I was somewhere north of Tifton on I-75 yesterday when I heard Mark Richt was out as UGA’s football coach. At a late lunch at a barbecue joint in Perry, I passed the news along to the proprietor (who’d given me a hearty “Go Dawgs!” upon seeing the shirt I was wearing). He confessed some surprise, then offered this: “I think that might be a good thing?” The question mark was audible, and since then I’ve seen that same lack of certainty in a lot of my friends’ comments on Facebook, blog comments and elsewhere. The Bulldog Nation has some folks who are sure it was the right decision, some who are sure it was the wrong decision, and a whole lot in the middle who are not sure what to think.
The more reactions I see, the more it reminds me of the current Republican presidential race — and not just because of the apparent importance of the so-called SEC primary. I made a reference to this in a column a few weeks ago, but give me a chance to flesh it out some.
Think of Richt as “the establishment”: the status quo, known commodity who has been the driving force in the program since late 2000. He had some notable early successes, getting his team back on top for the first time in quite some time (1988 for the GOP, 1982 for UGA). But he hasn’t won anything of significance in a decade, despite some high points here and there that were just enough to keep him in place (think the 2007 and 2012 seasons for Richt, and the 2010 and 2014 midterms for the Republicans). In 2012, both seemed poised to finally reach the promised land again, only to fall just short. A longtime figure — and punching bag — toward the top of each program decided to leave earlier this year (Mike Bobo, John Boehner) after never seeming able to satisfy all the critics. Boehner’s replacement (Paul Ryan) has had some early success, but so did Brian Schottenheimer … at first.
Now there’s a severe disagreement within the family as to the right way to proceed. There are those who favor staying the course. But their voices increasingly are drowned out by those who have lost faith in the ability of “the establishment” to ever win the whole thing, who have tired of the moderate demeanor of the status quo, who want an “outsider” who shows more fire and passion and is willing to shake things up.
Partisans of the establishment warn that change may not lead to more success, and could lead to less. They point to examples of victories when their ranks didn’t rock the boat (Dwight Eisenhower, Vince Dooley) and spectacular flame-outs when they did (Barry Goldwater, Derek Dooley). Those who favor change point to counter-examples of big-time success when losing wasn’t tolerated and changes were made (Urban Meyer/Nick Saban, Ronald Reagan). But neither side can point to conclusive evidence to back its claim.
Even though the Richt regime is over, the argument will carry on until his replacement has been named — and until everyone sees how the replacement fares. Likewise, the establishment/outsider debate rages on in the GOP, and neither side will truly be proven correct until the eventual nominee wins or loses next November. Reince Priebus can just be glad that, unlike UGA athletic director Greg McGarity, the decision isn’t his alone to make.