Thursday, January 3
The night was long, and the crowd has gone . . .
As the players leaped up into the stands and had their pictures taken with their adoring fans, as Mark Richt took the stage to accept the 2008 Sugar Bowl championship trophy and the last strains of the Redcoat Marching Band playing the slow version of "Glory" could be heard over the crowd, a thought occurred to me: I don't know that I've ever been as sad to see a season end as I was on Tuesday night. The jubilant players, the fans, the black jerseys, Richt and his wife meeting up on the field right before the trophy presentation -- this has all been quite a party, and I guess I'm just not ready to grab my coat and head home.
And I'll be honest here -- I didn't see this one coming, not even for a minute. If anything, I was nervous before this one started. In the preview I did right before Christmas, I expressed worry that the Dawgs would either underestimate their opponent and come out flat or build a lead, get too complacent later in the game, and let the Warriors right back into it. Truthfully, I was more worried about the former scenario; I wasn't quite expecting a first-quarter-of-the-'06-Sugar-caliber shocker, but I'd be lying if I said I never had a brief vision of same between BCS selection day and New Year's.
Sorry, guys. It's not you, it's me; I'm a worrier. (That's why my friends call me Whiskers.) I will make every effort to be more confident next time.
"Yeah, fine. As long as you've learned your lesson."
After a point, it became clear that any concern over Georgia's preparation -- in terms of either their physical readiness or their emotional state -- was better spent on something more pressing like global warming or the 2008 election, because this team had had their intensity level dialed up to 11. I think that point came at the very tail end of the opening quarter, as Hawaii started driving at their own 16 following Georgia's second touchdown. On the last play of the quarter, Marcus Howard destroyed Colt Brennan eight yards behind the line (putting the Warriors back at the 12), and on the first play of the second quarter, facing 3rd-and-14, Hawaii could do no better than a meager five-yard screen pass to give their punter a little extra room. Georgia only gained 20 yards on their next drive, but it was enough to put Brandon Coutu in position for a 52-yarder that would've been good from the Georgia side of the field, and something about the way the ball sailed through the uprights -- looking, despite the distance it had to travel, as if it'd been fired out of a Stinger missile launcher -- just told you it was gonna be the Dawgs' night.
Certainly Hawaii had overcome deficits bigger than 17-3 this season, and Fox's announcing crew pointed this out repeatedly, but the Dawgs needed only six minutes of the second half to render that fact irrelevant by sacking Brennan at the goal line (Marcus Howard, again) and recovering his fumble for their fourth TD of the night. The game wasn't over, but it was pretty much over.
You've probably already read about the degree to which the Dawgs' defense axe-murdered what had previously been one of the nation's most ridiculously productive scoring machines, and if you haven't, there are plenty of places where you can do that. Hell, even Stewart Mandel was blown away by the magnitude of Georgia's dominance (though whether it was enough to capture the attention of Mandel's hypothetical Montana rancher who previously had no idea who the Bulldogs were, he doesn't say). So I won't rehash all of that. Instead, I'll first of all apologize to Mark Richt and his boys for my, shall we say, underdeveloped confidence in their preparation and desire.
I mean, how could I have been such a nervous Nancy? We'd known for weeks now that the previous guidelines governing Georgia's emotional preparation for games had all but gone completely out the window, and I'm not even talking about black jerseys or end-zone celebrations. I mean, sure, we did break out the black jerseys for this game, sure, but somehow it never seemed like that mattered; obviously this "blackout" didn't have the element of surprise that the Auburn game did, but Tuesday night it seemed like they could've been wearing Victoria's Secret nighties and they still would've come out kicking ass.
Obligatory, and gratuitous, example of said nightie. Because I can, that's why.
Richt's motivational job this time around had nothing to do with jerseys and everything to do with connecting with his players on a man-to-man level and translating an us-against-the-world mentality into actual intensity and production on the field, and as any coach will tell you, that isn't an easy thing to do. It was probably particularly hard for Richt, who had sort of unintentionally painted himself into a corner by doing such a vocal and high-profile salesmanship job trying to get Georgia invited to the national-title game; when Georgia instead got the Sugar Bowl, Richt found himself in the tricky position of having to convince his team that the Sugar was a big deal even though he'd just been all over the TV airwaves telling people they actually deserved better. For the first few days after the BCS bids were handed out, I was really worried about how well he'd be able to do that, but as bowl preparations intensified and news began trickling out of New Orleans about the team's mindset, I started to relax and unclench a little. And then, after only one quarter of the actual game, I got pretty comfortable in the knowledge that the Dawgs had marched into the Superdome with the goal of wowing the entire country.
I don't know how Richt did it, but he did, and that's why he gets paid the big bucks. Likely a little bigger after this season, along with all his assistants. (Willie Martinez, in particular, is going to get paid, son. He's taken hits from all sides since taking over for Brian VanGorder, but his game plan against Hawaii occupied a whole new plane of brilliance. Somewhere in the universe there are black holes that are more easily escaped than the guys he sent at Hawaii's QBs the other night.) I know I've said it before, but the evolution we've seen this season in terms of our coaching staff's motivational tactics has been nothing less than remarkable; the flatline emotional performances that were responsible for nearly all of Georgia's losses in 2006 and the first half of '07 just aren't being allowed to happen anymore. Even in situations such as the Troy or Kentucky games, where the team started out a little sloppy, the proper adjustments were made in more than enough time to turn the team around and snatch the W. Think of all the teams, all the coaching staffs in the country who aren't quite able to make those adjustments, who can't take stock of the flow of a game and swallow enough pride to change what's going wrong, and count yourself immensely fortunate that Mark Richt decided to come to this campus seven years ago.
There are plenty of other reasons to be thankful for his presence, of course, and there have been a number of opportunities to appreciate them this past season. In particular, I want you to think of all the coach-related controversies, shenanigans, hijinx and lowjinx we've been treated to in the last couple of months alone. We've seen a coach sell inside information about his own players to a select cadre of big-money boosters and get dismissed from what was supposedly his dream job as a result. We've seen an NFL coach assure his team that he wasn't going anywhere, only to get on a plane the very next day and unctuously woo-pig-sooey his way into the hearts of a fan base he'll probably abandon in three or four years for whatever better job comes along. We've seen a coach leave his alma mater for another job right in the midst of his team's preparation for a BCS bowl. Think about the frustration, disappointment, and sleepless nights those coaches have caused their fans and, more importantly, their players and assistants.
Nothing against the Dirty Birds, but I'm real glad that's someone else's red and black he's wearing.
Don't you feel fortunate that Mark Richt hasn't put us in that position? This is actually pretty faint praise, of course, unless you think "Bobby Petrino" or "Dennis Franchione" is a reasonable place to set the bar for loyalty. But not only has Richt not put us through those kinds of ringers, he's maintained a scrupulous distance from the kind of situations that start those rumor mills churning to begin with. When Miami, his alma mater, fired Larry Coker and began the search for a new coach last December, Richt barely even waited for Coker to clean out his office before publicly declaring he wasn't interested in the job. The most obvious place for Richt to jump ship to, of course, is Florida State, where he learned his coaching chops for seven seasons under Bobby Bowden -- and as the Seminoles have declined over the past few years under Bowden's increasingly vague and nebulous leadership, Richt has had numerous opportunities to indicate to FSU that he's ready and willing to take the throne whenever Bowden abdicates it. But he hasn't done that either, and FSU was thus prompted to take the unusual step of naming their current offensive coordinator Bowden's successor. Any number of high-profile programs would love to have a guy like Richt leading the way, but he's never kept us up nights by so much as sitting down and talking to them.
And -- to kind of bring this back on topic here -- perhaps most importantly, he's taken the time that so many other coaches use to shop themselves around for other jobs and used it instead to become a better coach. Think of how many other head guys in college football don't bother to do that, either; I'd be willing to wager that, for a majority of the programs in D-IA, a debacle like, say, the Tennessee game earlier this year would've been the point at which you slapped the Do Not Resuscitate tag on the season and started flipping wistfully through the '08 recruiting magazines. I'll cop to having had those same worries about Georgia after the UT clusterfuck, and I certainly ripped Richt a new one as forcefully as anybody. But the difference between Richt and those other coaches -- to some extent, maybe even Richt now and Richt a season or two ago -- is that he admitted the failings that led to an embarrassing loss, responded to them, and made changes. I'm certainly not going to sit here and say that I or anybody else in Bulldog Nation's unwashed masses was personally responsible for that, but however it happened, the things that we were despairing over on October 7 got fixed. And that's not something that would've necessarily happened under just anybody.
By now you're probably thinking I should just go get a room already, and I'm not going to make any effort to deny that I have a man-crush on Mark Richt. Oh, lord have mercy, do I ever. But don't let my starry-eyed 13-year-old-girl enthusiasm keep you from appreciating just how fantastically lucky we are to have him as our coach. Not just as our coach, but the face of our program, the person that recruits, sportswriters, and college football fans alike see first when they want to know what it truly means to be a Georgia Bulldog.
P.S. It also means nookie.
As with last year, I'm finishing up this season barely able to contain my excitement for the next one. Now, make no mistake, kids -- it doesn't matter how many starters we return, it doesn't matter that we'll be adding guys like Caleb King and A.J. Green into the mix, we still face long odds toward a national title in the sense that we'll be going up against the toughest schedule any SEC team has faced in quite a while. And going 12-0 against even the most manageable of schedules is a tall order; it's a herculean task to maintain the kind of intensity it takes to gut it out against 12 different opponents. But we'll certainly have the talent to do it, and after the past two and a half months -- seven-game winning streak, the last six by double-digits, five against bowl teams, four of them ranked -- is there much doubt left that we have the coaching, too? I mean, there's no way I'm going to sit here in January and pencil us into the national-championship game. But as hard as it is to convince a team to give 110 percent for twelve straight games, if anyone has proven that they've figured out how to do that, it's the fella who accepted the Sugar Bowl championship trophy on the field at the Superdome on Tuesday night.
So thanks to Mark Richt, his coaching staff, and the players, especially the seniors, for an amazingly fun ride in 2007 (and the first day of 2008). Sitting here watching the Fiesta Bowl is making me wish that Georgia still had a few more games they could suit up for this season, and it's bittersweet knowing that this particular party has come to an end. But it's only a temporary hiatus, and when that party picks back up on August 30 of this year, I'll be there.
And I'll be wearing red pants.
A few final observations on Bowl-O-Rama '07-'08:
· I have to tip my cap to Hawaii's team and their fans, who wandered into a blind alley in a part of town they weren't familiar with and got jumped but still managed to keep smiles on their faces. The players kept playing their guts out until the bitter end, and when Tyler Graunke tossed Hawaii's lone touchdown of the night, the fans cheered as if they were the ones who were up by 31. (Remember that, Georgia fans, the next time you're tempted to boo one of our players for dropping a pass.) And though he probably doesn't give a shit, I feel a little sorry for Colt Brennan. That definitely wasn't how he wanted to play his last game in a Warriors uniform, and when his backup ended throwing the team's only TD, he had a look on his face like he would've paid one of the homeless guys under I-610 to stab him in the chest.
· My sympathy meter goes dead, however, when you get around to Keenan Jones, Hawaii's #29, the mouthy little bastard on special teams who tried to turn Mikey Henderson into a vegetable on Georgia's first punt return. The cameras caught Jones -- who was already well established as a real class act -- and his buddies slapping hands and talking shit on the sidelines despite the fact that he'd just cost his team 15 yards, and he was yapping at everyone within earshot, sometimes even the refs, every time he was within 10 yards of a play. And what did all that talking get him? Two penalties for 25 yards, no credited tackles, and a 31-point sledgehammering on prime-time TV. Nice job, Jones, you've just won the 2008 Reggie Ball Award for Highest Shit-Talking-to-Actual-Production Ratio. You might want to get your ass up off your shoulders between now and August 30, though, unless you want to get a good look at the inside of the University of Florida Medical Center.
· I will be really, really happy when the BCS's TV contracts get re-bid in a couple years, because I don't ever want to run the risk of having Thom Brennaman call a game that Georgia's involved in again, ever. Brennaman clearly got on the plane to New Orleans hoping he would go down in history as the guy who called Hawaii's stunning upset of the Bulldogs, and when it became clear that that wasn't going to happen, Brennaman lost the ability to even feign interest in anything other than 1) praising Hawaii's pluck and never-say-die attitude and 2) chastising Georgia's every move like a nun at Our Lady of Perpetual Agony Primary School. He criticized Richt for supposedly challenging the spot on a fourth-down catch when Richt was actually challenging whether the Hawaii receiver had caught the ball at all, and gave us one of the most unintentionally hilarious moments of the entire bowl season when, after a lengthy harangue about how the initial spot was obviously going to stand, the refs reversed their call and gave Georgia the ball on downs. Just for good measure, he chastised Richt for going for it on fourth down inside Hawaii's 5 yard line with 10 minutes left. I would almost concede his point that it was a little tacky for the Georgia fans to start in with the "o-ver-ra-ted" chant before the third quarter was even over, but jeez, Brennaman, it's not like college football fans haven't been doing that since the beginning of time. Tune in next week when Brennaman wastes 15 minutes of your life complaining about how everyone plays that same Gary Glitter song at sporting events.
"Rich Rodriguez? Nope, doesn't ring a bell. Wait, is he the guy who directed 'El Mariachi'?"
· I'm sitting here watching West Virginia finish up their pummeling of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, and I gotta say the Mountaineers' performance is as impressive as any I've seen this entire bowl season. Here's a team that had gotten embarrassed right out of the national-title game with a crushing loss to Pittsburgh in the last week of the regular season, and just to add insult to injury, their head coach bolted two weeks before the bowl game; if anyone had a right to come out broken and depleted with nothing left in the tank, it was them. But instead, they staged a clinic on how to execute 75-yard TD runs, and quite possibly rocketed interim coach Bill Stewart to the top of WVU's coaching shortlist. On the flip side, I remember getting bitched at by a couple Sooner fans for my Simpsons post from a couple years back because I asked when Bob Stoops was going to stop getting whacked in BCS games. Still waitin' on an answer to that one, guys.
· WVU's Owen Schmitt just finished talking about how ESPN had had a map of reader predictions on the Fiesta Bowl, and the entire country was Sooner red except for the state of West Virginia, "the greatest state in America." And now I'm watching a 6'3", 250-pound fullback with a mohawk weeping openly on national television. 'Eers, I'm mad at you for the 2006 Sugar Bowl, but I can't stay mad at you. This wasn't quite last year's Fiesta Bowl, but it wasn't far off, either.
· The other heartwarming moment from this bowl season that I absolutely have to mention was a few nights ago when Sylvester Croom, who came into this season 9-25 and two steps from the unemployment line, leading his Mississippi State players onto the field at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium to accept the Liberty Bell trophy. From a trifecta of three-win seasons to eight wins and a bowl victory, few people have suffered more over the past few years, and nobody's worked harder to fight back from it; the Liberty Bowl win was as heartwarming as any non-Georgia event I've seen all year, and I'm loving it for Croom, whose voice, incidentally, makes James Earl Jones sound like Pee-Wee Herman. Congratulations, Other Bulldogs, and good luck in 2008.
This is why I love this game.