This conversation comes up every season at some point with readers or friends or strangers regarding Mark Richt and the perception of rogue Georgia football players.
The same two conclusions always apply.
First, that Georgia players are exactly the same – no better and no worse – as football players at every other Division I school in America.
Second, that Richt is the best coach anywhere at handling his players’ mistakes.
I bring this up on the day Bulldogs players report for preseason camp because of a response Richt made to a question Monday night to fans gathered in Gwinnett County. Somebody asked the coach when the Southeastern Conference would “level the playing field” regarding drug-related suspensions. The questioner pointed out how Louisiana State used star defender Tyrann Mathieu in the SEC Championship game against Georgia two years ago despite repeatedly failing drug tests.
Richt, pointedly, chose to stand up to answer the question.
“I’d love if everybody had the same level playing ground, that would be great,” he said at the tail end of his response. “But I don’t think we should go towards them to get a level playing field. I’d rather them come to us.”
Some might snicker at the thought of Georgia being a “model” program regarding discipline in the SEC, but frankly no program in the conference does a better job of handling the inevitable indiscretions of its players than the Bulldogs. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier earned a lot of laughs last year with his barb about preferring to play Georgia early in the season “because you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended.” It was an easy punch line from the coach who managed to keep “suspending” troubled quarterback Stephen Garcia repeatedly without him ever missing a game until the sixth infraction finally forced him to get rid of him.
Richt, to his credit, actually does discipline his players. He might weigh the infractions to determine which guys warrant second chances and which are no longer welcome, but nobody gets away without paying some kind of price. And it’s not extra laps after practice, but time served on the bench during games.
“I don’t want our guys to do anything that they shouldn’t be doing,” Richt said. “So when you have policies that have a lot of teeth to it ... What is it the guys want more than anything? They want playing time. Well, if I take that away from them, that might teach a lesson a little bit better than not. You know what I’m saying?
“So sometimes people say, ‘Well, Coach, you don’t have any control over your team because you have guys suspended.’ I’ll say, no, we gain control and we keep control of the team through suspending people, because that’s how we discipline and punish.
“If you’ve got a kid who’s not behaving the way you want, you take away what they want the most, because you want to stick ’em. So when we discipline, we want to punish them enough to where they don’t like it, and anybody watching may not like what’s happening. And number two, we want to educate them that what they are doing was wrong and help them in that regard. And then we’re going to love them. Just like your own kids. So that’s how we go about it. I’m not going to apologize for it.”
There’s nothing to apologize for. It is a fact that Georgia, along with Kentucky, has the strictest “no tolerance” drug policy in the SEC. Short of the military academies, it’s probably the strictest in the nation. On the first offense, you get suspended at least 10 percent of the season – period. No other schools in the SEC do that. The Bulldogs will be without strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons in the season opener against Clemson because he violated the school’s drug policy.
Most of the rest of the SEC schools reach this level of discipline at the second offense – when Georgia, Kentucky, Auburn and Mississippi State have escalated to stiffer punishments. Bulldogs star defenders Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree each missed four games last season for second-offense infractions.
Strike three earns automatic dismissal – something that wouldn’t happen until four strikes at Alabama or Florida.
Under the strict university drinking guidelines at Georgia, any DUI infraction earns an automatic two-game suspension.
Here’s what impresses me most about the way Richt deals with these annual headaches – he treats his players’ mistakes as he would his own children’s. He punishes and nurtures at the same time, understanding that these things are not mutually exclusive. If a player has crossed the line to the point that he no longer thinks they should be a part of the Bulldogs program, Richt makes every effort to help them find another place to try again. He doesn’t attach restrictions on transfers like some coaches, which is why his Bulldogs will have to face former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger in September when they play LSU. Mettenberger was dismissed from Georgia in 2010 after pleading guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery.
Richt and the Bulldogs might have to live without placekicker Marshall Morgan for both the Clemson and South Carolina games because of an arrest for underage drinking while boating on Lake Sinclair over the summer. Richt hasn’t said how that infraction will be disciplined.
If Morgan sits out one or two of the most important games of the season, critics and Spurrier will predictably say it’s just another example of what’s wrong with Georgia football.
They’d be wrong, of course. It’s really another example of how Georgia is doing it right.