ATHENS, Ga. -- If the walls are genuinely closing in on Georgia coach Mark Richt, as some outside the program and even some Georgia fans fear, he doesn’t show it.
He’s the same guy he was when the Bulldogs won the SEC championship in 2002, the same guy he was when they won the conference title in 2005 and the same guy responsible for five top-10 finishes and three BCS bowl appearances.
“You have to focus on what’s important,” said Richt, who’s well aware that some have branded him as perhaps the next head coach in the SEC on the proverbial hot seat. “You can only focus on what you can control, and that’s what I’m doing. I have a vision and a picture of where I want us to be, and I know what it looks like. We’ve just got to get there.”
The obvious follow-up: How close are you to getting there?
“We’re not far off at all,” said Richt, wearing the same easy smile he arrived with nearly a decade ago.
Before we go any further, let’s offer a short footnote: If you coach in the SEC long enough -- which invariably means you’ve won pretty consistently at a high level -- there’s always going to be a cycle or cycles where it appears that the walls might be closing in.
Richt accepts that. What he doesn’t accept is that Georgia has somehow fallen behind the Big Boys in this conference and can’t catch back up.
At the same time, he also doesn’t accept what happened last season when the Bulldogs lost five games, committed an SEC-high 105 penalties, finished 10th in the SEC in scoring defense and finished 118th nationally (out of 120 teams) in turnover ratio.
“Just look at the turnover ratio alone,” Richt said. “If we get our penalties and turnovers squared away, we win two or three more games. We were very poor in both, and that’s my fault as head coach. But if we clean that up, we’re in a whole lot better shape.
“Some of it is circumstantial. But we just have to do a better job of practicing in such a way that habits we’re creating aren’t going to cause penalties. That’s what we’re fixing to do the rest of this spring and carry it over into the fall.”
For the first time in his career, Richt overhauled his defensive staff this past offseason, which included firing longtime friend and colleague Willie Martinez as defensive coordinator. After a lengthy search, Richt replaced Martinez with former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
The fans had been calling for Martinez’s ouster for the last two years. But Richt said it wasn’t a move he felt pressured to make.
“Not at all,” he said. “It’s just something I felt like we had to do to get us where we all want to be.”
Georgia athletic director Damon Evans recently told Jeff Schultz of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he doesn’t view this as a crossroads season for Richt and the program.
And, truthfully, calling it a crossroads season for a guy who’s won 10 or more games in six of his nine seasons in the SEC probably is a bit much.
But when you sit down with Georgia fans, they make one thing abundantly clear: Particularly this coming season with the Eastern Division being so wide open, they expect the Bulldogs to be right there in the middle of the race come November.
So does Richt, and so do these players.
Senior linebacker Darryl Gamble thinks part of the problem on defense the last two seasons has been too many people playing for themselves and not the team.
“We had a lot of guys that weren’t into it like they needed to be and had more individual-type guys that didn’t have the team mindset that we were going out and dominating as a team,” Gamble said. “I think coach Grantham is bringing us together more, and you’re not going to see as many individuals out there.
“We have the talent to play the kind of defense around here they always have at Georgia. That’s not the problem. We just have to do it. That’s not on coach Richt or any of the coaches.
“There were times last year when we should have made the plays … but we just choked.”
The impact Alabama’s Nick Saban and Florida’s Urban Meyer have had not only on Georgia, but the entire league, hasn’t been lost on Richt.
He concedes that the stakes have been raised in this conference with Alabama and Florida winning three of the last four national championships. Of course, the one crown they didn’t win in that span was won by LSU.
“The bottom line is you want to win,” Richt said. “You’re hired to play championship-level football. That’s the goal, and that’s what you’re pushing for. You’ve got to beat the competition around you. Right now, Alabama and Florida have risen above everybody else. What we have to do is knock them off.
“If other teams were winning the national championships outside our league, it may not be as painful for the fans. But when you see the people in your league and your division winning a national championship, you want a piece of that – and we do.”
Richt is entering his 10th season at Georgia, which makes him the dean of SEC head coaches at one school.
Making it 10 years at the same school in today’s SEC is an accomplishment unto itself. Richt has seen head coaches come and go in this league at a dizzying pace.
The old saying goes: The only thing that doesn’t change about SEC football is that the faces at the top keep changing.
Well, Richt’s goal hasn’t changed since the day he decided to move his family from Tallahassee, Fla., to Athens, Ga.
“I want to finish my career here. That’s the goal I had the day I got here,” said Richt, one of only seven head coaches in history who’s won 90 or more Division I games in his first nine seasons.
“We weren’t going to leave [Florida State] unless it was a special place, a place we could win at the highest level and a place we could raise our family and be there the rest of our career, mine and my wife’s.
“Georgia is that place for me, and I plan on being here.”