AUGUSTA - The first question Mark Richt received on his spring speaking tour wasn't actually a question. It was a comment from a fan on the sensitive issue of discipline and suspensions.
But the fan at the Augusta Bulldog Club meeting wanted to compliment Richt. After saying he was disappointed in players for not taking advantage of the "privilege" of playing college football, the fan thanked Richt for his discipline policies.
(And presumably those of UGA, since many of the suspensions derive from violations of long-standing athletics department policy.)
Richt thanked the fan for the compliment, and then went into a long riff, both defending and explaining the way it has been handled. Here is the text of Richt's answer:
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"Did anybody here go through college, did anybody maybe do something stupid, and not have the whole world know? I know I did. ...
"When a mistake is made, there needs to be a consequence, there needs to be a discipline, there needs to be a learning experience from it. I'm not gonna change the way I discipline. Some people may think it's soft. A lot of people think you might be losing control of your program because you have a lot of suspensions for the season. But the reality is that's how you keep control of your team, by disciplining your team.
"If you notice, we're not gonna have any partiality as to whether a guy is a walk-on or a starter. I don't like disciplining a starter. I don't like disciplining a walk-on. But when they get out of line you want the punishment to stick. And the punishment that sticks the most is playing time. That's what I've learned over the years. And then you've gotta educate them. You've gotta have them understand why what they did is wrong, and how it hurts them.
"And I think a lot of guys think it's bulletproof. They don't think it's not gonna happen - and it does. Once they live through it, they understand how tough it is. But then again, the third thing is you've gotta love them. I love Sanders Commings. Do I love all these other guys that have had issues over the year? I sure do.
"Just this weekend I ran into Ray Gant and Danell Ellerbe. Now Daniel Ellert was this close from being gone. He had a DUI right before he did whatever he did, and he was that close to being gone. But then you know you have a conversation with that kid. You say: One more thing and you are gone. And what you did is not gonna define your career. What you do from this point is gonna define your career. And so I said, If you take care of business you have a chance to still have a great career, and still play in the NFL. And sure enough, this guy he got serious about school, he got his degree before he let, he got drafted to the NFL, albeit a little bit later than he would have been if he didn't have an issue. Still he's a starting linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens and he's doing awesome.
"There's so many guys like that. Anybody remember Verron Haynes? What do you remember Verron for? Pass-44 for touchdown against Tennessee? Well if you don't remember, he got himself in trouble too. He made a mistake. He got suspended for the first game of the season along with a couple of other guys. But those guys turned it around and they recovered. They learned from it.
"The sad part of it is it's so public. The other part of it that's sad is it does affect myself. The coaching staff. It affects the Bulldogs nation, the University of Georgia, their teammates. But that's what a team is all about. The good and the bad. ...
"Some people say, let's have a uniform policy for this and a uniform policy for that within the league or within the NCAA. But those times will never come. So we have to decide as an institution, we have to decide as an athletic association, and we have to decide as a coaching staff, how are we gonna handle these issues?
"When I first game to Georgia, there had been some issues. You don't get a job unless there had been some issues. And the thing that I said to our staff and to my administration is if something happens, we're gonna clean it up, we're not gonna cover it up. OK. When you have that philosophy, you're gonna see some of your dirty laundry. And it's embarrassing, quite frankly. You don't like it. But if you face the problem head on, and you take care of it, and you discipline it and move forward in a positive direction, that's all we can do.
"So that's how we're going about our business. And in the meantime, some other guys are gonna have to step up and play ball in those first couple of games, and get after it."