ATHENS - Mark Richt claimed not to want an overhaul of his defensive staff. He’s getting it anyway.
Scott Lakatos was first, resigning last Thursday for personal reasons after four years running Georgia’s secondary. Three days later came the bigger move: Todd Grantham took his complicated schemes and fiery personality to Louisville, which is willing to pay him $1 million a year.
And Georgia, by all accounts, was willing to move on.
Richt said several times he felt continuity was best for his beleaguered defense, which is due to return 10 starters. That remains a valid viewpoint, so those celebrating Grantham’s departure should know this:
This is only a good thing for Georgia if it hires the right replacement. Whether that’s Kirby Smart, an in-house candidate, or a rising star from the outside, we’ll find out soon. Very soon, I expect.
In the meantime, let’s not throw dirt on Grantham’s tenure at Georgia. It did not end well, but it was just two years ago that Georgia had the nation’s fifth-ranked defense, and his antics made him a folk hero among the fan base.
But the marriage between Grantham and the Bulldogs always had a shelf life, and it accelerated last year, when he played footsy with the NFL after a disappointing season for his veteran defense. Grantham, who never tired of bringing up his NFL past, appeared to have one foot out the door since last year. The only surprise is he left for another college job, but after this past season he stood little chance of getting another shot at a defensive coordinator job in the pros.
Did Richt let Grantham leave? It’s probably comparable to when Rodney Garner left after last season: Both were welcome back. But when they had a better offer, Richt (and Greg McGarity) said, essentially: Good luck to ya.
By comparison, if Mike Bobo had come to his bosses with a $1 million offer to run another team’s offense, the bet here is Richt and company would have fought to keep him.
Grantham and Richt are almost polar opposite personalities. Grantham is fiery, to the point of abrasive. Richt is famously laid-back, to the point of detached. When things are going well, it’s a good mix. In fact three years ago, during Grantham’s first year in Athens, Richt said it was important to have a defensive coordinator with that fire, to kind of offset Richt’s own personality.
But when things are going badly, the mix can be more like oil and water.
Richt is not one to openly criticize his assistants. But there were signs of strain in the relationship: Earlier this season Richt said at a press conference that there should be more subbing of inside linebackers. But that didn’t happen.
There did end up being more subbing in the secondary, which was mostly out of necessity. That also spoke to one of the failures this season that doomed the defense this season.
A huge part of last year’s offseason planning was geared around Josh Harvey-Clemons playing the star position, a hybrid of safety and linebacker. When Harvey-Clemons was suspended for the opener, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd occupied that spot.
When Harvey-Clemons returned for the second game, his performance over the next six games was mixed: Good in run support, but no sacks, and shaky at best in pass coverage. Then Harvey-Clemons hurt his foot at Vanderbilt, and out of necessity Grantham moved cornerback Damian Swann to the nickel back spot.
And with that move the defense actually looked better. So when Harvey-Clemons was healthy enough for Florida, Grantham actually kept Swann at the star in the nickel defense.
The question is whether Grantham realized this too late. The man believed mightily in himself, his schemes and his coaching ability, and sometimes he clung to those to a fault.
No one can blame Grantham for jumping at the Louisville offer. He faced a make-or-break fifth season at Georgia, which was going to be the final year of his contract. Now he gets added security and a longer lifeline. It’s no surprise he jumped at the chance to bolt Athens.
Grantham has been vilified a bit by the fan base, and some of that is his own fault, due to his personality. But there was a moment this season where Grantham showed a different side.
The week of the Vanderbilt game, I wrote a column in Grantham's voice, opining on what Grantham should be saying, but was not. It was mildly critical, pointing out that Grantham had brought some of the criticism upon himself because of the dalliances with the NFL.
Before the Vanderbilt game, Grantham approached me on the sideline and said someone had sent him the column. Several times, he said he thought what I had written was “fair.” I found him to be conciliatory during the conversation. Grantham is a lot of things, but he’s also a professional. He understood that the media had to do what it had to do.
And on Sunday, Grantham did what he had to do.