ATHENS, Ga. --- The tone has changed in Bulldog Nation. It's angry and frustrated and venomous. It's calling for blood. Much of it is irrational. Some of it is legitimate.
Mark Richt hears it. As much as he and his Georgia coaching staff and players might try to steer clear of the editorials and on-line chats bemoaning the Bulldogs' 4-4 record, you can't escape what former embattled Florida coach Ron Zook famously called "the noise in the system."
Richt got an earful of the noise on his weekly radio call-in show. In passionate volume that broadcast host Scott Howard said he's never heard before (and he's hosted some call-in programs for some pretty miserable Georgia basketball teams), Richt heard it all. The first caller set the tone without ever asking a question, just rattling off a list of grievances.
The coach politely took it and soldiered on, call after disgruntled call.
"I don't think one fan has brought up something we haven't thought of," Richt said. "We're trying to make the best decisions that we can make."
For Georgia fans dissatisfied with mediocrity and yet another humiliation at the hands of rival Florida, "doing our best" is not a battle cry they want to hear. They see Florida and Louisiana State University and Alabama vying for national titles and scream "why not us!"
Most of all they want changes. They want somebody fired, whether it's defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo or both. Some are even starting to question whether Richt is the right man for the job, as if having the highest winning percentage of any Georgia head coach and winning the only Southeastern Conference titles in the post-Herschel Walker era isn't accomplishment enough.
Like I said, not all of it is rational. But some of it is.
For Richt, this is virgin territory. Never as an assistant or head coach has he been in this kind of position -- which clearly speaks to the merits of his coaching abilities. But now that he is, how he deals with it will define his and Georgia's future. Coaches always preach "how are we going to handle adversity?" Now is his chance to practice it.
"We are still educators with these young men," Richt said. "So we are trying to model how to handle adversity and we are trying to help them handle adversity. Not only do we want to handle it, we want to turn it around. It's one thing to kind of hold everything together, but another thing to turn it around. First you start with keeping everyone together, keeping everyone on the same page and keeping everyone focused on the important things. That's very crucial, but then you also got to be strong enough to turn the thing around. That's really our main focus right now."
Again, impatient Georgia fans don't want to hear that. They don't like stomaching seasons like this. But they aren't the ones stepping between the lines on Saturday and the one after that and the one after that and the one after that. They have the luxury of writing a season off and turning a mental page to next year. Richt and his staff don't have that luxury. They still have to deal with the here and now.
"I can't do that," Richt said of turning his focus to the future by benching senior quarterback Joe Cox and throwing an unpolished QB into the fire or making staff and system changes midstream. "I can't do that to our seniors. We tell our guys to finish the drill. We tell our guys to never quit. If we made that move with a young (quarterback), I'd have the confidence that I could say in all honesty that he gives us the best chance to win right now. Because we couldn't come to that conclusion, we went with the guy that gives us the best chance to win right now. If we made a move and say we are playing for next year, in my mind, we've given up on the season. We've quit. We don't quit at Georgia, and we don't teach our guys to quit."
There is only so much that can be done to salvage a season in its 10th week. For better or worse, they are in this thing right now. The running game isn't going to spontaneously erupt from the SEC basement. The defense isn't going to reincarnate the dominance of its not-too-distant past. Cox is not going to become David Greene.
But that doesn't stop a coaching staff -- even the doomed members of it -- from trying to fix it the only way they know how to this deep into a campaign.
"You can try to do some things as it's happening, but I think it's got to be more of a tweak rather than a wholesale change," Richt said. "You want to continue to believe that success is not that far away, and we're not too far off. We've just got to keep knocking at it until it breaks free and the good things happen."
Richt's only comparable career point of reference is 2006, when Georgia lost four of five in a midseason stretch behind an inexperienced quarterback yet righted the ship with three closing wins over ranked programs.
"We didn't start throwing guys in and throwing guys out and changing your scheme and all those kind of things," he said. "We just stayed the course, and we finished very strong. We finished very honorable. It did build momentum for the next season, so my feeling is to build the most momentum towards the future for Georgia is to get it back on track and begin to win. That's where my thinking is right now."
The time for reevaluation is coming soon enough. As irrational as some of the fan criticism may be, there are some very legitimate long-range concerns. The defense can't keep going in this direction. The offensive line can't continue to annually disappoint. The strength and conditioning must be upgraded. Fixing these issues will require a major shake-up of staff, not just one coordinator or two.
Richt knows that.
"Every off-season you must reevaluate," he said. "You must."
Some have openly wondered if Richt is "too nice" to make the hard choices necessary and replace loyal friends on his staff. He's heard those claims ever since his old boss, Bobby Bowden, questioned nine years ago whether Richt was "tough enough" to make the transition to head coach.
People underestimate Richt's leadership mettle. He's as frustrated as the fans seeing Florida, LSU, Alabama and Tennessee push into the place Georgia seemed so comfortable being just a few years ago.
"Let's face it," he said. "We've had the best winning percentage in the history of Georgia football. We've done pretty well. This year we have not. We are averaging 10 wins a year, we won the SEC twice and we hadn't won one in 20 years. It's not like we've just been floundering around. This year we have been, let's face it, and I don't like it. People that know me well or the team or the coaches, they know that I've got another edge to me that I don't show publicly all the time. Maybe that's what the public wants to see."
The public wants to see Georgia restore its good football name. It wants to see Richt clean his dog house and make things right again.
For its part, the public would be best served by quieting some of the noise in the system and trusting their coach to do the right things at the right time. Even in the midst of a bad season, Richt has certainly earned a little faith from the faithful.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
GEORGIA WAS RANKED SECOND IN TOTAL OFFENSE AND SIXTH IN TOTAL DEFENSE IN 2008.
|5. Ole Miss||1391||1748||3139||5.8||26||392.4|
|6. Mississippi St.||1973||1489||3462||5.6||23||384.7|
|8. South Carolina||1163||2133||3296||5.4||21||366.2|
|5. South Carolina||1380||1272||2652||4.7||17||294.7|
|6. Ole Miss||1107||1394||2501||4.7||11||312.6|
|8. Mississippi St.||1327||1840||3167||5.3||23||351.9|