As a teenager, Mike Bobo was a pretty good quarterback, so plenty of coaches made the trip to Thomasville to look at him. One of them was a young Florida State assistant named Mark Richt.
It was not to be.
“He said I wasn’t good enough,” Bobo recalled. “Yeah, he turned me down. Went to his camp. He said, ‘We’re gonna pass.’ ”
Richt and Florida State signed Thad Busby that year. Bobo signed with home-state Georgia.
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“It wasn’t that Mike wasn’t good enough,” Richt said. “It was just that we went with another guy.”
That was 1993. Nearly two decades later, Richt stuck by Bobo, deciding he was definitely good enough, in what has proven to be one of his smartest moves as a head coach.
Richt is now on his fourth defensive coordinator since taking over at Georgia in 2001. But he has only had one quarterbacks coach, Bobo, who took over the play-calling duties from Richt in 2007. Now Bobo is entrenched and bordering on beloved at Georgia, guiding a high-powered offense to record-breaking seasons.
And it probably wouldn’t have happened if, at some point a few years ago, Richt had answered the many critics and fired or demoted Bobo.
“I think the guy knows what he’s doing, and I’ve known it for a long while, and probably longer than the normal fan has known it,” Richt said.
That criticism seems so distant now: The complaints that the offense didn’t do enough with stars Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and A.J. Green. ESPN analyst Todd McShay saying in 2011 that Georgia’s offense was “vanilla.” Callers to Richt’s radio show would ask whether he would take over the play-calling from Bobo and claim the offense was too predictable.
Then came the past two seasons: Program records for points and touchdowns in 2012. A year later, an offense that averaged 36.7 points per game despite losing basically every skill-position player for at least one game.
What changed? To be clear, Bobo’s offense did. The no-huddle was added in 2011, the spread in 2012, and last year saw the transformation completed, as Bobo estimates they were in a three-receiver set 75 percent of the time.
But ask Bobo if he has changed, and he shakes his head.
“No. No. No. I still coach the same way, I still recruit the same way. Still go about my business the same way, with how we prepare,” he said. “There’s stuff we do different every year as far as scheme-wise, and stuff like that. But no, I think you’ve gotta believe in what you believe in. I think guys that are successful in this business have a plan they believe in, and they stick with it. And kids know that you believe in it, and they buy in it and believe, that’s when you have success.”
Will Muschamp, who was Bobo’s teammate at Georgia and has been Florida’s head coach the past three seasons, puts it another way.
“He was a good football coach two years ago,” Muschamp said. “Look at the development of the quarterback position at Georgia and what he’s done there. I know I’m the football coach at Florida and we’re a rival, but the guy’s a good football coach. You win a couple more games and the ball bounces your way a couple more times, all of a sudden you become a really good coach. I don’t know. I thought he was a really good coach back then.”
“It’s hard for people to know how good a coach is sometimes,” Richt said. “Because they can only base it on what they see or stats or comparing or whatever. But what I get to see is the process of preparation, the process of not only studying film and all that, but in practice on a daily basis watching him coach QBs, watching him coach the group, watching him coach coaches. And I was very comfortable that he was doing things well, doing things with excellence.
“So it wasn’t surprising to me that we started to have more tangible results, I guess, that people could see.”
But Richt grants that Bobo did evolve, or at least the offense did, by going up-tempo. That doesn’t mean Georgia is Auburn or Baylor, which get to the line and snaps quickly.
Georgia’s version of the hurry-up offense is often hurry to the line and then wait, which Richt said comes from Bobo’s perfectionist tendencies.
“He doesn’t like to have a bad play,” Richt said. “There’s a lot that goes into it for the quarterback to get us in the right play, to get us in the right protection. We have very few times where we run bad plays.
“Some people wanna go so fast that they’ll take a couple bad plays along the way. It’s not that they’re bad coaches, it’s just that they say, ‘You know what, we’d just as soon go tempo, we’d rather go fast. And the more you try to run a perfect play, it slows you down a little bit.’ But we’re willing to slow it down a little bit at times to get into the right play.”
Georgia’s playbook has flexibility to try to avoid a bad play. Richt used the example of a sweep run to the right, where if the defense is overloaded to that side, the play calls for a quick audible screen to the other side.
“There’s other times when we’re just gonna call our cadence real quick and try to get them to show their hand, and when they show their hand, sometimes (Aaron) Murray makes the call, or sometimes Murray looks to the sideline. And Mike’s upstairs seeing what they’re in, making the right call, sending it in the headset to the coaches, who send it into Murray.
“There’s a lot of that stuff, cat-and-mouse game going on. But (Bobo) is just good at being able to look it over and know what he likes against certain looks, get those plays called, and go.”
Where did all this come from? Partly it was Bobo watching the national trend and taking some of it in. But the reason he’s open-minded enough to do that is how he was raised, from a football standpoint.
His father was a longtime high school football coach, in places like Rome and Thomasville. Bobo played under Jim Donnan at Georgia and apprenticed as a coach under Richt.
“All those guys are not overbearing guys and aren’t gonna say, ‘Hey, you gotta do it this way,’ ” Bobo said. “They let you be your own person and develop yourself. They’re there for advice or critiques at times. And then just subtle things and suggest things that can help. And most of the time it’s just encouraging and believing in somebody, that you can get the job done. And I think that’s been the overall thing that’s helped us.”
It also helps to have a good staff, as Bobo points out. And good players, as he also points out. But while Murray, Todd Gurley, Malcolm Mitchell and company are good, so were Stafford, Moreno, Green, and company.
A few years ago when things were rough, Bobo leaned on people like Richt and his father. Keep doing what you’re doing as long as you believe in it, they told him.
“I’ve always had belief that I could coach, and I could get the best out of the players,” Bobo said. “I felt like we had good coaches around us and good players around us. Sometimes things just don’t go your way. And I never felt like, when people say we struggled, whether it was struggling or not, sometimes you get caught up in numbers so much instead of how we’re actually playing on the field.
“But whether we struggled or not, I never felt like our team lost the belief that what we were doing had a chance to be successful. If your guys don’t believe in what you’re doing, then maybe I would start to doubt. ‘Maybe I don’t have a chance here.’ But if they believe in what you’re doing, then you have a chance to be successful.”
One final thing: What if two decades ago Richt had offered Bobo a scholarship to Florida State? He might not have taken it.
“I grew up an Auburn fan because my dad’s players went to Auburn when we were in Rome,” Bobo said.
Of course he also grew up in Georgia, and knew he wanted to play for the home-state team. Georgia offered him that scholarship, after all. Georgia thought he was good enough.