When I was a graduate student at UVa, George Welsh was the head coach of the football team. Welsh had taken one of the worst football programs in the ACC and turned it into a good one. In his 19 years at the helm, UVa had 15 winning seasons, made 12 bowl games and won the ACC twice (including the dramatic 1995 victory over Florida State). They continually had great players like the Barber twins, Thomas Jones, Aaron Brooks, Patrick Kerney and Anthony Poindexter. And they did it while maintaining a reasonable commitment to education.
But there was a vocal faction of fans who were unhappy with this. Welsh, they said, was over-rated. He couldn’t beat Florida State consistently. He won “only” two ACC titles. He couldn’t get them into the national title picture. He couldn’t beat Virginia Tech enough. Thankfully, they were a small faction, despite their dominating presence on local talk radio. And even more thankfully, the University ignored them. But eventually Welsh retired and the anti-Welsh brigade sighed with relief.
The University went out and hired Al Groh. And UVA started to stink. In 9 years, Groh only had five winning seasons. He lost to Virginia Tech every year but one. He couldn’t beat Florida State. So they ditched him for Mike London, who has managed one winning season in six and and couldn’t beat anyone. And he just resigned.
We see this over and over again. And not just in college football. It’s Braves fans bitching about Bobby Cox only to see the team struggle once he leaves. It’s NFL teams like the Redskins and Browns going through coach after coach. It’s Bills fans grousing because Levy lost four superbowls, then watching the team struggle after he retires.
The problem here is that people often think that, when a team is this close to winning something big — a conference title, a championship — that they are a coaching change away from grabbing it. But they are wrong. It’s because of the coach that they are that close in the first place. People used to joke that you had to be a great team to lose four Super Bowls, but it was true. A team that is almost but not quite good enough is still one of the best in the country. And when you’re at that kind of elite level of performance, there is a lot more room to fall than there is to rise. Changes to your team are way more likely to make things worse, not better. This is doubly true in college football, where you have over a hundred teams vying for glory and it’s very easy for an elite program to fall back into the horde of mediocre ones.
I bring this up because the University of Georgia just fired Mark Richt. In 15 seasons, Richt had won 75% of his games, seven division titles and two conference titles. He never won fewer than eight games, never failed to make Bowl and never finished lower than third in one of the most competitive conference in the nation. As recently as 2012, he brought Georgia to within a few yards of a third conference title and a shot at a national title. The last three years were disappointing, but were heavily affected by injuries to star players like Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley and Aaron Murray. But finishing the season 9-3 and second in the SEC East is no mean feat.
Still, the media clamored for his head. The fans clamored for his head. And this week, the University gave it to them.
This will not help. The Bulldogs are almost certain, no matter who they hire, to go into a decline. To be one of the top 25 football teams in the country, you have to be really good. Very few coaches are that good. A coach who “can’t take you to the next level” is still among the top 5% of college football coaches. What are the odds that you will get a better coach if you change? Probably a bit less than 5%. And the odds that you’ll get someone who can give you Alabama-like dominance? Less than 1%.
What are the chances that a coach of Richt’s quality will eventually luck into a championship? Probably a lot better than the chances that Georgia will luck into a coach who can “take them to the next level.”
Georgia has an advantage in prestige and recruiting, of course. But a lot of programs have those advantages and some to an even greater extent. A coach who can take you to division titles in half his seasons is a valuable commodity. Georgia just threw that away. And they’re going to deserve the inevitable slide.