ATHENS – What started with the highest of hopes will end with a new mission, Georgia athletics director Damon Evans said.
While Evans doesn’t categorize Georgia’s 9-3 football season as a disappointment, he said this year’s failures have underscored the need to refocus the program’s approach as it moves forward to keep pace with its competition in the SEC — namely the Florida Gators.
“I don’t want to be good. I may not even use the word good again, because we need to be great,” Evans said. “We’ve got to figure out how to become great at this institution in a manner where every single year, we’re consistently mentioned with the elite programs in the country.”
The first steps toward improvement will begin at the end of this season, and it starts with Georgia making an evaluation of itself compared to its primary competition.
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Evans pointed to Florida’s second appearance in three years in the BCS national championship game as the yard stick by which the Bulldogs need to measure themselves.
“Is Florida a peer institution? You’re doggone right,” Evans said. “Where are we right now in comparison to Florida football? Let’s be honest with ourselves. Is that gap widening between Georgia and Florida, or is it not?”
Georgia began the preseason as the nation’s top-ranked team, but blowout losses to Alabama and Florida and a surprising 45-42 loss to in-state rival Georgia Tech cast a long shadow over the program as the Bulldogs prepare for their date with Michigan State at the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 1.
The fallout has included significant disapproval among fans, but Evans wants to assure them that the lessons of the season were not lost along with Georgia’s hopes of a national title.
“We know we need to improve to be able to be highly competitive in this league,” Evans said. “It’s a league in which Florida has really raised the bar. Alabama has come in and done some things in quite a quick fashion. We know we have to get better and take a hard look at where we are and continue to make strides. So this year is a year that we’re going to look at as, hey, Georgia’s got to get better.”
On the field, those improvements are likely to start on the defensive side of the ball. Georgia’s defense was gashed for 31 first-half points against Alabama and allowed more 38 points or more to four of its final five opponents of the year.
Since Georgia’s defense allowed more than 400 yards to Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale, a firestorm has erupted among fans that want defensive coordinator Willie Martinez to take the fall for the Bulldogs’ defensive shortcomings.
While Evans said the team would undergo a thorough self-evaluation at season’s end, he said he will not ask Richt to make any staff changes, but will trust his head coach to make an honest evaluation of how each coach — Martinez included — produced.
“I think (Richt) will work through what he needs to work through, and my only thing is we need to make sure my response to him is that we hold people accountable,” Evans said. “They need to take accountability for performance in their job.”
Evans said the school wants to hold players to a higher standard of accountability, as well, following a season in which Georgia was forced to address numerous off-field incidents involving players.
A bevy of offseason incidents resulted in several early season suspensions for players, and just days prior to the start of preseason practice several more players were swept up in multiple incidents involving alcohol. Long-snapper Jeff Henson, defensive end Michael Lemon and defensive back Donavon Baldwin all were dismissed from the team, and Georgia began the year answering as many questions about arrests as its preseason No. 1 ranking.
The incidents only calmed slightly once the season began.
Offensive lineman Vince Vance was arrested following a traffic stop in which he did not have a valid driver’s license. Defensive tackle Brandon Wood was arrested the same night on charges of driving under the influence. A few weeks later, offensive lineman Kevin Perez was also arrested on DUI charges.
“We’re not in a panic mode right now with what went on, but I do think we need to address some things, and we’ll address them in the most appropriate manner, and look at what we need to do internally to do things right,” Evans said.
Richt and Evans meet regularly to discuss off-field issues, but Evans said he hoped the two could develop new initiatives to cut down on the number of incidents involving players.
While Evans said stronger punishments for players with disciplinary problems was a possibility, he said he wanted to concentrate on developing more proactive initiatives to keep players in line.
“What I don’t want to do is I don’t want us to just preach at the kids,” Evans said. “I want the young men to understand the importance of character, the importance of proper behavior, to understand who they represent in the grand scheme of things because who they represent is a lot more than just themselves — it’s their families, it’s the institution, the people of the Bulldog Nation.”
The high expectations at the start of this season set a new standard, Evans said, and that’s where Georgia needs to aim going forward.
The success the Bulldogs have enjoyed under Richt along with the elevated play of other SEC institutions have changed the paradigm by which Georgia is judged, Evans said, and it will be essential for the decision makers within the program to meet those expectations.
It’s what he calls “the blind spot,” or the difference between the perception of Georgia’s coaches and that of outside observers. This season, that blind spot may have grown to an unacceptable level, but he assures fans that won’t be the case moving forward.
“I don’t want people to throw away the towel after one year of lofty expectations and not meeting those expectations and think that, oh, everything is imploding because that’s not what’s happening,” Evans said. “I like high expectations. We want to be a great program, not just a good program. I think where we are right now is we’ve got to transition from the good to the great.”