ATHENS, Ga. — Wednesday was difficult, Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. But the long days leading up to his final decision were really tough.
After months of criticism and rumors, Richt finally made his decision official, announcing the firings of defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, linebackers coach John Jancek and defensive ends coach Jon Fabris,
The move came amid rampant speculation, but Richt said his decision came only after a few days of painful soul searching.
“People may not have an idea of what we do, but we spend much more time together than we spend with our families,” Richt said. “You get to know these men, you meet with them daily, you watch their children grow up, you bleed with them, you have defeats with them, and you have wonderful victories and celebrations with them, Christmas parties with them and all those things. We have accomplished quite a lot at Georgia over that time frame, so this has not been anything easy at all.”
On a personal level, the decision was no doubt difficult, but the results of Georgia’s past two seasons tell a much different story.
While Martinez was a part of Richt’s first staff at Georgia in 2001 and was an integral -dogs to two SEC championships, his recent defenses have failed to live up to the expectations that followed his early success.
Georgia allow more points in each subsequent season after Martinez became defensive coordinator in 2005, culminating with a 26.4 points per game average during the Bulldogs’ 7-5 campaign this year. In the past two seasons, Georgia’s defense allowed 34 or more points in a game 10 times.
While other factors played into Georgia’s struggles during that stretch, Richt said it is clear the defense didn’t perform to the standards he had hoped.
“It was definitely not a one-year, knee-jerk reaction to this season, I can promise you that,” Richt said. “It was more of a decision that was made over the course of time, more time than just one year.”
How the search for replacements will unfold remains a matter of speculation, and Richt wasn’t interested in commenting on potential hires Wednesday. He did, however, say that defensive line coach Rodney Garner, the lone holdover among the defense’s assistants following Wednesday’s firings, had not been discussed as a candidate, and he said the new defensive coordinator would have a large role in filling out his staff.
“That definitely played into the decision,” Richt said. “If you’re going to bring in a top-notch person, I think every coordinator has one or two or more people that he has worked with in the past, that he’s very comfortable with, that he knows exactly what he expects, exactly what the defense is all about. So I want them to have the room and freedom to be able to do that.”
Garner’s role as the team’s recruiting coordinator made him less dispensable, but Jancek and Fabris proved to be casualties of the overall defensive problems.
Like Martinez, Fabris was part of Richt’s first staff and had overseen several defensive ends who went on to the NFL, including David Pollack, Quentin Moses and Charles Johnson.
Jancek came to Georgia in 2005 and was rumored to be the primary candidate for South Florida’s defensive coordinator job last year. Instead, he chose to remain at Georgia with a new title — defensive co-coordinator — but his linebacker unit underperformed this season amid a litany of injuries.
Richt said the three coaches were not aware of his decision until he informed them Wednesday. The news leaked out early in the afternoon, but players were not told about the changes until 4 p.m.
“I’m sure some of the guys knew something, some knew more than others, and some might have had no idea,” Richt said of the reaction of Georgia’s players. “So I think there was probably some shock and some sadness, and there might have even been one or two that felt like this would afford them an opportunity for a clean start.”
The five losses this season mark the most by a Georgia team since Richt arrived, and rivals Tennessee, Georgia Tech and Florida have all posted more than 40 points on the Bulldogs’ defense at least once in the past two seasons.
Richt said he has not set a timetable for hiring replacements, but he said the standard for what he expects from the eventual hire will be nothing short of elite.
“The bottom line is we want to get back to the top of the Eastern Division and the top of the SEC,” Richt said. “That’s the ultimate goal, that’s what we’re going after, so we want to bring in the finest coaches and men we think we can.”
Players were not made available for comment following the announcement, and none of the three coaches returned phone calls, but Martinez did release a statement expressing his appreciation for the opportunities he had at Georgia.
“I am very thankful to Mark Richt and the University of Georgia for nine great years in Athens,” Martinez said in the statement. “I am proud to have been an integral part of two SEC championships, three BCS Bowl bids, four Top-10 rankings in the final polls and 89 victories since 2001. I look forward to my next coaching opportunity.”
Richt said all three coaches were asked to remain on staff through Georgia’s bowl game, which sources have said will be the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., on Dec. 28, although the school has not officially announced its participation.
Richt said he was unsure whether any of the coaches would choose to accept his offer to continue on staff through the end of the month, but he said all have been taken off the recruiting trail.
The three firings represented the first time Richt has removed a coach from his staff involuntarily in his career, making it a particularly difficult series of decisions, he said.
“I cannot express enough my thanks to all three for their contributions to our program,” Richt said in a statement released by the school. “However, in the final analysis I’m charged with providing the leadership and direction for the Georgia program and sometimes that means making difficult decisions. This was one of them.”