I've always respected the work Tony Barnhart does and his article today in the AJC reminds me of something I would read on TN. He poses five questions for Mark Richt that go beyond the calls to fire his two coordinators:
1. Despite what the recruiting services say, is Georgia recruiting the caliber of athlete that allows the Bulldogs to compete for the SEC championship?
2. Is Georgia coaching the players it has up to their full potential?
3. Is the offseason conditioning program what it should be?
4. Do I need to have a conversation with my athletic director about scheduling?
5. Does the head coach need to step up his game?
While the article addresses issues at UGA, both FSU and UGA find themselves at 4-4 with general expectations closer to 7-1 and 6-2 at worst. If I were to compare the two programs, I would say that UGA is close to beginning an era of mediocrity much like the Noles did in the first half of this decade. They have an opportunity this offseason to address some of the same concerns (the five questions above) that faced FSU back then, and some that still face FSU today.
Tony's discussion behind each question is limited (he writes in a blog, but it's not like it's TN or something) but I found the answers hauntingly familiar.
1. Despite what the recruiting services say, is Georgia recruiting the caliber of athlete that allows the Bulldogs to compete for the SEC championship? A big part of coaching that fans rarely talk about is the ability of a staff to evaluate talent and make decisions on players. If you are signing the players you want but still getting bad results, then maybe you have a problem in evaluating talent. Example: A couple of years ago the Georgia staff had to make a decision between running backs Caleb King and Jonathan Dwyer. King has been an average player at best for Georgia. Dwyer went to Georgia Tech and became the ACC Player of the Year.
Bobby Bowden once told me that the only reason he signed quarterback Charlie Ward was because the late Wayne McDuffie stood on a chair in a staff meeting and screamed that the Seminoles had to take the skinny kid out of Thomasville. Ward led the Seminoles to the national championship in 1993. Those kinds of decisions over the long haul can make or break a program.
I remember that when Jimmy Johnson was at Miami, his recruiting classes rarely made the Top 25. But the players he put on the field could run like the wind. That’s because Johnson was great at evaluating talent.
We now see that this was a major problem for FSU in the 00's. Coaches were lazy recruiters, relying too much on third hand knowledge to make critical decisions. Expecting lifelong Seminole fans to automatically sign a LOI gets you Harvin at UF. We're still hurting from their decisions (see DL) but it seems the new crop of coaches are trying to remedy this now. The story about McDuffie is hilarious, especially if you know how intense that man was. Crazy even.
2. Is Georgia coaching the players it has up to their full potential? Steve Spurrier told me a long time ago that players tend to play the way they’ve been coached. If they play sloppy, then they’ve been coached sloppy. Excessive penalties and turnovers are a sign of some sloppiness in the program. It must be addressed and Richt must decide if his current staff is capable of fixing the problem. Sometimes head coaches must shake up the staff to send a message to everybody—players, trainers, water boys and other coaches—that mediocrity won’t be tolerated. It’s tough to do. But the great coaches do it when necessary.
I don't hold Steve Spurrier in high regard as a person, but he does know a thing or two about football. Coaches directly can affect the mentality of players. See Rick Trickett. Still, Barnhart isn't just talking about coaching players, he's also talking about mental attitudes of everyone in the program. When Bobby Petrino skipped town in Atlanta for Arkansas, a member of the administrative staff at Falcons' Headquarters described the negative environment that affected everyone- even receptionists. Interesting. High standards for players, coaches, and staff. We're getting there here.... slowly.
3. Is the offseason conditioning program what it should be? I don’t know the answer to this but the question has to be asked. I do know that after Florida won the national championship in 2008, coach Urban Meyer told me that he had instructed his strength and conditioning staff to put the Gators through one of the toughest offseason programs ever. Why? “Complacency,” Meyer said. “We want them to understand that they cannot, for one minute, take credit for what last year’s team did. If they want to compete for another national championship, they have to earn it.” I talked to a number of Florida players who said they got the message.
Jeff Schultz wrote about the edge that some teams—like Florida and Alabama—have and the fact that Georgia doesn’t seem to have it. If you have good players, then that edge is created in the offseason workouts. Again, it’s a tough question because Georgia’s strength and conditioning people are considered to be some of the best. But you have to ask.
FSU definitely went through a sloppy, fat boy phase. And we sucked. The attitudes in #2 will lead to problems in #3. When FSU addressed this issue, specifically with Coach Trickett, you saw improvements all around the program. I still think there is more room for improvement here for FSU, especially as bad as the OL was killing the DL in the spring and summer. Georgia doesn't want to fully embrace the sloppy, fat boy phase.
4. Do I need to have a conversation with my athletic director about scheduling? Fans don’t want to hear this. They want you to play eight SEC games, four big-time non-conference games, and win them all. That is simply not the way the world works. I think it’s great that Georgia went out and played Oklahoma State on Sept. 5. But the fact of the matter is that while Georgia was opening the season with seven straight opponents from BCS schools (with four of them on the road), Florida was tuning up for its first SEC game by playing Charleston Southern and Troy. Sure, Alabama played Virginia Tech but that game was in Atlanta, a short drive away. And before Alabama played its first conference game it also faced Florida International (2-6) and North Texas (2-6). It’s a good thing that athletics director Damon Evans wants to spread the Georgia brand all over the country, but you also have to look at what your competition is doing and be realistic about what you are asking players to do.
This has been discussed in depth by the fine writers at TN. This article by FSUncensored even picked up the interest of ESPN radio. Winning matters. Who you beat doesn't. No need for this to be rehashed poorly by me, but know that getting beat up by radio talk show host for playing Mount St. Mary's and Colgate doesn't translate to losing out in rankings and championships.
Where you play does matter. Good example: recently there was discussion about rescheduling the annual love-fest between UGA and GT to the first game of the year and play in the Chic-fil-A SEC/ACC Kickoff game in the Georgia Dome. Ultimately, UGA backs out and says no thanks. Sure, the game would have benefited GT and UGA with additional revenue, but the real loss is with recruiting. Damon Evans is essentially saying, "Lane Kiffin, Nick Saban... come on in our backyard and play in front of all of our recruits."
When you play matters. Thursday Night games are good in my opinion, as you secure a national audience regardless of your performance up to that point in the season. See FSU vs UNC this year. Scheduling a Thursday night game following a Saturday game five days prior is not smart, however. GT started the season with 3 games in 12 days. They lost the third game at Miami. Coach Johnson said following that game that that would be last time they would play so many games in such a short time frame.
5. Does the head coach need to step up his game? First of all, I don’t buy the idea that Mark Richt has to change his basic personality. You have to be who you are. Mark Richt’s personality was embraced when he was winning SEC championships in 2002 and 2005. I can’t tell you how many Georgia people have told me with pride that: “He’s the perfect coach for us. This guy will never embarrass us.” Now that Georgia is having a bad season, Richt’s “nice guy” status comes into question. The thinking seems to be that a nice guy can’t compete with Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and Lane Kiffin. I simply disagree. The truth is that Richt has an edge to him when he gets mad that few people outside the program ever see. He might want to show that a little more often.
For FSU fans, the question would be rephrased, "Does your head coach still have game?" If yes, can it be improved? If no, let's sit down and talk about speaking tours, book sales, and European vacations. I'm with Barnhart on the issue of head coaches showing emotion. Some of the least successful coaches are now making money from Coors Light commercials because they showed the most anger and frustration publicly. Still, it's nice to show your players at the right moments that you are emotionally invested in the games.