventilating reaction from some corners of the Internet begs the question: What is the standard for retaining Richt? Is there a standard, or are you just bashing anyone who dare questions whether Richt isn't quite the coach he used to be? Do you even have a standard at all?

Some Georgia fans do, or have at least begun to offer what they might think if things continue at their current rate. Groo:

At the same time, it would be devastating to go 7/8-5 against this schedule. You’re trading Oklahoma State and LSU for lesser opponents. The home schedule is extremely favorable. Five losses against this schedule would include some very, very bad losses as well as losses to rivals that don’t sit well even in the best of years. Think about which five teams on this year’s schedule you’d accept losing to. Improvement in relatively obscure areas like kickoff coverage won’t mean much if the offensive line doesn’t live up to billing or if Georgia’s highly-rated starting quarterback isn’t ready for prime time.

That said, I do think the moves that have been made will lead to the wins that will make this discussion seem ridiculous in hindsight. Allowing myself that kind of optimism for this season, that should be my last word on Richt’s future for a long time.

Which is a perfectly reasonable way to address things. It answers the question of how a similar season should be regarded while still retaining optimism that it won't happen. And it doesn't say "RICHT SHOULD BE FIRED IF HE GOES 8-5 IT'S INEXCUSABLE!!!" But it nods toward the fact that last season can't just be ignored. And that another season like it can't just be shrugged off.

WILL RICHT BE FIRED?

Where I feel a bit more comfortable, and where people who aren't a fan can start to weigh in, is on the question of whether Richt will be fired. Largely because I don't think it will happen barring an unmitigated disaster (4-8 or 3-9) in 2010, and I do think almost everyone can agree that won't happen.

But it's worth acknowledging why some people (beyond Finebaum) think it might happen. The decline we talked about earlier is in some ways reminiscent of what happened to Phil Fulmer at Tennessee and Tommy Tuberville at Auburn. Both reached their peak (Fulmer in 1998, Tuberville in 2004), settled in at a slightly lower level of success, then saw the bottom fall out quickly when it did. Both brought in new coordinators with new schemes -- offensive coordinators in those cases -- that would fix the main problem their teams had. Both the Clawfense and Tony Franklin's Whatever That Was-fesne failed miserably, and the long-time and successful head coaches were gone at the end of the season.

There are, as Georgia fans will quickly and correctly point out, significant differences in the situations. Fulmer's 5-7 campaign in 2008 was his second losing season in four years. And while Tuberville's identical record was the first sub-.500 year since his first season on the Plains, the Auburn coach faced an internal enemy in Bobby Lowder. But there we also run into the problems with relying on rational (and even in some cases irrational) fans -- they aren't always in alignment with the administration. Jerry called for Tuberville to be retained because it was "the right thing to do," and 67 percent of voters in a Track Em Tigers poll were on the negative side in the original aftermath of the firing.

Those are the trends Richt is trying to turn around, by hopefully addressing the problems more quickly than Fulmer and Tuberville did and preventing the corresponding fate.

That said, Richt almost certainly won't be fired after this season. If he was ever in any danger of losing his job this season, and I reiterate that I doubt he was, that prospect ended late on the evening of June 30. And David Shipley, chairman of the search committee for Damon Evans' replacement, made that clear without even addressing it.

"To say we could get somebody much earlier than the New Year would be really, really optimistic," he said.

Michael Adams is not going to fire Mark Richt -- that's not his style. (If Richt's contract were running out, it might be another story, but head coaches rarely ever have "contract years" these days.) Interim Athletics Director Frank Crumley is not going to fire Mark Richt, because interim athletics directors don't fire 10-year head coaches. And very few athletics directors make firing the long-time head football coach their first decision. Syracuse's Daryl Gross can tell you why.

So even if there are calls to fire Mark Richt, there's not going to be anywhere there to answer them.

The crucial year, then, could be 2011. Damon Evans never had reason to fire Mark Richt. He was named AD at Georgia in the middle of Richt's golden age, before the 10-2 campaign of 2004 and the SEC Championship of 2005. If the next athletics director comes in after three consecutive disappointing seasons and two that don't compare to the rest of Mark Richt's career, he or she will amost certainly make a decision based on what happens in 2011. If Richt has the program back on the right track by then, there will be no reason to make a change. If not, then we could see the "his own man" dynamic that we've heard about come into play.

So Richt has a couple of years to turn things around, and the smart money is on him doing precisely that. But he can also end any "hot seat" talk by having a decent year in 2010. After all, there really is no reason to wait.

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