Mailbag: Avoiding scandal, judging Georgia's defense, judging the media

semerson@macon.comSeptember 20, 2013 

UGA_SC

Georgia coach Mark Richt followed a Georgia State Trooper as if the lawman was a pulling guard after the Bulldogs beat South Carolina, 41-30.

DONN RODENROTH/FOR THE TELEGRAPH — DONN RODENROTH

This week's mailbag once again checks in at more than 4,000 words - but not much more, so don't be scared! Seriously, this was a very good week in terms of questions asked. Some thought-provoking, and some requiring research, and a few requiring some deep thought. Kudos to everyone.

Does anyone ever ask Mark Richt about scandals like this new Oklahoma State thing, and how he does the best he can to prevent UGA players from: being involved in academic cheating, getting paid by boosters, keeping intentional sexual improprieties out of the recruiting process, etc.? I would just love to know his thoughts on this new story, and how UGA football intentionally tries to avoid these things, the best they can. And how he leads in these ways.
- Nathan Kilpatrick

Richt hasn’t been asked specifically about the Oklahoma State story. (Frankly, there are so many “scandals” in college football these days that if we asked his reaction to every one of them we might not have time for team-related questions.)

He’s spoken in general about some of these issues before. The most specific he’s been is on the drug issue – which was part of the Oklahoma State story – and Richt has made clear that he wants to continue the drug-testing program. As for the other issues, a lot more people than Richt have to be involved in order to prevent Georgia from being the next program to be hit with a dreaded expose’. There needs to be a large academic support structure and a culture of doing things the right way. Georgia seems to have the first one, and as for the second, I can’t sit here with absolute certainty and stipulate that UGA is perfect in everything it does, but I’ve never seen boosters go through the postgame locker room handing out envelopes.

But let’s be honest: If a rogue or overzealous booster wants to go too far either to get a recruit (more likely) or reward a current player (also possible), there’s not too much a coaching staff can do, other than tell their players not to accept money. And with the NCAA now looking increasingly impotent in terms of enforcing its own rules, I think a lot more fans around the country are going to go rogue.

The Sports Illustrated report on the Oklahoma State football program's transgressions is pretty thorough. Of course, journalists' investigations into alleged NCAA violations don't always translate neatly into the appropriate penalties, as we saw in the Miami case. Three (series of) questions based on this for you: 1) what do you think will happen with OSU's program? 2) Does Mike Gundy finally leave now for another school? Can he? 3) Closer to home, how many other schools do you think act similarly? It really doesn't seem to me like Coach Richt would tolerate this (especially the drugs and sex), but just curious what your thoughts are. Speculation is welcome.
- Lucas Puente, San Francisco, Calif.

No speculation here, Lucas, just what I know and educated analysis. (Do I sound holier-than-thou? Well, sorry.)

A few years ago, the Oklahoma State story would have received a lot more attention, and much more expectation that the program was in a world of trouble. But these days the NCAA looks like a paper tiger, except without the tiger part. There have been several instances, which I probably don’t need to name, in which people have looked guilty of NCAA violations but very little was done. The NCAA enforcement staff has dwindled too low, the morale there is even lower, and its leadership lacks credibility. So when a story like what SI published hits the newsstands – or, increasingly, twitter- it’s now treated with more of a shrug. Oh, I know some people have poked what they think are holes in SI’s reporting, but I read all five parts and I saw a whole lot of people who were quoted on the record. That’s a lot of people to be misquoted. Yeah, I know a lot are disgruntled former players. Well, that’s the way the world works: Happy former players willing to dish the dirt on their beloved alma mater don’t really fall off trees.

Do I think anything will happen to Oklahoma State? I’m skeptical, frankly, mainly because of what I’ve already said about the NCAA. The other factor is that I haven’t seen a rush by other media to swoop in on Stillwater and confirm their own facts. That’s what used to happen. But these days the way things tend to happen is that a national outlet reports on a perceived or potential violation, and the local media spends as much energy, if not more, on trying to knock down the story. I would hope that if Yahoo! reported on some malfeasance at UGA you wouldn’t see me doing the same.

I'm a big fan of your articles about the Dawgs. Always informative. My question is a bit more long-term than the game this week. Let's say UGA takes care of LSU and goes through the season undefeated, then beats an undefeated Alabama in the SEC Championship. Do we then still need help to get into the national championship game, or does our body of work with a close loss to a possibly undefeated Clemson at that time speak for itself?
-Chaz Wood

I’d put the chances at about 90 percent that Georgia, if it wins out, will be in Pasadena on Jan. 6. The past two years Alabama has played in (and won) the BCS championship after losing once in the regular season – and each time at home, in November. So yes, Georgia having lost once, and in August, would almost certainly be the team’s most worthy one-loss team. The question will be whether there’s room for a one-loss team.

I’d say it’s too early for Georgia fans to be obsessing about it – beat LSU first, and then Florida – but if teams like Stanford, Oregon, Ohio State and Oklahoma State were to lose, that probably wouldn’t be a bad thing for the Bulldogs. Louisville would be a trickier proposition, but we can deal with it down the road if it is an issue.

Since you were so "accurate" with your assessment of our Defense for the beginning of the year, how good do you think our defense can progress by the end of the year and possibly compete against say, an Alabama or an Oregon offense?
- Ray Bailey

Hey, why’d you put accurate in quote marks? For once, I was right! (Insert smiley face here.)

I’d want to see how the Georgia defense progresses before breaking down a hypothetical matchup. If it were to happen Saturday, Georgia would be in trouble. But if the Bulldogs can subsist off their offense for awhile, I think there’s enough talent on this defense to be a decent unit by the end of the year. I also want to see how Georgia does next week against LSU, which has a pocket quarterback, unlike Clemson and South Carolina. Georgia should have a better pass rush than it’s shown thus far. And by the end of the year, players like Tray Matthews, Josh Harvey-Clemons and perhaps John Taylor might be impact players.

The schedule really did Georgia no favors this year. Then again, the schedule was a boon the past two years, so it all balances out.

I don't think our defense is ever going to be consistently elite as long as our offense is. Think about the early Richt years when our defense was top notch - the offense was good, but didn't put up huge points. When Shockley became our QB and VanGorder left, the defense wasn't as good...but it didn't have to be. That's really when the offense took off. It has, for the most part, performed at a high level since then with typical growing pains for new/inexperienced QBs. Think about it...which teams are elite on both sides of the ball? Most would say Alabama, and the last few years they've been the closest. Highly ranked teams that put up big points generally don't smother opponents defensively (ex. Oregon), and teams that smother opponents don't put up big points (ex. Florida). There's really no reason it has to be that way, but at the end of the day, people look at results. The biggest reason things change is because they're forced to. If a team wins 17-13 or 45-31...it's still a win. I think it takes a certain personality as coach (Saban or Meyer -esque) to have that dominant-in-all-phases team. You can have a very successful head coach (like Jim Tressel or Richt), but even with them wanting excellence in all phases, I don't think a proactive nature of addressing things will ever be there. I think right now there are probably only three or four coaches in the country like that. Thoughts?
- Matthew - Mansfield, TX

It’s an interesting theory, and with some merit. Frankly, it’s not easy to be dominant on both sides of the ball. But some past teams that have seemingly ridden their dominant offense have had a better defense than people remember:

- Back in 2010, you had Auburn and Oregon meet in the national title game, and those were two teams known for their offenses. But Oregon actually ranked 12th nationally that year in scoring defense, one spot behind LSU, and while Auburn was lower (53rd in scoring defense) it did have Nick Fairley, and the defense was good enough to hold Oregon’s high-powered offense to 23 points.

- Two years before that Florida won the national championship behind Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and the Meyer spread option. But the Gators’ defense was pretty dominant too, ranking fourth nationally in scoring defense, and first in the SEC.

I also wouldn’t shrug off what Alabama has been doing offensively the past few years. It’s not a high-flying passing offense, but that running game has been pretty dominant.

So I don’t think a great offense and defense are mutually exclusive. Just two years ago Georgia had an elite defense, and a year later it had an elite offense. It can happen at the same time, the stars just have to align.

After watching Alabama and Texas A&M Saturday, l must ask what happened to the defenses that Alabama and the rest out the SEC used to be famous for? Have the rule changes designed to protect players given the offense an advantage? Or is it the new offenses, like the spread, read option, up tempo? Maybe the new saying should be, "The best defense is a good offense." After watching a Nick Saban/Kirby Smart coached Defense give up 628 yards, I don't feel so bad about Georgia giving up 450 yards the first two games. What gives?
- Larry W. Tucker

That’s been the question a lot of people have been asking. Is the SEC becoming the Big 12? But it’s too early to make any grand pronouncements. Let’s see how the season plays out.

You ask what happened to the Alabama defense? I think Johnny Manziel happened. That’s a lesson for the Georgia defense too: Yes, it was a rough two games, but look at the opponents. That’s why Todd Grantham and defensive players have been pretty upbeat.

So are offenses just getting better in general? Let’s once again dig into some history: Six years ago Ohio State led the nation in total defense, yielding 233 yards per game. The 60th-ranked defense (for purposes of finding the middle of the pack) was Oregon, which yielded 382 yards per game. Last year Alabama led the nation by yielding 250 yards per game, while the 60th-ranked team, Southern California, yielded 394 yards. This year it’s too early, but Michigan State leads the nation, yielding 177 yards per game, while Memphis is in 60th place while giving up 377 per game.

Speaking generally, I’d say the offenses are a bit ahead these days, with the spread having, well, spread across the country, and more coordinators (such as Bobo) figuring out ways to diversify their offense while staying balanced. Defenses are trying to catch up a bit and adjust.

Alright. A co-worker of mine and I were discussing the strength of the Oregon offense and (it was last Friday, mind you) the perceived greatness of the Alabama defense. So, we were mashing up two teams “units” to try to come up with who would be the best team. He said Oregon’s offense and Alabama’s defense on one team would be invincible. I said I think a team of Georgia’s offense and Florida’s defense would give them a run for their money. If those hypothetical teams played, who would be the favorite? Would Verne and Gary manage to ruin that game, too?
- Cecil D from Montgomery, Ala.


Hey, I like Verne, and Danielson’s a solid analyst too. Then again, I don’t tend to watch many games on TV with the sound on anymore, on account of being in press boxes. But anyway …

In that very hypothetical matchup, I’d say Oregon’s offense/Alabama’s defense would be favored by about a touchdown over Georgia’s offense/Florida’s defense. The main reason is the difference in the defenses; Georgia’s offense is strong enough that I wouldn’t automatically concede Oregon being superior.

1) Is it just me or does Coach Richt look thinner this year compared to last year?

2) Any idea why Coach Bobo didn't want to talk to the media immediately after the SC game?
- Dallas Smith

1) It’s not just you, other people have noticed that too. No idea if there’s any particular reason, other than perhaps Katharyn has him on a good diet. (He’s always been a workout warrior.)

2) Bobo told us last week that he had to meet with some recruits after the game. (“It’s all about the players,” Bobo said.) No big deal, he’s spoken to us the past two weeks, and after that performance against South Carolina, no one could say Bobo was ducking the hard questions.

Seth- Do you see any other game on the week 5 CFB schedule that is more deserving to host College GameDay than UGA vs. LSU? I know that Oklahoma visits Notre Dame and Ole Miss visits Alabama, but our game looks to be the only match-up of top ten teams. I'm not sure what goes into ESPN's decision-making when they choose GameDay sites, and I know that many fans buy into UGA's GameDay curse, but it does bring a lot of business and attention to Athens. What are your thoughts?
- Al Dawkins

Honestly, I haven’t heard any rumblings of GameDay coming to Athens, and usually by now you hear them. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, as the Georgia-LSU game stacks up with the other potential big games: Oklahoma at Notre Dame, Ole Miss at Alabama, Wisconsin at Ohio State.

There could be Georgia/SEC fatigue, the show having originated from Clemson fairly recently, and then playing up the Georgia-South Carolina game. But the show hasn’t been to Athens since 2008, so who knows.

Have there been any major changes in substitution patterns/frequency this season on the D-line vs. last season?
- William Mosher

Yes. In fact, it’s really the lone area on the defense where there’s been a lot of subbing. The back seven/eight have basically stayed on the field, even when Brendan Langley was struggling against South Carolina. The strong safety spot saw Connor Norman and Corey Moore alternate on series last week, but that’s it.

Just throwing this out there: Has anyone considered that UGA's drug/alcohol policy may somehow be connected with Odell Thurman and his substance abuse issues as a pro? Thurman was a big part of UGA's success in the mid-2000s. Perhaps Richt & Co. felt they failed to address Odell's issues while he was a student/athlete and committed themselves to aggressively tackle the problem in future.Pure speculation!
- Chris

Thurman’s issues didn’t precipitate it by itself, from what I can tell, but it certainly may have been part of the panoply of reasons that led to the student-athlete drug policy, which was instituted the summer of 2006. Then-president Michael Adams pushed through a bunch of reforms around that time, including a toughening of the drug/alcohol policy for all students. That was also around the time that Adams and his Florida counterpart, Bernie Machen, decreed an end to an official branding of “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” It was also when the UGA police began arresting, rather than just citing, students for underage drinking. (Thanks to the Athens Banner-Herald for this info, which I found upon some Google searches, my not having been around at the time.)

Thurman, meanwhile, ran into his troubles soon after joining the Bengals in 2005, but he wasn’t actually released from the team until a few years later. From listening to Richt the past few years, and talking to people around the program, Richt really does feel it’s important to set these players up for life after the NFL, and Thurman’s situation very well be an example.

The sense of gloom and doom has decreased, but I would like to bring it back. My gripe is about the media. How come the media members are softer on the coaches all of a sudden and harder on the fans for their attitudes after every loss? However, this is the coaching staff (minus Grantham) that managed to lose three games (two blowouts and GT) with Stafford, Moreno, and AJ Green! You can say that the defense was the problem, but then it would have been up to coach Richt to fire Martinez after the 2005 season Sugar Bowl or 2008 GT game. Then we go 6-7 in 2010 and start the season 0-2 in 2011 and we are supposed to gratify Mark Richt because he "turned it around" when the team lost every important game in 2011. In 2012, we again lose the 2 hardest games on our schedule. We start the season 0-1 and the media criticizes the fans for being unreasonable.

I assume journalists like to stay in the good graces of the head coach by writing pleasant stories (i.e. Mark Bradley's Peabody Award winning article on Mark Richt's haircut), but shouldn't the media start to get tough on this coaching staff? Our offensive line has been inconsistent and mediocre at best since 2007, and they are the biggest question mark heading into the season or they under perform. When the coaches make a mistake, why can't the media rip into them for their shortcomings? These coaches become complacent if they don't feel the fire under their seats. The only people that can bring the fire day in and day out is the media. It is wonderful to win 10+ games a year if you go to a school in the ACC. If Coach Richt wins 10 games a year for the next 5 years but no SEC championship, will we be doomed to the same fate as Virginia Tech, where the coach wins enough games to keep his job, but not enough to be nationally relevant?
-The guy who caused the evacuation of Creswell Hall at 3am due to a burnt bag of popcorn in 2004

Well, there’s a lot there to respond to, and quite frankly I won’t be able to answer it point-by-point. So I’ll try to give you a decent answer from a general standpoint.

On the one hand, I need to just speak for myself, and not explain/defend why other people write the way they do. (I will defend Bradley, however, as in that the article you point to had a lot more in it than just the haircut.) In my role as a beat writer, it’s not really my place to call for a coaches’ head. My main charge is to gather information, analyze, and be a watchdog. Occasionally I delve into opinion, but the furthest I’m comfortable going is to question the performance of a coach or player, hopefully by pointing to facts and stats, but also showing up in person and asking the coaches (and players) about those stats and facts.

Do media members sometimes hold their fire because they need to be able to talk to public figures? Occasionally that might happen. But what I’ve found in my 15-plus years in this business is that most public figures, coaches included, appreciate it more when a media member is direct with them, and not disingenuous. There are a lot of reasonable coaches out there who may disagree with you in the heat of the moment, but often on reflection they understand where you were coming from when you wrote what you wrote.

Plus, access does not get cut off for negative coverage, contrary to what a lot of people may think. If anybody gets penalized it is for being fair or inaccurate, not for their opinions. At least that’s the way it should be, and that’s the way I’ve found it at Georgia.

I do feel confident enough in speaking for my colleagues in saying that they’ve been more critical of fans than coaches after these losses because that’s how they actually feel. Bluntly, that’s how I felt too. I got some mailbag submissions and e-mails after the Clemson loss calling for Richt’s head, calling for Bobo’s head, and I thought it was ridiculous. So I didn’t answer the e-mails or publish the mailbag submissions. At some point, you have to draw the line between what you reasonably should and should not address. (And considering the way the South Carolina game went, I probably saved a few people from looking stupid.) At the same time, after that Clemson game I wrote a column that was pretty critical of the offensive line performance over the past several years.

But it’s important to me that I have credibility going forward – with my readers – and I keep that in mind before pushing “send” on my stories. If after last season’s rout at South Carolina I had filed a story really calling out Richt, Bobo and company, it would have been a good short-term hit. But I would’ve looked really stupid later when Georgia came so close to getting to the national title game.

It’s understandable that some fans get frustrated, and often quite reactionary. It’s my job, at least in my opinion, to be a bit more considered. That’s not holding your fire. That’s being smart, and makes the times you are negative that much more effective.

I usually have some off-the-wall opinion about Bulldog this or SEC that which has no basis in any fact beyond what I happen to think is true at that time, but this week I have a question. How do you go about your business?

It has got to be tough to follow a story no matter where it may lead when you not only need to establish and maintain a working relationship with coaches who may be entrenched in their positions for years, but also have to factor in the vulnerabilities of the young people who are at the focus of your reporting. That seems like a delicate balance, not to mention a long question! Please feel free to edit. Point being, Furman Bisher could ask and write whatever he wanted to. How does a young beat writer establish his chops? (Earn his chops? Grow his chops? How do you say that?)

Thanks and keep up the good work.
- Frank Arnold

Thanks Frank. Well, this mailbag has already gone on fairly long enough that I won’t bore everyone with a recitation of my daily schedule. But perhaps my (longer) answer to the previous question helps in some way.

Thank you, also, for referring to me as a “young” beat writer. Just this morning I found out a group called Big Time Rush was big with the kids. That caused me to chortle and return to my New Edition album, which hasn’t been new for 25 years, and no one knows what an album is anymore either.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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