Bill Shanks

Bulldogs ready for fresh start

Kirby Smart returned to his alma mater to take over as Georgia’s football head coach.
Kirby Smart returned to his alma mater to take over as Georgia’s football head coach. AP

For the first time in 15 years, the Georgia Bulldogs will take the field Saturday with a new head coach. Kirby Smart takes over for Mark Richt, as a new era begins for Georgia against North Carolina.

And it’s certainly overdue.

The change in Athens was not about wins. Richt won games, but he just didn’t win enough. As much as that might confuse some, it’s likely they didn’t watch enough of those games and those wins to know the Georgia football program had hit a brick wall.

Ten wins and all, it had hit a brick wall. Richt had hit a brick wall.

When it became obvious Richt had done all he could do, it was time for him to go. Starting the third-string quarterback in the biggest game of the season last year in October didn’t help. But this was more than about wins or coaching decisions. It was about culture and priorities.

We all know Richt is a good man, but that’s not a reason to keep a coach. It’s just not, as crass as that might sound. His personal reputation likely saved him a few times and gave him a few extra seasons as the head coach. Others might have been fired after the loss to Central Florida a few years ago, but Richt was always given a lifeline because of how people felt about him as a man.

Sure, that counts. It matters, to a point. But in a competitive football environment, it’s about winning championships. The last one Richt won was a decade ago, and coaches can’t go 10 years and not win even a conference title without getting fired.

You can’t have programs around you winning championships and just settle for good seasons because you personally like the coach. That was a ridiculous reason to keep Richt, and some could only use that as a reason they wanted him to stay.

The culture needed changing in Athens. It was stale, which happens when a head coach is at one place a long time. It became more about making young men better off the field than on it, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to do both. Player development had a different meaning under Richt, and that did not make players better between the white lines.

And after people said, “You’ll never find someone to do better than Richt,” here’s Smart. That line was off base, by the way. I’ve had more than one argument on the notion that no one would ever do better than Richt, which just never made sense at all.

Maybe Smart won’t do better this year. He doesn’t have the depth he needs to win a championship. He has a freshman quarterback expected to save the season. So this is going to be tough. But if you can’t tell how Smart already has changed the environment in Athens, well, you just haven’t been paying attention.

Even Richt’s biggest supporters need to realize the fresh feel of having a new man in charge in Athens. Richt wasn’t a Supreme Court justice, with a lifetime term. He was simply a head coach who did good things, but there is a need for something great.

Smart has learned from the best. He won championships as an assistant in Alabama. He knows the blueprint. He knows what is needed, and even though it’s going to take time, Smart has a great chance of getting it done.

Patience is required. Smart needs a few more recruiting classes to get bigger linemen, and his coaches need more time to make the current players better. But football is back at Georgia. The fans can sense it. They know change can be good, and now they just have to see the results of what a new head coach can do coming back home to run the program he loves best.

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