New Beginnings in Athens, Ga.
Han Vance on Georgia athletics: When Josh Brooks officially accepted a promotion to become the J. Reid Parker Director of Athletics following the announcement of the professional “retirement” of Greg McGarity, a decade of Dawggone difficulties and dreams turned to disillusion came to a close.
McGarity, almost immediately back to Florida to work for the Gator Bowl instead of actually retiring [the lies and spinning continued even as he and his cardigans were out the door], would be the first to tell you that he did a great job as AD in Athens.
He’d be wrong. He was a bad hire. And we stupidly got him from the University of Florida, where he worked (he is a UGA alum) as their number two guy. Why?
Once able to somehow claim to hang its hat on honestly just-not-popular at all, not really, college sports such as gymnastics, equestrian, golf and his sport of choice, tennis, the big three are what athletic departments are judged on within college ranks. No female sport rakes in the revenue.
Baseball is a quite distant third to football and men’s basketball – where March Madness starts as I write; a subject nearly-foreign only to GEORGIA amongst all of our area rivals. Mark Fox made the tourney twice but couldn’t win a game there. How is it so much easier to win at a school like Nevada than at a school so near Atlanta? And don’t say because the SEC is harder when Georgia has been at or near the worst performing program in the league over the decades (two total SEC championships, 1983 & 2008; once regular season SEC champs, 1990).
Fox was fired for tan Tom Crean, who had the number one overall NBA draft pick last draft by keeping Ant Man of ATL home for a year but can’t even crack .500 in the SEC. Georgia went from bubble usually bursting to not even close. And the years keep on ticking along, as even the in-state rival we absolutely own of late in the second-biggest collegiate sport has won the ACC – an actual bonafide basketball league. Was it more likely that Kentucky finally be bad or Georgia just once get good? Blueballed. Opposite of progress.
I was writing for Bulldawg Illustrated at the time of Fox’s last NIT-level team, and commissioned to investigate in Athens the feelings for all three sports within the fan base. Here’s the sentiment I saw: nobody cared much. The focus was still so solidly on what Kirby had done in 2017, as it is in some ways still, not on any actual current realities. Look in the mirror: do you see yourself wearing a (real) championship hat?
Diamond Dawgs were finally looking good then after David Perno had been jettisoned following a 2002-2013 head coaching run, after being a UGA assistant from 1997-2001. His right hand man Jason Eller should have been given the head guy shot, after the unparalleled program successes the two had spearheaded, but McGarity wanted new blood. True, I grew up with and know and like the charismatic Eller. True too the team has since that ATH trip of mine I mentioned done okay the last two seasons under McGarity hire Scott Strickland and is off to a good enough start this year. The program suffered four sub .500 overall seasons before that, though. McGarity took a program having a hiccup and made the moves that knocked it out of a sure rebuilding, into a longer rebuilding. A four-year major mistake made by McGarity, as his guy had to learn to navigate the SEC.
Interesting, Perno then became head football coach of (Athens’s) Clarke Central HS. My suggestion for new AD Mark Richt – an obviously bad fit for a virtually lawlessly wild (and fairly foreign also) South Florida at his age – is back living in Athens.
McGarity solved all of your biggest problems by replacing actual great man, Richt, with great recruiter instead, Kirby Smart, right? Same old Georgia.
Since 2017, Georgia has been solidly further from an SEC and even further from a national championship each season. Kirby’s team showed up super-flat in the penultimate game of the 2017 season, giving up 31 in the first half to OU before miraculously and fortunately winning the Rose Bowl in double overtime. Georgia and its coaches choked the Natty away, after a 10-point second half lead, even when Bama missed a game-winning field goal to even allow us to go out and blow it ALL in overtime. The lack of controlled and calculating aggression and true confidence top-down was the key issue, though some foolishly blame officiating. Ref mistakes are overcome in any win, folks.
The next year, another 10-point lead over Bama in the SEC championship game was botched by the big football boss. He went for a fake punt it’d take at least two national titles to forgive and I’ll never ever forget. 4th and 11, midfield, late tie game. The Tide were also blown badly out by a top-tier Clemson which Georgia couldn’t have handled that next game. The Dawgs went out and stayed cold in a Sugar Bowl loss to a less-talented Texas.
The false narrative that all Georgia has to do is beat Bama/Saban was further smashed in reality the next season as Kirby Smart was blown out in the SECCG by a not-Bama from the SEC West. At the time, Smart had, without nearly enough regional criticism, matched the single longest postseason losing streak in UGA history (we first “invented” Deep South football in 1892, in Athens, the birthplace of American public higher education ((1785!)), a game before we played Auburn in Atlanta on Feb. 20th – RIVALRY DAY).
Nationally, he’s way way less well-regarded as a decent gameday coach, but fans of Georgia are so used to excuses and almosts. The bad four-game postseason skid was broken as Georgia bested a Big 12 runner up, Baylor, back in the Sugar Bowl.
A return even to the SECCG was not in the cards next. Georgia faced just three quality opponents in 2020: better-than-us Bama reclaimed a lead to blow Georgia out late. Florida blew a Georgia out who stupidly wanted a passing duel, even though we had a walk on at QB while they were setting passing records weekly and they struggled with run defense.
Then the fans foolishly expected JT Daniels and a rolling (playing nobody worthy and barely edging Miss State at home) along UGA to blow Cincy out in the Peach Bowl in-state. Ol’ Georgia was mostly stuffed until the 4th, by the Bearcats, and needed a long 53-yard field goal to win the game. The team finished 8-2 but barely missed a much worse 7-3.
…But all that was the McGarity era.
[There will be no Greg McGarity statues erected in Athens. Kirby? Maybe]
Spring football is underway, and I’m picking Georgia to win it all in 2021, like I did in 2017 (preseason barely Top 20) and 2019 (Fromm, Swift were juniors behind a proven NFL-bound O-line) when we similarly had less key roster turnover than usual and the top positions returned SEC championship-level studs. In 2017, Georgia was a few plays away from a Natty and won Kirby’s only title, in the SEC. In 2019, UGA entered the postseason with one close loss and the number one overall defense in the whole country, then fell apart. These were you see, to varying degrees, near misses.
Honestly, 2021 feels the most like a now-or-never to me. I don’t want to talk about great recruiting and the (distant) future anymore. Kirby has a one-year window, with so much more key attrition at the other Natty contenders compared to UGA. And with JT at UGA.