ATLANTA -- Let's play the "what-if" game, but only regarding teams and individuals from within this land of peaches, dogwoods and a slew of botched opportunities in sports.
What if …
- The Hawks advanced in the 1988 NBA playoffs by taking Game 6 at home instead of dropping that shootout at Boston Garden despite Dominique Wilkins outdueling Larry Bird?
- (Choose one or more for the Braves) Lonnie Smith didn't have his baserunning gaffe in Game 7 against the Twins during the 1991 World Series? Or the Braves weren't pooped for the 1993 playoffs against the Phillies after winning 104 games to finish just one game ahead of the Giants? Or Jim Leyrtiz didn't rip that home run in the middle of the 1996 World Series?
- The Falcons kept their defenders fresh for the fourth quarter and ran instead of threw at the end to keep a 28-3 lead from evolving into a brutal loss last February in the Super Bowl?
Here's something else, and it's timely since the nearly hometown Georgia Bulldogs will meet Alabama on Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the championship of college football.
What if Georgia didn't fire Mark Richt after the 2015 season to hire former Bulldogs player Kirby Smart as head coach?
Think about it. Smart often uses 18 starters who were around during Richt's last season at Georgia, and that season wasn't awful, by the way. He had nine victories after his Bulldogs managed 10 the year before. If you also look at Georgia's current two-deep depth chart, you'll find at least 28 Richt players, and even beyond the prolific dual of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in the offensive backfield, several of those other Richt players are extraordinary.
So that begs some questions.
If the historically mellow Richt is coaching these Bulldogs instead of the frequently explosive Smart, do they still survive Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., where they traveled to their first game above the old Mason-Dixon Line (you know, beyond the northern tip of Kentucky) since 1965? Do they still destroy archrival Florida in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party to end a three-game losing streak to the Gators? Do they still avenge their earlier loss to Auburn by smashing the Tigers during the SEC championship game to grab a conference title for the first time in a dozen years? Do they still edge Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl during an epic semifinal game of the College Football Playoff for a chance to grab their first national championship since that Herschel Walker-inspired team after the 1980 season?
The answer to all of the above? Probably not.
OK, no. I'll tell you why, but first, I'll say this: Richt did much for Georgia during his 15 years in Athens, located 70 miles east of here. He won 74 percent of his games to average 10 victories per season after he took over a football program that alternated between mediocre and shaky under Ray Goff and Jim Donnan, his predecessors. The Bulldogs went to a bowl game every season during the Richt Era, and they took 10 of the 15. Not only that, but soon after his dismissal at Georgia, he went to Miami, his alma mater, and he has continued to prosper as a head coach with the Hurricanes.
Let's just say Richt didn't waste time moving Miami closer to its Catholics versus Convicts days of the 1980s and 1990s. He approved the in-game anointing of a turnover chain to defenders who force turnovers, which is so Michael Irvin, Warren Sapp and Ray Lewis. Mostly, he took the previously stumbling Hurricanes from nine victories during his first season to 10 after this one, and that included a bunch of splendid moments. At one point, they won 16 straight games, spanning Richt's two years in Coral Gables, and they eventually rose to No. 2 in the country. If they hadn't stumbled against Pitt near the end of the season and lost to Clemson in the ACC championship game, they'd be in the CFP, but Richt still was named the Walter Camp Coach of the Year.
Sounds like a guy who could have done that and significantly more at Georgia with the gifted players he recruited for the Bulldogs. Chubb and Michel went nuts against Oklahoma with a total of 326 yards and five touchdowns on 25 carries. In fact, no pair of college running backs ever has managed more than the combined 8,284 yards rushing of Chubb and Michel for their careers. Roquan Smith is another Richt player, and he won the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker. Then there is Lorenzo Carter, and he is yet another Richt player, and he set the foundation for Georgia's victory over Oklahoma by blocking a 27-yard field goal attempt in the second overtime.
Now back to reality: I'm guessing Chubb, Smith, Carter and the rest of Georgia's players wouldn't have played the same this season under Richt as they did under Smart. For one, acquiring talent wasn't Richt's problem. According to MaxPreps.com, Georgia tied with Florida for producing the fifth-most number of NFL draft picks from 1995 through Richt's next-to-last season at Georgia. Out of the teams in the top 10 in that category, Georgia had gone the longest without a national championship, and that was by eight years over No. 10 Notre Dame (1988). For another, remember what I said about Smart's considerable fire? At the end of the Oklahoma game, the former defensive back leaped toward the sky with wild eyes, and then he sprinted toward nowhere in particular while shouting something not fit for a family website.
No question, Richt isn't exactly the Richt that you think (Did I mention he approved a turnover chain?). His reputation is often contradicted by his actions or those of his players. Just ask the referee he grabbed in a rage earlier this week during Miami's loss to Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl. The noted born-again Christian also uttered a few words not found in the Bible, but he apologized later for his actions, and he did the same in 2007, when his Bulldogs nearly caused a riot during their annual game in Jacksonville. After they scored the first touchdown back then against Florida, Richt said he hadn't a clue that all of his players would rush into the end zone to jump and boogie and yell for the longest time amidst a sea of flags for excessive celebration.
From that point through the end of Richt's tenure at Georgia, his players flirted every season with leading their peers in arrests.
"Just because we've got guys suspended isn't evidence we have a discipline problem," Richt told reporters during SEC media days in 2014. "It's evidence that we discipline our players. It's evidence there's accountability. Sometimes when you make part of your discipline playing time, it becomes a very public thing. Some of your dirty laundry gets out there in public. I'm willing to take that risk if the process will help these guys grow into men. If we ignore stuff they do and act like it didn't happen and sweep it under the rug, let them get away with it or whatever, what are we teaching? We are setting them up for failure down the road."
That said, Richt's teams often weren't disciplined, even to the point of featuring players dancing on the sidelines during the middle of home games to hip-hop songs over the public address system. In contrast, Smart is channeling Nick Saban, his no-nonsense former boss at Alabama, where Smart served as defensive coordinator for eight years before he returned to Georgia, and where Crimson Tide players would only perform such silliness during games only if they wanted a quick exit out of Tuscaloosa.
"Leadership," Walker told ESPN before the Rose Bowl, when he was asked about the difference between Richt and Smart. "Not that Mark Richt didn't have it, but Kirby Smart brought a different type."
It's a better type. In addition to Smart running a tighter program than Richt, he is the leader of a bigger and tougher one. According to OnlineAthens.com and other media outlets, Smart increased Georgia's football support staff by 33 percent between the time he took the Bulldogs from an 8-5 record during his first season to 13-1 right now. He also followed Alabama's lead by stacking Georgia's roster with beefy offensive linemen.
There also are Smart's rock 'em, sock 'em practices compared to the kinder, gentler ones during Richt's days at Georgia.
"The harder you practice the easier the game is," Georgia wide receiver Terry Godwin told reporters earlier this season, and he's another holdover from the previous regime. "I would say the culture change to us is just buying into what Coach Smart brought in. I feel like the majority of this team has done it. And it goes to show on game day. You see what it's producing."
It's producing this realization …
Richt wouldn't have done this.