ATHENS, Ga. — Mark Richt says he was seeking peace when he closed practices this week, but the decision created quite a racket.
The Georgia coach insists the timing of the decision had nothing to do with Saturday night’s opponent, 16th-ranked Alabama, but that hasn’t stopped accusations from flying in both directions.
Despite Richt's assertions to the contrary, a heap of circumstantial evidence makes the timing of the decision curious at the very least.
After all, while this week represents the first time in Richt’s seven years as a head coach that he has closed practices, it’s also the first year that offensive line coach Stacy Searels — two years a Saban assistant at LSU — has been a member of Richt’s coaching staff.
But Richt strongly disputed that a Southeastern Conference coach would resort to such tactics and said Searels has provided no reason to be concerned over Saban spying.
"I don’t think any of our opponents would be so bold as to come in and do something like that," Richt said at his Tuesday press conference. "I don’t think that at all."
However, an ESPN.com story quoting a source within the Georgia program only fuels further speculation that the closed doors are intended to prevent opponents from gleaning any useful information for later use.
"We've been skunked in the past," the source said in the ESPN.com story. "We know it because of the way some teams have reacted to our [offensive] plays in a few games. We're trying to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said after Tuesday’s practice that he disagrees with that notion, however. The Bulldogs’ problems on offense have been self-inflicted, he said.
"I wouldn’t say anybody’s got us or spied on us," Bobo said. "People talk. I don’t think it’s . . . trying to blatantly spy or cheat, but (opponents) might’ve seen something here or there (that Georgia is) doing. But that’s no reason I think that we haven’t executed at full strength. We’ve just been making mistakes."
For their parts, Georgia’s players also refused to take accusatory tones.
"We’re not gonna make any excuses anytime we lost a game. I’d just say we didn’t execute," Georgia center Fernando Velasco said. "We’re not gonna make any excuses and say, ‘Well somebody was cheating and knew our plays.’ ”
Georgia tight end Tripp Chandler said there are times that you wonder how opposing defenders wound up where they did. Chandler tends to believe it’s because of good coaching.
"Sometimes it seems like (they knew ahead of time)," Chandler said. "Sometimes you’re like, ‘Man, that guy just doesn’t need to be there. He’s just messing up our play.’ But I guess that’s why Nick Saban’s Nick Saban or any of the other coaches in the SEC — they’re just great coaches."
Saban was accused of underhanded tactics last December when two of his Miami Dolphins players revealed that the team purchased tapes of New England Patriots games in order to discern quarterback Tom Brady’s snap cadences. The league said Saban’s club broke no league rule, although opinions were mixed whether the Dolphins violated an ethical one.
Additionally, Saban was once a defensive coordinator under New England coach Bill Belichick, who remains embroiled in an NFL cheating scandal, after a club employee was caught videotaping New York Jets coaches in an attempt to steal signals.
The NFL penalized Belichick with a $500,000 fine and charged the Patriots $250,000 and at least one draft pick next year for breaking league rules in the incident.
Saban angrily denied being part of any such spy tactics, while defending Belichick, who employed Saban for four years while coaching the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s.
"Bill Belichick is a good friend of mine; I have a tremendous amount of respect for him," Saban said. "I worked with him a long time. I learned a lot from him. And we didn’t do those kinds when I worked with him and that’s really all I can comment about."
Richt said the Patriots incident brought cheating tactics to the forefront, but — again refusing to point fingers at a fellow coach — noted his decision to close practice has been brewing for some time.
The presence of reporters and visitors at practice reduces the coaching staff’s ability to control what information becomes public. And with the lightning-quick dissemination of information on the Internet, it creates a risk Richt is not willing to take — this week and, if he had his way, in the future.
"If it was up to me, if I could get away with it, I’d just as soon close it down (permanently)," he said.
Creg Stephenson contributed to this report.
Contact David Ching at 706-571-8571