Here’s a nice mean thing to do to the Georgia fan in your life. Whisper in his ear, or hers, these two sentences:
Mark Richt is about to coach the biggest game of his life.
It’s against Alabama.
There! You’ve given your friend a nervous twitch.
We twitch (and I do mean we) because of the Blackout Game. It was the last time Georgia and Alabama played, in 2008. The Dawgs were Sports Illustrated’s pick to win the national title, mainly because of the future NFL first-rounders on offense: Matthew Stafford, A.J. Green, Knowshon Moreno. Alabama was on its fourth coach in nine years. Nick Saban’s first Alabama team, in 2007, had to win the Independence Bowl to go 7-6.
But in ’08 both teams were 4-0, and it was the big ESPN night game, and so Richt declared a blackout -- Georgia wore black jerseys for just the third time ever, and Dawg fans showed up in black at Sanford Stadium. By then video had leaked of Alabama strength coach Scott Cochran at a Bama practice: “They’re wearing black ‘cause they’re going to a m************ funeral.”
Scott Cochran did not lie. At halftime it was Alabama, 31-0.
The final was 41-30 after two garbage-time Georgia TDs, but it was a butt-whipping so profound that it changed the fortunes of both teams. Since that game, Alabama is 54-7 with two national titles. Georgia hasn’t even sniffed one. Saban is considered one of the five best coaches in any sport. Richt would get some votes for fifth-best coach in the SEC.
On Saturday, in the SEC championship game, the Dawgs play Alabama. The winner gets Notre Dame for the national title. Georgia hasn’t played for the national title in 30 years, and Richt has never been this close. In 12 years at Georgia he has won 117 games and two SEC titles and sent 64 players to the NFL. His worst trouble with the NCAA has been for paying bonuses out of his own pocket. He’s considered an ace recruiter, a fine boss and a thoroughly decent human being.
At the highest level of college football, that’s not nearly enough.
So as everybody decides where one of these talent-packed teams has an advantage over the other, with so much on the line, the first check mark for Alabama goes in the box marked COACH. This might not be fair to Mark Richt. But it is the truth. And the only way he can make it a lie is to win this game.
* * *
This, to me, is the perfect Mark Richt story. He mentioned a few weeks ago that he’ll probably need hip replacement surgery after the season. He’s only 52. It’s an old injury, but from after his football career. (Richt was recruited to play quarterback at Miami. Problem was, Howard Schnellenberger recruited lots of quarterbacks – one year Richt was on the same roster with Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde and Bernie Kosar.)
So if he didn’t get hurt playing football, how? “I was trying to show her what a good swinger I was,” Richt said, and you are now filling the back end of this sentence with any number of impure thoughts, especially if your mind flashed on Bobby Petrino. But Richt was talking about actual swinging, on a swing set. He swung so high that one of the chains came off the S-hooks. He fell and smashed his left hip. This was 20 years ago. He was in his early 30s. He was trying to impress his wife at a family picnic.
Even his injuries are kind of sweet.
Richt has the blond, bland good looks of the manager down at the appliance warehouse. You never see him sweaty or all hunched over at a podium. He doesn’t yell in public. His wife, Katharyn, is a water girl on the Georgia sideline during games. She and Mark are devout and open Christians.
He got the Georgia job in 2001 after running Florida State’s offense under Bobby Bowden. From the tail end of Vince Dooley’s great career, through Ray Goff (seven years as coach) and Jim Donnan (five), Georgia had won nothing bigger than a couple of Outback Bowls. But Richt went 13-1 and won the SEC title and the Sugar Bowl in his second season. He won the SEC again in 2005, and his 2007 team went 11-2 and finished No. 2 in the final AP poll.
After the Blackout Game, things went sideways. Richt went 8-5 in ’09, 6-7 (his only losing season) in ’10, and a strange 10-4 last year -- Georgia lost to Boise State and South Carolina, won 10 straight, then got blown out by LSU in the SEC championship and lost to Michigan State in the -- yep -- Outback Bowl. Georgia fans are tired of the Outback Bowl. They want things to be like they were when Herschel Walker was running over Bill Bates. They want a team that’s in the mix to win it all.
In October, Georgia went to Columbia and took a Blackout Game-level beating from South Carolina. It was 21-0 in the first quarter. “The bad news is we took a whipping,” Richt said after it ended 35-7. “The good news is we all took it together.” I’m still not sure how that qualified as good news.
At that point, another Outback Bowl seemed like the best Georgia could hope for. But then the Dawgs took down Florida, and held steady as other contenders sank. Alabama and Georgia ended up second and third in the BCS. And now Georgia gets to play in Atlanta, almost a home game, for a trip to Miami.
The Georgia and Alabama teams are fraternal twins. Quarterbacks Aaron Murray and A.J. McCarron are known more for efficiency than flair. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall share the carries at running back for Georgia, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon for Bama. Both defenses run a 3-4 scheme filled with NFL-caliber players (Georgia LBs Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, Alabama CB Dee Milliner and LB C.J. Mosley). Both teams are thin at wide receiver because of injuries.
Kirby Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, played at Georgia with Mike Bobo, Georgia’s offensive coordinator. They’re close friends. Todd Grantham, Georgia’s defensive coordinator, coached under Saban at Michigan State. Kennedy’s secretary was named Lincoln, and Lincoln’s was named Kennedy*, and so on.
*No matter what some dude told you in high school, this is not true.
Somebody asked Richt this week about the similarities between the Georgia and Alabama teams. He answered by bringing up a difference:
“One thing they've done is they've been national champions and we've not.”
* * *
How hard is it to go from good to great? People have written books about it. That last 10 percent, or 5 percent, or 1 percent, eludes so many people who get so close. Maybe it’s a lack of focus on the smallest details. Maybe it’s a failure to make that final leap of imagination. Maybe it’s a lack of will to step inside your own dark places, to use that fear or fury to make it up that last long hill.
Mark Richt is a really good football coach, better than 95 percent of the people doing his job. Put him at North Carolina or Purdue and they’d elect him governor. But he chose the toughest conference in the country and a school that expects championships. Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU and Tennessee have all won national titles since Georgia has. Dawg fans believe it’s long past their turn.
You can tell that Saban gives everything to his job. That manic need to win is in his eyes. Richt’s eyes don’t tell you much. That’s not a verdict, one way or the other. Some people are like Pete Rose -- they work hard to make sure you know they’re working hard. Others are like Hank Aaron -- their effort looks effortless. You can’t measure desire by demeanor. But at some point, you have to measure the results.
A few weeks ago, when Richt was talking about that swing-set injury, he really got into it. He drew a diagram of the swing. He described how it attached to the frame. And he talked about that moment when you’re up really high and you feel the chain go a little slack before you start to come down.
He paused for a second and said: “A lot of y’all maybe haven’t been able to swing that high.”
Mark Richt has swung high. But not quite high enough. And fair or not, people are looking at the biggest game of his life and wondering: Has he got one more push in him?
Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. Yeah, Alabama has 106 national titles … but Georgia has a James Brown song. Advantage, Dawgs.