Coaching (and writing) in the South

Georgia folks are heading up to the northern South today, where it is not an insult to be called “Basketball School” aloud. With our beleaguered 4-4 DAWGS favored – that’s right – to win this week over a hot football team, at Kentucky, and facing a Stoops brother, I figured it was as good a time as any to tease my new book with a posting of this chapter on coaching legacies.

Where will Kirby Smart fall in the pantheon of modern (since the 1960s – I’m old enough to call that “modern” since I’m approaching 50) Georgia coaches which currently stacks up like this:

  1. Dooley – one N.C. in 1980 and six SEC titles
  2. Richt – two SEC titles
  3. Donnan – one big year (out of five), four bowl wins
  4. Goff – one big year where he was three points from undefeated
  5. Smart – he doesn’t look smart yet with a bad career record

Is it early in his career? Sure it is, but after GEORGIA held on to Goff too long the world changed. Donnan and Richt both probably deserved at least one more year each considering their relative levels of success (Richt was WAY more successful, after Donnan rebuilt Georgia, Donnan was a good bit more successful than Goff ) and the fact that their final teams lost the best offensive weapons mid-year and didn’t totally go in the tank (an upperclassman Quincy Carter, a pre-injury Nick Chubb back when we had an offensive line).

~Please buy my book ($17.85) which debuts 11/11: “Richt Era”

Excerpt:

Autumnal Legends — An ancient sporting interest by new world American standards, college football has for many decades had at its center legendary coaches. Mark Richt, in my humble opinion perhaps the single greatest head football coach yet to win a national championship while in that most lofty work position in the sport, has close and interesting professional ties to two such historic Southern gridiron generals: Vince Dooley and Bobby Bowden.

After exiting the University of Miami, Mark Richt pretty quickly found himself out of football altogether and was briefly a bar back, before getting a chance to work under the so-called grandfather of college football at cross-state rival Florida State University. At the time, many considered Bobby Bowden the greatest uncrowned coach, as his many ACC titles and big bowl wins piled up without any ultimate titles.

A state up, the University of Georgia’s all-time great Vince Dooley had taken a move upstairs eight years after claiming the school’s unanimous national championship in football at the end of the 1980 season. Dooley was supplanted as head coach by a Georgia Man named Ray Goff, and the program abruptly took a downturn. Save a blip on the radar two-loss strong year, Goff didn’t cut it as a head coach. One of Barry Swizer’s boys was up next; T-shirts proclaimed it the “Donnan of a New Era” as a brash former Oklahoma play caller took our reigns. Jim Donnan did lead the Dawgs to some better than average years, winning four consecutive bowl games and breaking through versus then-dominant rivals Florida and Tennessee, but the overall morality of the football program under his guidance was questionable at best, while what doomed him of course was that he never won big.

Meanwhile, Richt was an offensive assistant for the first, long past due Bowden championship. Then Richt schemed the ultra-talented Seminoles to another national championship as offensive coordinator and was even poised to maybe pull in another as he earned the top job in Athens. A mightily high summit reached for a college career backup and onetime male model. While many of his “The U” peers made millions in the NFL, he had been relegated to cleaning glassware and daiquiri spills after college and probably didn’t see himself as a future CEO of any multi-million dollar operation at that time. Yet, he’d finally arrived as the highest paid state employee in the largest state east of the Mississippi. Pretty big come up.

He’d found the Lord, too, and his devout faith would be a calling card of his coaching legacy throughout his tenure. Sure, the Classic City was the number one college party town in the whole country, but Coach Richt would be a good shepherd for your son. It was more than part of the recruiting pitch. In all my years passionately living for every inch of Georgia football, I honestly never heard anyone question whether or not Mark Richt was an unusually good and truly loving man.

Richt grew up a privileged football star in Boca – south Florida is undeniably wild, yes especially the luxurious and crime-filled Miami. It’s a city of many vices, and the Hurricanes full-on exploits of these decadent allures have been well documented in movies and tons of written coverage. They were champions many times over in a big urban market that had no other winners, and undeniably dark energies swirled around the program. I won’t exactly be starting or propelling any rumors by stating that the guy most considered to be the handsomest member of the whole team, “Prettyboy” Richt simply put was not way above the fray or all the way matured at that stage of his personal evolution. He has said as much.

It didn’t work out so well that time around, one of Richt’s biggest moments as coordinator at FSU was his final game, played shortly after he took the Georgia job. Steve Spurrier disciple Bob Stoops, becoming “Big Game Bob” by energizing a very storied program, was in year two at OU. Led by a ferocious defense his Sooners completely shut Richt and FSU down. Never noticed it noted anywhere else, but this was actually the first near miss at earning a national championship while Richt was an employee of the University of Georgia. There would be several more.

Richt went a fairly shabby 1-3 in national championship contests as offensive coordinator at FSU: losing a rematch to Florida for Spurrier’s only crown (1996), dropping the first BCS championship game to Tennessee (1998), beating Michael Vick’s VaTech (1999), losing to OU (2000). All told, Richt was actually FSU offensive coordinator for all of the national championship contests played for the 1996 through 2000 seasons, a time period that bridged the old title game format – which often failed to match #1 versus #2 – to the era of the BCS title game. 1997 saw a split title picture.

“You never want to replace a legend” the saying goes. Richt avoided that common career pratfall by leaving Florida State before the end of Bowden’s tenure. He had perfect timing at Georgia, actually, as Goff had lowered the bar by failing to win any SEC titles and Donnan was essentially a stopgap in the big picture, just a fixer who left the program poised to take it back to the next level.

Donnan’s first big splash recruit and lead cog at every single O-line position for Georgia during his playing years, Jonas Jennings said to me in an interview for Big Hairy Blawg: “We beat everybody. We beat them all. Florida. Tennessee. LSU.” The program was just waiting to have the lid kicked off, as young David Greene and David Pollack were there on campus waiting to emerge from the woodwork.

It was a very good job. A return to prominence is much more likely at a historic football school than a breakthrough to unprecedented successes where it has never been done before. And, the University of Georgia had easily had one of the best football programs in the country in the 1940s and 1980s, those decades of dominance. Ah, the fabled 1980s…ah the ’40s for that matter.

Let’s have a quick look back: Founded in 1785, in 1892 the nation’s oldest state chartered public university began playing American college football.

Back in the early decades of college football, national championships were truly mythical and were awarded by declarations from a myriad of sources. After bowls came to be these were awarded before the exhibition-like bowl games were even played. After the 1927 season, 9-1 Georgia had received such recognition, but Georgia was second fiddle to dominant national power Georgia Tech. In 1929, to close out the roaring twenties, Sanford Stadium opened as the stock market crashed.

In 1940, Frank Sinkwich debuted for the varsity as a sophomore quarterback, and the program soon reached unparalleled heights. The 1941 squad went 9-1-1 and won Georgia’s first postseason game by defeating TCU in the Orange Bowl.

Generally regarded as Georgia’s least disputed early national championship, the 1942 team had the legendary Charley Trippi join Sinkwhich, Lamar “Racehorse” Davis and Dick McPhee in the “dream backfield.” Sinkwich won the Heisman and we beat UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

Then the war derailed the Georgia dynasty temporarily. Trippi came back from battle after to push Georgia to a strong year in 1945, followed by an undefeated (11-0) 1946, another split national championship campaign, topped off with a Sugar Bowl win over UNC.

In 1980, Dooley’s Dawgs, led by freshman Herschel Walker, won it all and had a perfect season. The strong 1981 team lost two close games: to Clemson, who won it all and to a Dan Marino quarterbacked Pitt after he threw for a late score in New Orleans. Then our 1982 team went undefeated until UGA returned to the Sugar Bowl for a third straight year, where #2 Penn State and coach Joe Paterno shut down the Heisman winner to claim a national title. Herschel shocked the world as he left UGA for the USFL, lured by owner Donald Trump to the New Jersey Generals. He was the first underclassman to go pro early in football and in only three years is still to this day considered to be the greatest college football player. Coach Dooley was and is a great coaching legend we cherish, of course. But the well-deserved mythology around Herschel is simply that of the strongest by far of any Dawg.

I have a Herschel action figure!

herschel

Han Vance, of publisher Silver Stone Press, will debut his book “Richt Era: 15 Years in Athens” at Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA (on Prince Ave) on FRI 11/11 from 6:30-7:30p, with a reading, signing, discussing session. Signed books are $17.85. That’s on the Friday night before Georgia and Auburn tussle in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.