ATHENS -- The office of the Georgia athletics director sits in a corner on the top floor of the main athletic building. It overlooks a large swath of football practice fields, including a spot where an indoor facility might soon be built.
From his desk, Greg McGarity is insulated enough that he claims not to hear the criticism, whether it be from fans, bloggers or others, that Georgia is not committed enough financially. Especially when it comes to the flagship football program.
Or, to put it in more blunt terms, that he and the school are too cheap.
“I would challenge that,” McGarity said Friday afternoon, then bringing up the news items he knew factored into the criticism:
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A series of new contracts elsewhere that will leave Georgia head coach Mark Richt among the lowest-paid in the SEC.
USA Today released data showing that Georgia’s assistant coach salaries ranked fifth in the SEC this year, and that was before Auburn hired Will Muschamp at a reported salary of $1.7 million.
These were events at other places, but it was easy to relate it to Georgia, where another good-but-not-great season has unleashed another round of examination of what might be lacking.
“We’re not bound what other institutions are doing. We’re just bound by what’s good for our program,” McGarity said. “I would challenge to say what do they mean by cheap? Seriously, what are they referring to?”
THE INDOOR PRACTICE FACILITY
On Nov. 18, cold and windy weather caused the football team to move practice indoors, to a small facility that was built prior to McGarity’s arrival. Not much was accomplished at the practice, and afterwards defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt met the media to, in his words, send the message to recruits that a full-length indoor facility was being built.
Rival schools use Georgia’s lack of one against the Bulldogs in recruiting, Pruitt said.
“I know what they’re gonna say -- and that they’ve always said is -- how important is football to Georgia if they don’t have an indoor practice facility?” Pruitt said. “Well, they won’t be able to say that anymore.”
Pruitt meant that a facility would be built for next season, but even Richt said that was “overzealous.” The wheels are still moving on the project.
A decision hasn’t been made on whether to pay for it completely via the school’s reserve fund or to fund-raise for part of it. McGarity said that’s because they don’t know the cost yet, nor do they know the location. He hopes to have that information by February. It definitely won’t be ready for use by next season, but McGarity said the aim is to have it ready “as soon as possible.”
Another issue is that if they build it somewhere on the existing Butts-Mehre quadrant, then they have to make sure there’s room for the team to practice in the meantime.
“Those are all the dynamics that have to play into the decision-making,” McGarity said. “We just don’t know the answers to those right now.”
McGarity was hired as athletics director in Aug. 2010. The year before his arrival, the decision was made to expand the Butts-Mehre athletics building, but a full-length facility was not addressed.
“That might have been a good time, if the indoor building was a top priority,” McGarity said. “That was four years ago. Now I guess so much has changed in four years that the priority is on the indoor practice facility. So we’re committed to start the process there.”
THE RESERVE FUND
Georgia projects to have a reserve fund of $62.9 million as of next year. It had been north of $71 million before eight facility projects, most notably the renovation of baseball’s Foley Field.
But the athletics department also has around $123 million of debt, which dates back to renovations and additions to Sanford Stadium, Stegeman Coliseum and the Butts-Mehre building.
Why not dip into the reserve fund to help pay down the debt? McGarity said that remains a “lively conversation” in their finance committee meetings.
But in the meantime, all that money in the reserve fund lends to the perception that Georgia is just sitting on money. Georgia did reach into it for the facility projects, and McGarity points out that they’re no longer adding to the reserve fund.
Still, McGarity’s overall philosophy is that “your reserve is in place to save for that rainy day.” He worries about coming expenses, such as the stipend that student-athletes will get under NCAA autonomy. If it ends up being as much as $5,000 per year per student, then that’s about $3 million per year.
“We may have to dip into our reserve to pay that,” McGarity said. “People just think because it’s there we just spend it. It’s like a person’s 401(k): It’s there for a specific purpose, for a defined purpose, when you really need it, you basically go to your reserve if that’s your only means for providing facilities, (and) things of those lines.”
Richt annual salary is a little more than $3.2 million, which doesn’t make him poor by any means, but it does currently make him the 12th-highest paid head coach in the SEC, after recent hirings and new extensions. The only other public school head coach earning less is Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, who is also expected to get a bump. Vanderbilt is a private school, so Derek Mason’s salary isn’t public.
So is a bump coming for Richt? McGarity won’t say yet.
“To me it’s all about performance and results,” McGarity said. “And we address those at the end of the season. If adjustments need to be made, then we’ll make them. That’s how we do things with all our sports. Nothing’s changed over the last four years. I’ve always said you should see the whole body of work.”
As for assistant salaries, Georgia’s rankings of fifth in the SEC and 13th nationally seems about right to McGarity, based on results.
“That’s about where we are,” he said. “That’s about where we should be. Are we there with LSU, and Alabama and Auburn of recent years? Probably not, because they’ve done great things, they’ve played in the bigger bowls. They’ve had great success on a national level better than us. So it’s all reflective of performance.”
But offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, whose offense has set records the past few years, continues to be paid nearly $300,000 less than the school’s defensive coordinator. McGarity said that’s Richt’s decision, or at least Richt’s decision within the salary pool that he is provided each year.
“Mark has a pool of money that he allocates however he allocates,” McGarity said. “There was a significant jump made after the ’12 season for Mike. The pool is reflective of team success. You basically see where the pool is and how it ranks and where you finish. It’s all based on results.”
Asked if the pool would stay the same or increase, McGarity said that had to wait for the end of this season, meaning the Belk Bowl against Louisville.
“We’ve got one game left,” he said. “Let’s see how we play.”
‘NOT A POPULARITY CONTEST’
When it comes to other points, including the recruiting budget the hiring of support staff, in which McGarity is sure the school has provided enough support.
“I think there are very few times that we have denied anything that is necessary for football,” McGarity said. “When we’re made aware of needs or desires for football, I don’t think there’s too many times where we haven’t responded and haven’t made things happen.”
Back during McGarity’s first year on the job, Richt often made a point of remarking at how responsive and helpful his new boss was. Richt, who has been recruiting, wasn’t available for this story, but he has also never been one to criticize his bosses.
For his part, McGarity said his relationship with Richt hasn’t changed. They usually speak once a week, or at least once every other week, and converse through meetings, phone calls and text messages.
Inherently, the job of athletics director is much like one of a referee. The successes aren’t written about, or they’re kept quiet. And often times tough decisions have to be made.
“It’s not a popularity contest,” McGarity said. “You do the best you can, and you come in and you work your rear end off to try to make it work for 15 sports. And there’s a lot more to it than just football.
“I sleep pretty well at night, because I know when I go home I’ve given it my best,” McGarity said. “But I’ll let others judge me. I have a boss. We all have bosses. And my boss is the president. So he’ll let me know how I’m doing.”