It was one of the more squirm-worthy moments of the college football season.
Coach Mark Richt was just minutes removed from watching his Georgia Bulldogs fall three yards short of an upset win over Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. A win would have put the Dawgs in their first BCS title game.
Understandably upset, Richt threw his headset as the clock ticked down, the Crimson Tide celebrated and confetti fell from the roof of the Georgia Dome. But that didn’t approach the reaction that came a few minutes later at his news conference when Atlanta radio talk-show host Chuck Oliver asked the question of the night.
“There are people who say that you and Aaron Murray specifically come up short on the biggest stage against the biggest opponents,” Oliver said. “Do you have any response to that?”
Richt’s response was to almost come out of his chair and strangle Oliver on the spot.
But despite the use of “some say,” which Richt used as a verbal club to beat Oliver over the head, the fact is, the guy was right. There are plenty of Georgia fans who believe that Richt, the most tenured coach in the SEC (along with newcomer Gary Pinkel of Missouri) with a record of 118-40 and 10 or more wins in eight of his 12 seasons in Athens, just isn’t good enough.
So, the “Fire Mark Richt” chat rooms lit up like a Broadway marquee when word came out late Tuesday that Richt had received a contract extension and a $400,000-a-year raise. The new deal, which the University Athletic Association Board of Directors approved on Thursday, raised Richt’s base salary from $2.81 million to $3.2 million and extended the contract through the 2017 season.
“I’m honored and very thankful to (outgoing UGA president) Dr. (Michael) Adams, Greg McGarity and the Athletic Board for their support in what we are working daily to accomplish,” Richt said. “I look forward, along with our staff, to preparing this team for the challenges of another season. From what I’ve heard, our team is working hard in the offseason conditioning program and paying the price necessary to be successful in the fall.”
But success means different things to different people. Georgia’s lone national championship — in 1980 — came more than three decades ago and was a result of freak of nature named Herschel Walker. Since then Florida has won three national championships, Alabama has won four, LSU has picked up two and Tennessee and Auburn have one apiece.
Couple that with the yearly exodus of Georgia high school athletes to schools like Auburn and Ole Miss, and it is simply too much for a lot of Dawg fans to take.
This isn’t just a few cranks. It’s more than the get-a-life whack-a-doodles who question every play call and believe in turning over the entire staff after every loss. Far from a majority, there is an intelligent and highly vocal core of people who think Georgia will be relegated to glass-ceiling status as long as Richt remains at the helm.
Never mind that the last school to run off a winning coach for not winning enough was Tennessee, a program that still hasn’t recovered from the Phil Fulmer debacle. Also forget that Richt is one of the finest human beings on the planet, a Christian missionary who builds churches in Honduras in the offseason.
Georgia fans would much rather have Nick Saban, a man not known for his congeniality.
Jim Cunningham, a pharmacist in Warner Robbins, Ga., and one of Richt’s more vocal critics, summed up the feelings of the “Fire Richt” crowd when he said, “Richt is, indeed, a good coach. My knock on him is that he will never be a great one.”
Maybe, although there are plenty of schools that would love to have Georgia’s record over the last dozen years.
With another solid recruiting class under his belt and two consecutive SEC East titles to build on, Richt seems rightfully optimistic heading into the spring.
That is in stark contrast to the critics, like Cunningham, who point out that Georgia only played three ranked teams in 2012 and lost to two of them.
“This year’s going to be a lot tougher,” Cunningham said.
But college coaching is never easy. That is why they get paid millions. Or in the case of Richt, $3.2 million with the full faith and confidence of the Athletic Department Board.