ATHENS -- The fan prefaced his question by saying, “Coach, we love you and hope you stay here 30 years.” There was warm applause at the gathering of Georgia football fans in Atlanta, and head coach Mark Richt nodded his thanks.
Then the fan got to his point: He noticed that the Georgia football team had seen an improvement in discipline since the end of last season, and he asked Richt what had changed.
“I’ve probably had a little less patience than I’ve had in the past,” Richt said at the end of a lengthy answer.
That one sentence earned even more and louder applause.
The Bulldogs begin preseason practice this week amid mixed expectations: The expectations range from an SEC championship and a return to glory to another losing season and the end of Richt’s 11-year tenure.
Georgia will open practice with the same head coach and coordinators on each side of the ball. It will also have the same quarterback, as well as familiar faces as place-kicker, punter and practically the entire secondary.
Everything else, however, appears to be different.
The overhaul of the Georgia football team was a slow one. Rather than a Saturday night massacre, it happened in piecemeal fashion, one change at a time. Almost all the players left with a push; after a 6-7 record, a low-key housecleaning was taking place.
“I felt like it was building up (the last few years), and it was time to happen now,” junior tight end Orson Charles said. “Last year we had a couple people who didn’t want to follow, and they were still on the team. My freshman year they were still on the team. And this year, I guess Coach Richt said, ‘No, not this year.’ ”
The first move came on the coaching staff as veteran staffer and hard-nosed Joe Tereshinski was put in charge of the strength and conditioning program. But that may have led to some future player departures, among them redshirt freshman Brent Benedict, who transferred to Virginia Tech.
“We’ve had a few guys who have fallen by the wayside,” Richt said of the offseason program, without specifying any players.
After a Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida, a few players started to leave the program: First came Nick Williams, a junior linebacker-safety who was unhappy with his playing time. Then came linebacker Marcus Dowtin, the fourth-leading tackler who had neglected to tell coaches about an off-field run-in with the law the previous summer.
The drip-drop of departures continued, and every few weeks, it seemed another player left the program. Receiver Logan Gray left for Colorado, tackle A.J. Harmon left for Jacksonville State. Tailback Washaun Ealey transferred after a year of off-field problems. Tailback Caleb King was ruled academically ineligible just two weeks ago.
Amid all that, it’s easy to forget that the team also prematurely lost the top playmakers on each side of the ball when receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Justin Houston left early for the NFL draft.
As a result of all the attrition, the Bulldogs should be well under the NCAA limit of 85 scholarships; the number will be a bit less than 80, and that includes players who are already out for the season with injuries.
But depth aside, the team seems to believe it’s better off without what Charles called “the dead weight.”
“I think the guys that are here, that are left, are the ones that one to be at Georgia the most,” junior linebacker Christian Robinson said. “Some guys didn’t always fit in and didn’t always do what they were supposed to do and didn’t behave. Nothing against them, but they just didn’t fit into what we needed right now.”
In all cases, the departures were announced as transfers. But Richt, when speaking at that Alanta meeting, also insinuated that some left with a push.
“Five years, six years, 10 years down the road and somebody’s trying to find a job, and someone Googles his name, and it says, ‘So-and-so got thrown off the team.’ That’s kind of tough to overcome,” Richt said. “But if it says Coach Richt and this young man decided it was in his best interests to transfer, or the kid wanted to transfer for more playing time, whatever it is, that’s easier to swallow sometimes down the road.”
Richt said earlier this summer that players have realized there was a connection between the on-field losing and off-field problems. It was also clear that athletics director Greg McGarity and school president Michael Adams gave Richt their own nudge about the behavioral issues. McGarity, hired just before last season started, quietly urged Richt to clamp down.
That’s not to say some of the losses won’t hurt. Dowtin had a chance to start, as did Harmon. Gray was speedy and versatile. Benedict was a highly recruited player. Ealey and King, for all their issues, could have helped freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell with the transition to college.
But the team begins practice with a sense that a fresh, new collective attitude is in place.
“I think this university and Coach Richt did a fairly good job of letting people go,” Charles said. “I guess if they didn’t want to follow the Georgia way -- not to say they weren’t great players; they were definitely great players -- but Coach Richt’s motto is if you don’t want to do it his way, then here’s the door. So I guess they’re to the door, and we can just move forward with what we have in the locker room.”