ATHENS, Ga. -- His boss thinks the change in Mark Richt started happening the minute that painful, embarrassing Liberty Bowl ended. One of his players said it was later in the spring. Others can’t really pinpoint it.
But everyone seems to agree on this: The 11th-year football coach did more this offseason to change the culture of the program than ever before.
Whether it works will probably dictate whether he saves his job.
For the better part of a decade, the calm and steady approach worked for Richt at Georgia. He won two SEC titles, had one of the best winning percentages in college football, and was generally considered one of the nation’s best coaches.
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When the team slipped in 2009, winning only eight games, Richt overhauled his defensive staff but didn’t change much else. Those around the program seemed to expect a natural improvement, because at Georgia under Richt, you didn’t have losing seasons.
But when it only got worse last year, low-lighted by that bowl loss to Central Florida, the changes were made.
“Sometimes you need the kick in the pants to get going,” said David Pollack, who played during Richt’s first four years in Athens, when the team was a combined 42-10. “The realization is that 10 wins isn’t guaranteed anymore. For the longest time with coach Richt it was. It’s about grinding.”
Pollack has watched a change in the program from his spot in the media.
Sophomore linebacker Alec Ogletree has seen it up close.
“The atmosphere around here changed a lot,” he said, adding of his head coach: “He’s a lot different from last year.”
When are the changes noticeable?
“All the time,” Ogletree said. “On and off the field. When we’re in meetings and stuff. It’s a lot different from last year.”
Some of the tangible changes were immediate. Richt overhauled the team’s strength and conditioning program a few days after the end of the regular season. The result was a more stern approach in the weight room and an emphasis on conditioning.
The roster turnover came in a trickle, but in retrospect was an avalanche. Seven players transferred, some with a push, according to Richt, who won’t name which ones. Remaining players talked of “cancers” being removed from the locker room.
Finally, there were the motivational gimmicks: The team’s motto became “Get on the bus,” with bad attitudes being told to get off. The team also introduced the idea of “energy vampires,” where players who deviated from protocol were called out by having their pictures posted on the wall and adorned with vampire-like fangs.
It may not prove to be as effective as talent and good coaching.
But when Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity is asked if Richt attempted to change the culture of the program, he was adamant.
“No question. That’s been a focus of Mark,” he said. “Mark’s attitude, Jan. 1, leaving that locker room, that’s when that new year started. I think there were a lot of fresh ideas. I think there was a new way of doing things. And the players were the first ones who bought in and said, ‘We’re not going to let 6-7 happen again.’ ”
The parlor game has been to guess how many wins the team must achieve this year for Richt to continue as coach. Nine? Ten? An SEC championship? Or just a division crown?
McGarity has been careful with his words, saying he would like to see “improvement” in the team this year.
“You want to see all programs sort of going to higher levels,” he said, making an upward movement with his hand, mimicking a bar graph.
A certain number of wins, and over specific teams, are only part of the equation, according to McGarity.
“That’s the difficult part of this job, is you have to be the evaluator,” McGarity said. “You have to be the person who’s looking at all phases of the operation. Are we doing the things necessary? I would say what I’ve seen from January forward has been really good. Again, there are a lot of positives that have come out.
“Now whether that translates into wins and losses, we’ll see. But I can say this without any hesitation, what they did in the offseason, what they did in the spring, offseason, strength and conditioning, all the pieces, we are doing in my opinion the right thing.”
No one inside the building will come out and say that the program had become stale or complacent. Tight end Orson Charles came close.
“Once you’re here for long a period of time, everything starts to get normal, nothing’s really changed, no one’s really excited because it’s the same ol’ thing,” Charles said. “He changed the strength and conditioning staff, and we definitely feel it. We’re much bigger and much stronger, we can go for a long period of time. And we changed a couple things on offense and defense for the better.”
Pollack said Richt’s public image as serene and too relaxed can be a misnomer. His former coach, the Bulldog legend said, is capable of a firmer hand.
“I think coach Richt’s done a pretty good job of trying to change the culture,” Pollack said. “I feel like there’s a little bit something different about him this year. The thing people don’t understand about coach Richt is he’s so competitive. Go play racquetball with him.”
Around the team this preseason, some of the little things could be seen as part of Richt’s grander circling-the-wagons plan.
More practices have been closed to the media. While Boise State and South Carolina held open scrimmages, Georgia continued to hold them behind closed doors.
In recent years, Richt had canceled one preseason practice to take the team to the school’s Ramsey Center and have a diving day. Last year Richt jumped in fully-dressed.
So far this year, the team hasn’t gone diving.
“They were highly disappointed I think, I don’t know,” Richt said, smiling. “I guess it could happen next week, but I doubt that.”
Richt was asked if it was all part of his effort to change things up around the team.
“I think we got everybody’s attention,” he said. “I think everybody in our program, I think we got everyone’s attention, as far as staff, as far as players, everybody in the building, you know? That’s a good thing.”