My alma mater fired the second most successful coach in its history yesterday, ending an historic run in the history of University of Georgia athletics.
Sadly, it was the lack of significantly historic moments that led to the downfall of Coach Mark Richt. As I learned during lunch yesterday afternoon, the University has decided to move on from Coach Richt and look for someone else to lead one of the best programs in the SEC.
I come away conflicted. I was one of those who called for CMR’s tenure to end. I felt that this year exhibited definitively one of the greatest weaknesses of Coach’s tenure: that when the biggest moments for success came, UGA was often not only unprepared, it was woefully so. Alabama destroyed us. The Florida game was a Gator fan’s dream scenario. I don’t even want to talk about Tennessee.
But I also understand that Georgia is where we are today because of Mark Richt. His vision, his passion, his leadership — all of these things helped restore the glory, glory to ol’ Georgia. The fact that the failure to win a national championships (or more than two SEC championships) was cause for dismissal just tells you how much Richt did for our program. Georgia had been out of the conversation since the late 80s; Richt propelled us back into the spotlight.
In a way, CMR was a victim of his own success. His teams created a fanbase that was wildly divided between irrational fans who expected a championship every year and fans who were willing to accept the status quo because of Richt’s character — and, more specifically, because of his religious beliefs.
Like a lot of things these days, the polarization became a contest of egos, and in the big business world of college football, winning wins every single time. Character, as much as I hate to say it, is an additional feature to collegiate sports, kind of like leather seats in a new car.
The easy narrative to follow would be criticizing the win-at-all-costs mentality in college football. But that’s not the curious thing to me in this case.
The curious case of Mark Richt lies in the fact that there were thousands of fans happy to let him go on coaching simply because they believed he was a good man and a great Christian. I’ve heard from a lot of fans who didn’t care that CMR’s teams had tapered off on the field; they were prouder of his legacy of integrity and character values.
They were truthfully prouder of him being a vocal Christian in a high-profile job who was enjoying a high-level of success without “selling out” his beliefs. This to me is the more interesting angle to all of this, so much so I’m not even sure what to make of it or where I stand.
I felt like CMR’s teams were clearly not as well coached, well prepared, or well staffed as they should be after such a run of success. I’ve been around enough organizations to know that when the results don’t match the rhetoric, trouble is afoot. That doesn’t mean CMR isn’t a good man, or that he’s a subpar Christian, or even that he’s not a good football coach; it simply means that there were signs of problems within his world at Georgia and it was time to move on.
To me, that’s the bottom line. The culture at the University of Georgia was no longer conducive to Coach Richt. It was time for everyone to shake hands, part ways, and head to the next phase.
Every leader experiences times like that. Sometimes you can right the ship; other times, you have to step back and let someone else take the wheel. Change in leadership is never easy. But it is necessary, which is why I’m intrigued and saddened by the number of Christians who can’t see the need for it in this case. They would rather embrace mediocrity than go through change, all because CMR’s beliefs match theirs and he was able to use his platform to promote those beliefs.
Maybe there’s a happy ending. Maybe CMR goes on to follow in Vince Dooley’s hallowed footsteps by becoming the next Athletic Director, and continues building the legacy of Christian character and integrity so many fans appreciated.
If so, I hope folks continue to support him as much when he’s not in the spotlight as they did while he stood in its center. Mark Richt, by all accounts, seems to be one of the most genuine and authentic believers you’d ever hope to meet. Heck, even Nick Saban said as much.
I guess what I’m experiencing is buyer’s remorse — that feeling you get when you get what you wanted only to discover you’re not so certain it’s what you really wanted after all.