ATHENS — Earlier this year, when Mark Richt was considering whether to hire Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator, one of the background checks Richt made was to his brother-in-law: Former NFL quarterback Brad Johnson.
Grantham was an assistant coach for the Dallas Cowboys, where his time briefly overlapped with Johnson’s playing career. The former quarterback, who now lives in Athens, told Richt what to expect.
“(Grantham) had a lot of energy, and he would not be afraid to show his emotions out there,” Richt said. “He had a lot of fire out there in him.”
That fire has been on display a lot this season, and in notorious fashion this week.
Grantham’s choking gesture, directed at Florida kicker Chas Henry last Saturday, received a lot of attention, with some even calling for the coach to be suspended or fired. Grantham didn’t apologize, but did say Tuesday he wished the “situation hadn’t happened.”
On Wednesday, Henry told media in Florida that he responded to Grantham’s choke sign by blowing him a kiss, prompting Grantham to repeat the choke. Henry also called Grantham “a great coach” and said he didn’t want an apology.
The episode wasn’t the first time Grantham took a poke at an opponent this year.
Back in September, Grantham got in a brief back-and-forth with one of college football’s most famous personalities. South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier took a dig at Grantham, after his running back Marcus Lattimore gashed the Georgia defense for 182 yards.
“That little inside play (we ran), the NFL doesn’t run that play. That’s a new scheme I guess,” Spurrier said.
Rather than back down, Grantham shot back, saying: “It was kind of an out-of-left-field comment. I kind of took it more as a shot at the NFL. I wasn’t really sure if it was because of his lack of success there or not.”
Spurrier resigned after two losing seasons with the Washington Redskins.
Richt said he valued that kind of fire in a defensive coordinator, given the structure at Georgia. Richt, being an offensive-minded coach, will spend more time on that side of the ball, so Grantham is almost a second head coach.
“At Georgia, with me as the head coach, you want your defensive coordinator to be a lot of things,” Richt said. “He’s in charge on that side of the ball, and he’s not gonna get micro-managed from me. So he’s gotta be the one that’s really generating the enthusiasm, the tempo. So I thought that was important.”
Grantham was not only handed the keys to the defense, but a lucrative contract: Three years at $750,000 annually.
Is it paying off so far? Going by the stats, the defense is improving under Grantham.
Georgia ranks 28th in the nation in total defense. Through nine games, its average yards against the pass and run have each improved from last year.
After the run defense was embarrassed at South Carolina, the Bulldogs have managed to climb near the top of the SEC rankings in that category, and rank 18th nationally.
In the final two seasons under Willie Martinez, Georgia gave up at least 40 points in five games. This year under Grantham, the best an opponent has done is last week when Florida got 34, helped by an overtime field goal.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban, perhaps the most respected defensive mind in football, called Grantham one of the best assistant coaches he has had. Grantham worked for Saban at Michigan State in the late 1990s.
“(Grantham) had a lot of passion for the game, and was a great person,” Saban said. “I’ve always thought Todd was one of the best coaches we’ve ever had an opportunity to be around, and he’s certainly had a lot of success in his career.”
While he may look intense on the sideline, Bulldog players say Grantham isn’t quite a dictator. The first time Grantham spoke to the team, according to linebacker Cornelius Washington, the coach was “all business,” explaining the 3-4 defense and what it entailed.
“The only thing is if you’ve got a guy who constantly makes the same mistakes over and over again, that gets frustrating. That’s one of the only time he yells,” Washington said. “He’s more of a teacher than a yeller. But he does have his ways of getting us fired up.”
Washington, like other Georgia players, also felt the choke-sign controversy was overblown. And they were joined in that opinion by Henry.
“I’ve heard people, ‘He should have apologized.’ It’s in the middle of the game. It’s an intense game,” Henry said, according to the Palm Beach Post. “It’s one of the most intense rivalries in college football. Stuff like that, it’s not even on the field. It has nothing to do with it. It’s just football
“He’s a great coach. I look at his record. It’s just an intense game.”