ATHENS -- This past summer, during a quieter time, Mark Richt sat in a room in his office and said something that seems prescient now.
Preparing to enter his 14th season as Georgia’s head coach, Richt was talking about the “greater purpose” he feels he has in his position. Help his former players. Set up his current ones to be successful later in life. And yes, try to win along the way.
“That’s what people misunderstand sometimes: I’m highly motivated to win the national championship,” Richt said. “But just because I care about them beyond football they think, ‘Oh he’s more worried about that than he is winning.’
“No, that’s not true at all. Not true at all. I want to win, and we’re gonna do the best we can to try to win. But I feel like we truly are educators and we truly have a responsibility to help these guys.”
When Richt says things like that, and acts out on it tangibly with the Paul Oliver Network, Georgia fans say they’re proud he’s their coach.
But when his team gets thumped the way it did last Saturday by Florida, probably closing the door yet again on a national championship, many of the same fans bring the invective.
There is a divide between the Georgia fan base and the people who run the program, from Richt to his bosses.
The fans live in a world of championship or bust.
The program does not.
Georgia has won 74 percent of its games under Richt, giving him the fourth-best winning percentage among active coaches with at least 100 games. There’s a lot to be said for being good enough to at least be in contention on a consistent basis.
There’s also plenty to be said for winning a championship, no matter what else. Plenty of Auburn fans, while not happy with the 30 losses they watched between 2007-12, will easily take that because of the 2010 national championship, which will be there forever. (No Cam Newton jokes, please.)
Georgia fans have had to watch five other SEC programs win a national title, a total of 11 times, since the Bulldogs’ last one, in 1980. Now Mississippi State sits at No. 1 in the country. Mississippi State?
Georgia (6-2) is actually still having a good season. The SEC East title is still within reach, and therefore the conference championship. But the manner of the loss to Florida, and the fact it probably rules out a title, brings out the angst.
Let’s be clear: The fact Richt hasn’t yet won the whole thing at Georgia, or even reached the national title game, doesn’t mean he won’t eventually.
Vince Dooley didn’t win a national championship until his 17th season. It took Bobby Bowden, who was Mark Richt’s coaching mentor, until his 19th season at Florida State. Then there’s Tom Osborne, who finally won it all in his 22nd season at Nebraska.
The examples abound in college basketball, too: Roy Williams needed until his 17th year, coaching two major programs (Kansas and North Carolina) to finally win it all. (He never won it all in 15 years at Kansas.) Dean Smith needed until his 21st year at North Carolina. Jim Boeheim needed until his 23rd year.
But when it comes to Richt, he and his bosses have also made clear that they’re not going to put winning above anything else. Very noble, but it’s a legitimate question whether Georgia shoots itself in the foot too much.
The marijuana policy and the quick trigger on dismissals, it’s all an admirable stance. But it could also incompatable with winning big. This is football, and you don’t win with choir boys.
Josh Harvey-Clemons, to use an example, could have really helped Saturday to try to stop Florida’s outside runs. He was dismissed after a third strike, none of them arrests, two of which included the marijuana policy.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean you keep a player on the program who is arrested for allegedly choking his girlfriend -- after you gave him a second chance on an earlier arrest. The line has to be drawn somewhere. And if a player is a cancer, it usually is better to send him packing.
But the marijuana policy flies in the face of where the national mood is going. And when it comes to players who have bad attitudes, well, every team has those.
It’s good for Georgia to have the high ground. Richt and the administration are right about that.
But it’s reasonable to provide a bit of leeway, a reasonable amount, because winning championships is important. The fans have that part right, too. Somewhere in the middle there’s a middle ground, and it’s not too hard to find it.
Contact Seth Emerson at firstname.lastname@example.org.