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ESPN: Won’t be long before UGA wins it all.


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ESPN: Won’t be long before UGA wins it all

Credit Richt for Dogs emerging as perennial national title contenders


Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Athens — Georgia has finished in the top 10 five of the past six seasons. The Bulldogs ended last year ranked No. 2 in the nation. Georgia is No. 2 this season after spending the entire preseason ranked No. 1.

Recognize a trend here?

People familiar with the Bulldogs and college football do, and they’ve identified the trendsetter as head coach Mark Richt.

“It’s just a matter of time,” ESPN college football reporter Ivan Maisel said of Georgia eventually winning a national championship under Richt. “When you step back and look at what it takes for a university, a college football program, to win a national championship, it’s all there. And conventionally, a head coach is the most important part of that. Mark’s got it going on right now.”

Georgia, which hasn’t won a national championship since 1980, will have to first get past South Carolina (1-1) Saturday in Columbia. Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks (1-1) beat Georgia in Athens last season. That loss, coupled with a loss at Tennessee four games later, effectively derailed Georgia’s chances of playing in the BCS championship game.

But what Richt has done in eight seasons in Athens is get the Bulldogs back in the discussion. They finished third in 2002 after going 13-1, were close to getting into the BCS title game last season and can expect to play in it should they negotiate this year’s treacherous schedule.

But this season might not be the Dogs’ last, or maybe even their best, shot at the trophy. The team has 53 freshmen and sophomores, and some say next season looks even more promising, especially if junior quarterback Matthew Stafford or sophomore tailback Knowshon Moreno opt to remain in college. And even without them, the Bulldogs expect to return their entire offensive line and most of their defense.

Richt would not dispute the idea recently that Georgia should be in the title hunt virtually every season.

“Yes, I think so,” he said last week. “After our first season I really believed that. The first year [2001] I just didn’t know. Georgia hadn’t won [an SEC title] in 19 years or something. There was probably a reason why, and I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t understand the league. There were a lot of things I didn’t know. I just wanted to try to get the thing going in the right direction.

“But after the season was over, I was like, ‘You know what, why not us?’ I didn’t think we were very far away, personnel-wise. I thought it was more a matter of changing attitudes and beginning to believe.”

Since then, the Bulldogs have won two SEC championships, won or tied for the Eastern Division title four times and played in three SEC championship games.

And also created numerous theories on Georgia’s rise under Richt.

Recruiting ability

Rodney Garner, Georgia’s assistant head coach, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, said Georgia’s recruits are buying what they’re selling — and what they’re selling is Richt.

“To me Mark Richt is a brand,” said Garner, who has coordinated Georgia’s recruiting since joining Jim Donnan’s staff in 1998. “He is a brand, just like Coca-Cola. We’ve got Mark Richt. I’m going to put my brand out there, and it speaks volumes. People know who Mark Richt is and they know what Mark Richt stands for. …

“Recruits know who he is. Parents know who he is. Coaches know who he is. He’s making his mark. And he’s going to continue to do great things because he’s doing it the right way. He’s not going to be a one-hit wonder.”

Richt said Georgia had only 37 players in for official recruiting visits before national signing day in February. The Bulldogs were able to sign 23 prospects. That’s a phenomenal closing rate in the fickle world of recruiting.

“I think we’re doing a very fine job of evaluating talent and hitting on a high percentage of the ones we’re going after,” Richt said. “I’ve forgotten the number now of how many you can bring in any given year, but we haven’t even come close the last three recruiting classes.”

That’s bad news for other programs recruiting the state.

“Georgia, I think, is the fourth-leading producer of Division I-A football players in the country,” said Bobby Bowden, who hired Richt from Miami as a graduate assistant at Florida State in 1985. “So you’ve got a lot of guys there, and Georgia’s going to be a favorite to get them. I’ve always felt Georgia was one of those supreme jobs that can be good all the time. It looks like they’ve got the right guy there now.”

A football know-how

Stafford, who is from Dallas, met Richt when he attended Florida State’s football camps as a kid. Part of the reason he went was because of Richt’s reputation as a great quarterbacks coach. Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke won Heisman trophies under Richt’s tutelage.

So when Richt took the job at Georgia, Stafford was interested.

“It’s a combination of a lot of things, really,” Stafford said. “It’s definitely the coaches, not just Coach Richt but all of them. And the three years I was getting recruited, my sophomore, junior and senior years, they were top 10 in the country every year. So I knew they were a great program and I knew what kind of football they could play.”

Bowden hired Richt as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach about the time Florida State went on one of the greatest runs in college football history from 1990-2000. The Seminoles won two national titles in that span (1993, ‘99), played for several others and never finished out of the top five.

Bowden said Richt was a big part of FSU’s success, but he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to duplicate it as a head coach.

“That’s something you never know until they do it,” Bowden said. “He’s got a real good football head on him. But I’ve seen some who were great assistants and they’ve not made it as head coaches and I’ve seen some that have. Mark is one that has, and he’s been there long enough to prove himself.”

A laid-back personality

Maisel thinks Richt’s personality may be his best selling point.

“When you think of the ‘marquee coaches,’ they all ooze this intensity and put it on public display,” Maisel said. “Then Mark comes out and he’s got that sleepy-eyed look on his face, and he’s monotone and there’s this sort of detachment about him that’s unlike any other coach. He seems to bring a sense of calm to everything. That’s why his teams play at their best without geeking out.”

Bowden agrees.

“He’s very likeable, very approachable,” he said. “He communicates well with his players and also with his coaches and with the fans. The thing that’s very impressive to me is something he does that a lot of people can’t do. If he makes a mistake, he’ll admit it. I think people love him for that.”

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