MACON, Ga. | Mark Richt knows how quickly things can turn for a college football coach – especially in the high-pressure Southeastern Conference.
Heading into his 10th season at Georgia, Richt has been around longer at the same school than any other SEC coach. And his record is glittering: 90 wins, a mere 27 losses, two conference championships.
But seniority and past success mean little in this cutthroat profession. Just ask Phillip Fulmer. Or Tommy Tuberville.
Richt turned 50 this year and is coming off his worst season at Georgia since his first. The Bulldogs stumbled to an 8-5 record in 2009, and the passionate fan base is clearly worried about falling even farther behind SEC powerhouses such as defending national champion Alabama and bitter rival Florida.
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“If you're in a leadership role, if you're the head coach of a football team, there's always going to be stuff swirling around,” Richt said Tuesday during the annual Pigskin Preview, a gathering of the state's football coaches at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. “You've got to learn to focus on the most important things, and that's what I'm doing.”
While Richt insists this season is no more crucial than any other, it's clear he's taking a different approach.
He put his staff through its first major shake-up, firing defensive coordinator Willie Martinez and two other defensive assistants. He reclaimed a more active role in the offense, sitting in on all quarterback meetings during the spring along with coordinator Mike Bobo.
The players certainly noticed.
“He's definitely been more hands on,” senior receiver Kris Durham said. “He's got great knowledge of the game. Just looking at the success he had at Florida State (as an assistant to Bobby Bowden) and previously here at Georgia. He just knows football. We need to take that and do whatever he asks because you he's doing it for your benefit and the team's benefit.”
While it would probably be a bit of a reach to say Richt's on the hot seat, that might change if the Bulldogs endure another disappointing season.
The grumbling actually started two years ago, when Georgia started out ranked No. 1 in the country but didn't even finish as the best team in its own state. There were blowout losses to Alabama and Florida, and the first setback against Georgia Tech since Richt became coach in 2001.
Last season was even worse. The Bulldogs were routed by Tennessee and Florida, lost at home to Kentucky and had to settle for a trip to the Independence Bowl. About the only bright spot: an upset win over Atlantic Coast Conference champion Georgia Tech.
“It's definitely a crucial year,” Durham said. “Every year, we want to come in and compete for a championship. That's what you work for. That's what you come to the University of Georgia for. You want to win a championship. Since I've been here, we haven't. We played in the Sugar Bowl, but we haven't won a championship.”
The Bulldogs' last SEC title came in 2005. Since then, conference rivals have claimed four straight national titles: Florida in 2006 and ‘08, LSU in ‘07, and Alabama this past season. In the race to keep up, Tennessee dumped Fulmer after a 17-year career that included two SEC titles and one national championship. Auburn sent Tuberville packing, five years after he guided the Tigers to a perfect season.
Richt is surely aware of the what-have-you-done-for-me-today mindset, though he insists that his core values remain the same.
“My goal coming in was to run a program that everybody could be proud of,” he said. “The decisions I've been making at Georgia have always been the ones that I believe would help us in the long haul, not so much the short-term-fix type of things. I just want to continue to do that. I want to stay the course.”
He said his deep religious faith is helping him cope with the criticism.
“It finally dawned on me in church,” Richt said. “The only thing I've got to do is what I've been doing since 1986, which is trust the Lord and be obedient to him. Everything else, I don't worry about, know what I mean?
“I've got peace in my heart, brother.”