ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt doesn’t have to peruse the Internet message boards or listen to radio talk shows to know what the climate is like among Georgia’s fan base heading into what is easily the most pivotal season of his career.
“I know what’s out there because when I go to church, everybody comes up to me and says they’re praying for me. I say, ‘It must be bad out there,’ ” cracked Richt, flashing his easy smile.
It’s impossible to coach in the SEC for one season and not know the stakes.
Richt, who has been at his school longer than any other SEC head coach, has coached for a decade in this league. For much of that decade, he’s coached at a very high level.
He knows all about the stakes, especially coming off the first losing season of his career and a total of 12 losses over the past two seasons.
So while everybody else may view this as a win-or-else season for Richt, he views every season that way.
If you’re going to make it for as long as he has in the SEC, there is no other way to approach a season.
“I don’t feel any differently going into this year than any other year I’ve been here, and that is that we have a tremendous opportunity to win the Eastern Division,” Richt said. “We’re not that far away. Even last year, we weren’t.
“We just have to be a team that finishes stronger and be a team that makes the plays when they count the most. We lost seven games last year, and six out of the seven were lost somewhere in the fourth quarter. It’s not like we were getting blasted off the field by any means.
“We just didn’t finish.”
As for Richt being finished at Georgia if the Bulldogs don’t rejoin the SEC’s upper crust in 2011, he offers the kind of shrug you might expect from a coach who’s one of only seven men in Division I-A history to record 90 or more wins in his first nine seasons.
“That’s just the way it is, but it’s also what makes it great,” Richt said of the pressure to produce in the SEC. “The challenge is like none other, in my opinion, in any sport. I’m sure the NFL compares, or maybe we compare to the NFL.
“But when you win in this league, you’ve done something special.”
And Richt has certainly won plenty in this league.
In six of his 10 seasons at Georgia, he’s won 10 or more games. He’s pocketed two SEC championships and been to three SEC championship games.
What he hasn’t done is win any SEC championships or make any SEC championship game appearances within the past five years, and he also hasn’t been able to break the Florida stranglehold. The Gators have beaten the Bulldogs eight of 10 times since Richt arrived.
Of course, in Richt’s defense, it’s not like Georgia was beating up on Florida before he took the job. The Gators have won 18 of the past 21 games in the series.
The other thing Richt’s critics point to is his recent record against nationally ranked foes. He’s just 2-9 in his past 11 games. But in the 11 games prior to that stretch against nationally ranked opponents, he was a remarkable 10-1.
In this league, it will always be: What have you done for me lately?
“I don’t read the blogs. I don’t read the 'net. I just don’t do it,” Richt said. “Now, I’ve got family who do, and they start to try and tell me what’s being said, and I say, ‘I don’t care.’
“You’ve got to stay the course. Now, staying the course doesn’t mean you never change anything. But you can’t have a knee-jerk reaction to everything going on out there.”
Still, as the losses have mounted the past couple of years, Richt hasn’t been one to sit pat.
He overhauled his defensive staff two years ago, which included the agonizing decision to fire one of his best friends, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, who's now the secondary coach at Oklahoma. More recently, Richt reassigned longtime strength and conditioning coach Dave Van Halanger and promoted Joe Tereshinski in a revamping of the Bulldogs’ strength program.
Too many games in which the Bulldogs faded in the fourth quarter was the biggest impetus for the change, although the reality is that Bulldogs simply haven’t performed up to their talent level the past few years.
“We’ve had some high expectations and had some great talent, but we just haven’t brought it every day. We haven’t brought it every game,” said sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray, who accounted for 28 touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman, tying a Georgia single-season record.
“There are flashes where we look unbelievable and games where we look unbelievable, and then there are games you just can’t explain.”
Sort of like the 10-6 flop against UCF in the Liberty Bowl last season.
“It’s the worst feeling I’ve ever had at Georgia,” senior cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “That wasn’t us out there. It still hurts.”
Don’t think that game hasn’t been mentioned more than a few times this offseason, which has been unlike anything the players on this team have ever experienced.
One of the biggest differences is the way the players are eating.
Nutrition is as much a part of the plan as running and lifting weights. The players are required to eat all three meals and stick to a strict diet.
No fried foods. No fast food. No ice cream.
What they eat at each meal is photographed by a strength and conditioning staffer, and Tereshinski keeps a file on every player.
“It starts out sounding kind of funny, but it’s legit,” Richt said. “The kids are seeing it. We’re seeing it. It’s being documented. Kids are changing their bodies in a big way.
“Already, there’s some proof in the pudding and has given the kids a belief that this is the way to go.”
Richt’s optimism that things are about to turn around for the Bulldogs also stems from the fact this will be Year No. 2 in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense and Year No. 2 with Murray at quarterback.
“Any time you’re breaking in a new system, offensively or defensively, there’s some learning curve to it,” Richt said. “We were a team that was learning a new system defensively last year. We also had a freshman quarterback.
“If you look at head coaches coming into programs and coordinators putting in new systems, normally in Year 2 there’s a lot of success. Look at what happened to me in Year 2. Look at what happened to [Gene] Chizik, Urban Meyer and Nick Saban.”
Richt’s sense is that this will also be more of a player-driven team, something the players say was long overdue.
“I think we have some great leaders and a bunch of guys who want to follow,” Murray said. “In years past, we’ve had some great leaders and some guys who wanted to follow, but also some guys who didn’t want to buy in and were pulling away. They were pulling those followers toward them instead of those guys really trying to lead the team in the right direction.
“I don’t think we have those guys this year. I can’t name one guy who’s trying to pull this team back. We don’t have that anymore. We have the leaders and the followers who are working their tails off to follow those leaders.”
Something else these Bulldogs have is a keen sense of what this upcoming season means for everybody in the program.
“This is it. We don’t have time to sit and wait,” junior linebacker Christian Robinson said. “If something’s going to happen, it has to happen now. We have to have that urgency every day.
“That is, if we’re going to get back to where Georgia belongs.”