ATHENS -- There’s a head coach in this Missouri-Georgia game who was hired before the 2001 season and who does not have a special teams coordinator. He has no plans to hire one, and so every time there’s a mistake on special teams the critics wonder why.
And that coach’s name is Gary Pinkel of Missouri.
“I’ve always done that in the 23 years I’ve been a head coach and probably will continue,” said Pinkel, who coached at Toledo before going to Missouri.
Georgia’s Mark Richt also handles it that way, much to the chagrin of his team’s fans every time there is a special teams mistake. And lately there have been plenty.
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But it’s not causing Richt to waver on his philosophy. Like the coach he will face Saturday, Richt assigns special teams duties to different coaches. Offensive line coach Will Friend handles extra point and field goals, tight ends coach John Lilly has the punt team, running backs coach Bryan McClendon has the punt return team, receivers coach Tony Ball has kick return, and inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti has the kickoff team.
It’s not a money issue. Teams are hamstrung by the NCAA, which limits each football staff to nine full-time assistant coaches. So it’s not like Richt or Pinkel could just hire a 10th assistant to oversee all the special teams.
But many other programs do have a special teams coordinator, who almost always also handles another unit. Texas A&M, for instance, has Jeff Banks, a former All-Pac 10 punter who is the special teams coordinator and tight ends coach.
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin was actually the special teams coordinator at Oklahoma for a couple of years. That led him to believe it was good having someone who had a sense of what was going on “across the board.”
“Once you score as an offense, usually if you’re an offensive coordinator you’re thinking about something else, if it’s a PAT,” Sumlin said. “Well in this situation as a special teams guy, you’re counting people, making sure of this, making sure of that. There’s never a dull moment. It gave me a real perspective of coaching and dealing with things that I hadn’t deal with.”
But Pinkel traces his spread-it-out philosophy to his time as a player and assistant for Don James, who won a national championship at Washington.
“I always thought that was the best way to do it, rather than just having one coach maybe coach part of one position and do all of the special teams,” Pinkel said. “It gives responsibility I think for your coaches. He claims that area, maybe kickoff return, or whatever area he’s responsible for; he has great pride in that. So it’s really worked well for us. I’m not saying there’s one way worth more than another. Certainly there’s many ways to do things. But that’s philosophically why we do what we do.”
Richt also decided to do it that way when hired at Georgia, after seeing it work at Florida State. And Missouri and Georgia have each had success though the years but also some hiccups.
Last year Missouri had the SEC’s top-ranked punt and kickoff return units. But special teams might have cost the team the game against Vanderbilt, with a muffed punt snap resulting in a safety and a penalty on the punt block team extending a drive that led to a go-ahead touchdown.
Five years ago Georgia’s punt return team ranked first in the conference and fourth in the nation. And in 2007 the Bulldogs probably had the best special teams in the SEC, ranking in the top three in net punting, kickoff returns and punt returns. Three years ago Georgia was fourth in the nation in net punting and second in the SEC in kickoff coverage.
This year Georgia has had three major errors on its punt team, including two punts blocked for touchdowns and another muffed snap. The kickoff team has also given up a touchdown, while the Bulldogs aren’t getting much from their return units. The longest punt return is for 12 yards, the longest kick return just 24 yards.
Richt, asked if he could give a grade for the special teams play, just said, “Not good enough.”
But he doesn’t think it has anything to do with not having one man oversee all the unit.
“It doesn’t matter whether you split it up or give it to one guy. The bottom line is you’ve gotta get the job done,” Richt said. “Everybody knows who’s had issues that can’t happen anymore. Everybody takes that personally, and everybody’s working hard at it.”