Richt’s three defensive coordinators have contrasting styles

semerson@macon.comNovember 8, 2012 

ATHENS -- Brian VanGorder left the Georgia coaching staff eight years ago. None of the current Bulldogs played for him -- but plenty of them know his daughter Morgan, a member of the Georgia track and field team.

Willie Martinez was fired three years ago. But most of the starters on the Georgia defense played for him, and his ties to Athens haven’t been severed either.

“I ran into his daughter the week he was hired at Auburn,” Georgia senior linebacker Christian Robinson said.

And then there’s Georgia head coach Mark Richt. Since he comes from an offensive background, the defensive coordinator job for the Bulldogs is a key one. Three men have held that job in Richt’s 12 years in Athens. VanGorder, Martinez and now Todd Grantham.

All three will be there Saturday when Georgia visits Auburn. VanGorder now guides Auburn’s defense, while Martinez is the secondary coach.

“I’ve known Willie a long, long time. And I’ve known VanGorder a long time, before the Georgia thing. They’ve been my friends for a long time,” Richt said. “I really believe everybody’s gonna be able to focus on their job and just be able to coach the best that you can coach.”

The three men who have guided Georgia’s defense the past 12 years are a study in contrasts, some of it a hint as to why they were successful or not:

• VanGorder (2001-04) has a fiery personality, and he brought that to bear in Athens. He was the complement to Richt’s more laid-back style, and it worked.

“He does a good job of finding out how guys respond and knowing which buttons he can push,” said David Pollack, a three-time All-America defensive end under VanGorder. “He’s not going to call you out just to call you out if it’s not going to get the effect. He always used to tell Odell Thurman, because he came from a background where football was going to be his ticket for sure, you’re going to work at McDonald’s or own the McDonald’s. He always had the same energy. You knew what you were getting from him every single day, and you didn’t want to disappoint him.”

Georgia’s defense was stout under VanGorder, and a big reason the Richt era took off. The Bulldogs led the SEC in scoring defense and were fourth nationally in 2002, the year they won the Sugar Bowl. A year later, VanGorder’s unit was third nationally in scoring defense and fourth in total defense. And in his final year, VanGorder guided a unit that was eighth nationally in yards allowed.

After the 2004 season, VanGorder decided to take his talents to the NFL, joining Jacksonville as a linebackers coach. It started a run of short stints, including one year as head coach at Georgia Southern and three years as the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator, before returning to the SEC for this season.

• Martinez (2005-09) might have been closer to Richt in personality than VanGorder. Martinez and Richt were college teammates at Miami, where then-head coach Jimmy Johnson once stopped Martinez at practice to tell him he should be a coach some day.

At first, Georgia’s defense didn’t miss a beat, ranking eighth nationally in total defense in 2006. But when Georgia, a preseason No. 1 in 2007, couldn’t live up to expectations, the defense was much at fault. Eventually the team plummeted, ranking 71st nationally in 2009, allowing 30 or more points in five games that season. Martinez was fired.

• Grantham (2010-present) was hired in large part because of his preferred 3-4 scheme, which Richt wanted to install at Georgia. But Grantham’s demeanor, which has gotten him in trouble at times, was also an attraction.

“At Georgia, with me as the head coach, you want your defensive coordinator to be a lot of things,” Richt said back in 2010. “He’s in charge on that side of the ball, and he’s not gonna get micro-managed from me. … So he’s gotta be the one that’s really generating the enthusiasm, the tempo. So I thought that was important.”

Grantham has done that, highlighted by some visible incidents: a choking gesture against Florida in 2010 and last year’s shouting match with Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin. Behind the scenes the players say he’s also fiery.

But veteran Bulldogs who also played for Martinez dispute that Martinez was much more laid back.

“I think it just seems like that in comparison to Coach Grantham,” senior cornerback Sanders Commings said. “Coach Martinez, he was passionate. He yelled at times too.”

“Martinez gets in your face, too,” senior safety Bacarri Rambo said. “You can’t compare those guys, because they’ve got different coaching styles. Neither one of them are bad. Not saying Coach Martinez was a bad coach. I feel he was a pretty good coach. And I love Coach Grantham. … It’s just some coaching styles are meant to be with other players.”

Rambo said he hasn’t seen Martinez since he left, and will be excited to see him again and ask about his family. That personal connection seemed to be all that motivated his former Georgia players, not any desire to play harder against a former coach.

“You still always have that connection, no matter what, that they were in your life,” Robinson said. “And you can never get away from that.”

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