ATHENS, Ga. -- Why do we watch college football? Like, what is the difference, as a fan, between your fandom of a college football team, and an NFL team? They're different. There's no question. But how are they different?
All NFL teams, ultimately, are the same. They have the same resources, the same playing field, the same general strategies and the same ultimate priorities. There are 32 of them, all going after a collective pool of talent, on the field and off. Every once in a while you'll stumble across a Bill Belichick/Tom Brady combo and your team will be great for a decade, but generally speaking, it ebbs and flows. Sometimes you win, sometime you lose, always you tailgate. The team is a part of one's community, but there's a cold-blooded, capitalist, perfectly reasonable understanding among everyone that this is still a professional sports franchise that resides in one's city, not an organic outgrowth of it. No one believes Aaron Rodgers would live in Green Bay if the Packers hadn't drafted him to play there, and everyone's generally OK with it.
College football, on the other hand, is often not just integral to a community, it's the center of it. In college towns, the university in large part is the town, the economic, professional and cultural center of everything going on there. There are vibrant communities in college towns independent of the university, but they still all live in the school's wake. The university has the money, the power and the prestige in these towns, and football, for better or worse, is the driving force of all of that. It sets the tone. It lays down who you are. Whether we want to or not, we define ourselves in its shadow.
I moved to Athens, Georgia, more than two years ago, and ever since I got here, I've been told how different it is. Sure, they're crazy about college football in Athens -- I'll never forget the first time I went to a grocery store here, a 4-year-old-boy just randomly started barking in the checkout line -- but people have taken great pains to note that they're not like those people. We love football, but, to borrow a long- hackneyed phrase from baseball, they love it the right way. They would never hire someone solely to win games, in any sport; when Bruce Pearl came on the market after his NCAA suspension ended, Georgia couldn't turn up its nose fast enough. We would never win that way. (Former coach Jim Harrick earned the program a four-year probation, and he is spoken of today only in whispers.) They would never be Tallahassee, they told me, or Happy Valley, places so obsessed with winning that they would ignore, willfully or otherwise, a cancer at its core. This is the place where the hometown cops don't look away when a student-athlete commits a minor crime; the rules are the same for everyone, even if it hurts the team.
College football can take over towns, change their central character, but the whole Georgia thing is that it's something you should be as proud of as they are of themselves. It's a place where a guy can coach for 15 years without winning a national championship, and it's OK, because his teams are competitive every year, he will never embarrass the program or the city and he's a prince of a human being. Sometimes you see him at the dry cleaner. He says hi, and waves, and everyone has an extra bounce in their step the rest of the day.
And it has set the tone for the whole town. I love my adopted hometown, a place where Jason Aldean, Jason Isbell and Cracker comfortably play shows on consecutive nights, where even the philosophy professors have season tickets, where you can run into Michael Stipe and Tim Tebow at the same restaurant on the same night. (The National, get there.) It's a place that loves football but is not of football. It's passionate about football, but not insane about it. You gather every home Saturday to celebrate and cheer, and you welcome others. You don't see fights at Georgia tailgates. They have told me this place is special, different, and I have believed them. This has become my home. I feel good here.
But I can't help but feel something about it changed Sunday morning.
I don't mean to be overdramatic about it: My kids made it to school just fine this morning without being attacked by sharks or anything. But when Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity announced Sunday morning that the university and head football coach Mark Richt had "mutually agreed" that Richt would step down -- which everyone knew was an actual firing -- it felt like a shift in what this school, and thus this town, is about.
For 100 years, Georgia football was Georgia football, the world of Vince Dooley, and Herschel Walker, and Todd Gurley, and yes, Mark Richt. This was its own unique animal, one that wanted to win, sure, obviously, but also wanted specifically to do it its own quiet way. This was a place that looked at Tennessee firing Phil Fulmer, or LSU considering firing Les Miles, and it shook its head and chuckled. We would never be so brash and reactionary: It's different here. And then, Sunday, Georgia football announced that it wasn't satisfied being Georgia football. It wanted to be Alabama football.
And hey, you know, who wouldn't want to be Alabama football? Alabama football is great! But there is only one Nick Saban, and the college football landscape is littered with schools who want to be Alabama and just aren't. There has already been talk around Texas about firing Charlie Strong in his second year. Tennessee is still in chaos. Nebraska has lost much of its charm in its desperate stumbling to recapture past glories. (Nebraska's a bit of a nightmare scenario for Georgia: You lose what makes you unique and you don't win as much as you used to.) The massive arms race for money, and facilities, and talent, has increased the immediate stakes for everyone, and it has fundamentally changed the way football works. Georgia tried to resist it. It failed.
Some criticism of Richt was fair. With the resources and talent available to him, not having won the SEC in 10 years is a serious mark against him. This year went sideways, largely because Nick Chubb got hurt and the team realized, with sudden alarm, that it had no even average quarterbacks. New offensive coordinator hire Brian Schottenheimer appears to have been a disaster; I still have no idea what Faton Bauta starting the Florida game was about. Fan frustration had begun to cascade a bit, particularly after the Alabama loss. Or more specifically, with 10:05 left in the third quarter of the Alabama loss, in which 50,000 people, including me, stood up and left Sanford Stadium at once.
But to be clear: The average Georgia fan was not in favor of Richt's firing. The day before the move was made, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution Twitter poll -- not close to scientific, but the best we've got -- asked if Georgia fans wanted Richt gone. The results were overwhelming.
OK, straight up poll question, Georgia fans: Do you want Mark Richt return in 2016 or not?— Seth Emerson (@SethEmersonAJC) November 28, 2015
There is this idea that negativity had surrounded Richt and Georgia football to such an overwhelming degree that a move had to be made, but that certainly wasn't the case on the ground here. There was disappointment and frustration, but also optimism for next season, with a healthy Chubb, an ascending defense led by defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and star recruit Jacob Eason, a five-star quarterback who likely would be a true freshman starter next year, if he actually still comes to Georgia now. (Richt actually flew to Washington to have breakfast with him after a Georgia win in November.) This was not a program in despair. There were naysayers, to be sure, loud ones. But they were far from the majority.
The majority liked things they were they were. They liked Richt as the coach of this program, and felt that, despite the frustrations of this season, things were going in the right direction. And more than anything, they liked feeling that way. They liked not being the lunatics in Baton Rouge, about to run off Miles, or the ones in Austin, or Auburn, or Lincoln. They liked feeling good and patient about their program. Now, maybe the majority was wrong, and, as Burnt Orange Nation put it, Richt was about to enter his Mack Brown phase. But that wasn't the sense here. Fans are usually screaming out for change, to clean house, to fire the bums. That's not what was happening.
The move to fire Richt was, in this way, the precise reactionary one that Georgia has always claimed it wasn't about. At a bizarre press conference on Monday morning, McGarity attempted to keep up the façade that Georgia remained the classy place you thought it was, heaping praise on the man he had just fired right as he sat next to him. He was able to bathe himself in the Christian good nature of Richt, who answered questions honestly but with no malice or anger toward the executioner a few feet away; Richt, by taking the high ground at every opportunity, allowed McGarity to believe he was somehow still doing things the Right Way, even as he evaded every question and refused to even give a reason for Richt's dismissal.
Richt said he told his players that the way you feel and the way you act should be two different things, and he couldn't have exemplified that any better in his press conference. McGarity tried to pretend he was somehow doing the right thing by Richt by standing beside him, that it meant Georgia football Stood For Something. But the only reason you felt that way was because of Richt.
With Richt gone, Georgia can no longer claim that it is any better, or different, than any other school that believes it should win a championship every year, that it will do anything in its power to get one as soon as possible, that cares more about expedience and emotion than prudence and patience. Now, it's very possible, even likely, that Georgia shouldn't have felt it was any different in the first place, that it was smug and self-aggrandizing to believe it wasn't playing by the same rules everyone else was. Georgia is a big-time football program like the rest of them, and now it's acting like one. "About time," many will say. The illusion had to evaporate at some point.
I understand this. But then you can't pretend, as McGarity tried to in the press conference, that things are the same as they ever were. They're not. The central organizing principle of Georgia football, of this community, was that it was different here, that Richt was different, that this was all different. Now, no one can claim that, ever again. The Georgia Bulldogs will have great football seasons in the future, and poor ones, and maybe they'll win that championship they want so badly, and maybe they won't. I'll take my kids to their games and tailgate, as ever. But you can't buy the bill of goods anymore. Georgia admitted Sunday that it's just like everyone else. That's fine. That's totally understandable. But it's different. It's very, very different. And you can't turn back now.