Here’s a flashback that seems apropos to the weekend that was: Years ago, while trying to impress his wife, Mark Richt tumbled off a swing and injured his hip.
This was before he was hired as the head coach at the University of Georgia, and before Internet memes sprouted up to document his lack of competence; this was before Mark Richt became the Charlie Brown of college football’s most competitive league, the Southeastern Conference, the kind of guy whom virtually everyone likes as a man yet no one respects as a competitor.
I couldn’t help imagining (not for the first time) what it must have looked like when Richt toppled from that swing as I watched the end of Georgia’s 38-35 loss to South Carolina on Saturday afternoon; it was hard to witness this cruel camera close-up in the final minutes and not think, once more, of Richt’s stunning ability to lose crucial games by the narrowest of margins and at the worst possible times. In the close-up, the nose of the football is literally converging with the tip of the metal rod that makes up the first-down marker: The spot could not possibly be any closer, but it was counted as a fourth-down conversion, the last meaningful play South Carolina would need in order to clinch a victory and assure Georgia would have no chance at a comeback.
There is a moment in the nascent stages of nearly every college football season when teams we thought might be good are proven to be otherwise. This happened in multiple locations last Saturday, and yet on a college football weekend full of high-profile failures (USC, Virginia Tech, Louisville) and near-failures (UCLA, Florida), it is worth noting, once again, that nobody failed with quite the same gracefully hapless aplomb as Mark Richt.
Last week, an ESPN college football writer named Brett McMurphy polled nearly a hundred college football coaches to ask which of their peers they’d want their sons to play for. Two names came up more than any others: One was Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who has often underachieved in recent years but is ultimately insulated from criticism because he won a national championship in 2000, his second year with the Sooners. The other was Mark Richt, who has led his team to a bowl game every one of his first 13 years at Georgia, and who is recognized as a genuinely kind man in an often cutthroat profession (he and his wife, devout Christians, adopted two children from the Ukraine – hell, even his chalkboard breakdown of his swinging accident is undeniably charming) and a man who just can’t seem to get his shit together when it matters, which is why none of those Richt bowl games have ever been played with a national title on the line.
After an injury-plagued 8-5 season last year that included a loss on a tipped Hail Mary to Auburn (on the heels of a last-second loss to Alabama in 2012 that kept Georgia out of the national title game), this was once again seen as the year Georgia might finally put it all together: They lured away defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt from last year’s national champion, Florida State, and their tailback, Todd Gurley, is a bruising and slashing throwback who may wind up being the best ballcarrier of his generation. They thrashed a ranked Clemson team in the first week of the season, and they were facing a South Carolina squad that appeared to be fading from relevance under aging trickster Steve Spurrier.
But Georgia was never really in control against the Gamecocks. Things went wrong, and Richt arguably made them worse: On one crucial fourth-quarter drive, his long-suffering offensive coordinator, the unfortunately named Mike Bobo, chose to call a screen pass on 1st-and-goal at the South Carolina 4-yard line, rather than inserting the football into Gurley’s breadbasket and having him topple people. This led to an intentional grounding penalty, and then Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan, who had made an SEC-record 20 straight field goals before missing one in the second quarter, pulled a 28-yard kick a few tantalizing inches to the right, and South Carolina clung to its 38-35 lead for good.
But then, this is what Georgia does: They tantalize you with their potential, and then they crash amid a flood of irrational exuberance. They are, as a friend noted upon the Bulldogs’ collapse Saturday evening, the closest thing college football has to a mortgage-backed security.
And yet every year, we continue buy into Georgia; every year, they land in preseason top-10s by virtue of the sheer talent they accrue in one of the richest states for college-football prospects in all of America. Every year, we think, Maybe this is the season that propels Mark Richt into the elite. I suppose it is a measure of our naïveté as sports fans (and a measure of my own naïveté, perhaps, that with a four-team playoff looming, I’m still not entirely convinced Georgia is out of the national title picture), and I suppose it is a measure of one coach’s ability to con us all into believing that nice guys may someday finish first, even in a sport as openly brutal as football. There is no doubt you’re a good man, Mark Richt, but in a profession as nasty as this one, and in a conference as relentlessly vicious as the SEC, I’m not sure that’s much of an asset.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb.