ATHENS — If changes are coming, Georgia isn’t worried about letting the drama build a bit longer.
Rumors have swirled for weeks about the fate of several of the Bulldogs’ assistant coaches, reaching a fever pitch in the hours leading up to Saturday’s win over Georgia Tech. But in the aftermath, it has been nothing but silence coming from head coach Mark Richt.
In his postgame news conference, Richt acknowledged that a difficult evaluation process was in store, but he wasn’t giving any clues as to what the results might be.
“Here’s the thing — I’ve been focusing so hard on the season, and that’s what I’ve been focused on,” Richt said. “I know we’ve got some areas we need to improve in, but right now I’m just going to enjoy this victory.”
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Richt was scheduled to speak to reporters on his regular weekly teleconference Sunday night, but about 45 minutes before the call was set, Georgia’s sports information department informed media that Richt was out of town for a family function and would not be available.
Instead, several players were asked about the situation, but as defensive tackle Jeff Owens said, they didn’t know much more than the fans at this point.
“We haven’t heard anything,” Owens said. “It’s the same stuff everyone else is hearing. I saw something in the paper the other day saying that the coaching staff might not be together (after this season), and that sucks. I love my coaches. They have taught me so much, and I have grown so much since I’ve been here at the University of Georgia.”
Georgia’s assistants have come under fire from virtually every direction amid a season in which the Bulldogs routinely self-destructed with turnovers, missed tackles and penalties that led to a five-loss season — the worst record by any team under Richt.
The criticism of the coaching staff has trickled down to the players as the season progressed, and quarterback Joe Cox said it has been difficult to realize that the poor performances on the field could cost their coaches their jobs now that the regular season has come to an end.
“It’s tough hearing that coaches’ jobs are in jeopardy because of how we’re playing as players,” Cox said. “It’s something we definitely think about, but I don’t think it’s what truly motivates us. We want to win because we know what kind of work we’ve put in as a team. But at the same time, based on our performance there is going to be speculation on who is going to be here next year and if changes need to be made, and that does kind of light a fire underneath you.”
The added motivation certainly appeared to have an effect Saturday as the Bulldogs pulled off their biggest win of the year over a Georgia Tech team that was ranked seventh in the country and is headed to the ACC championship game.
The final moments of drama provided the perfect backdrop to what could have been the final game for some of Georgia’s defensive coaches, most notably defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.
Facing a fourth down at the Tech 38-yard line, Richt chose to attempt a long field goal rather than punt and force the Yellow Jackets to drive a long field for the victory. The move was ostensibly a show of confidence in place-kicker Blair Walsh, but after the sophomore missed the field goal, there was no lack of certainty that the Bulldogs’ beleaguered defense would get the job done.
“It’s good to be on the field. We wanted to be on the field,” Martinez said about the final defensive stop. “We welcomed the challenge because we knew we could play better than we did last year in the second half. This year, I thought the guys — when things happened bad, we hung in there. The guys did a good job in adjusting to the situation.”
Saturday’s win showed what the Bulldogs were capable of this season — a stellar offensive showing built upon a power running game, a stalwart effort by the defense that played sound, fundamental football throughout the game, and most of all a win in the all-important turnover battle that had plagued Georgia all season.
The question now is whether reaching that pinnacle will be enough of a step forward for Richt to offer another endorsement for his coaching staff or whether the failure to reach those heights for much of the first 11 games of the year will prove to be the undoing of some of Richt’s assistants.
“I think that as I look back I’ve never had a season where the turnover ratio was just so poor,” Richt said. “I think if you just take that one thing and make it just break even, we’d probably win two or three more games without changing one thing. But you can’t do that, and there’s definitely some things we need to correct. But I think everything is correctable. I think it’s a season of self-inflicted wounds, and that’s my responsibility to make sure we do better.”