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SMITH: As far as discipline goes, Mark Richt is not the problem

Kennington Smith

Kennington Smith

Remember 2002?

Some of you may, but if you’re a Georgia football fan, as I was when I was only seven years old at the time, you definitely do.

That was the year that Mark Richt — in his second year as coach — had begun what many thought would be the beginning of a UGA football dynasty. It was during that season that the Bulldogs narrowly missed out on a national championship opportunity but managed a 13-1 record and finish ranked No. 3 in the nation.

Over the next three seasons came 32 more wins, a second SEC championship and a top-10 ranking in two of those years. Though they hadn’t reached the ultimate goal athletes and fans alike had hoped for, it appeared the cool, calm and God-fearing coach had his team primed for collegiate dominance.

What happened? The team once known for strong play on the field and held to a higher standard of excellence off of the field is now associated with sloppy play, disappointing seasons and frequent disciplinary issues. Since Richt’s first five seasons, the Bulldogs have failed to win conference or national championships and only hold four 10-win seasons over the last eight.

Another disappointing eight win season in 2013 has many Bulldog fans wondering where it all went wrong for the Red and Black.

The answer, in my opinion, is October 27, 2007. That day will live on forever in Georgia football as the day the dog came off of the leash.

On that day Georgia faced the Florida Gators in their annual rivalry game. On the opening drive as running back Knowshon Moreno leaped over the Gator defense, for the opening touchdown viewers around the nation soon witnessed something they would not forget.

The entire Bulldog team rushed onto the field and celebrated in the endzone drawing two unsportsmanlike conducts penalties that forced them to have to kick off the ball from their own 8-yard line. Richt said during a halftime interview that he only told the offense to celebrate until there was a flag. The entire team had planned the celebration themselves.

He apologized after the game, and there was no disciplinary action taken against Richt or his team. A lot more happened on that day than an excessive celebration and Georgia victory.

The leash came off.

Since 2007, the Bulldogs have transformed into one of the SEC’s most undisciplined teams. On average the SEC average for team penalties per season is 74, however Georgia has averaged 91 per season. Also, after notching 72 wins from 2002-2007, only 54 wins have come since then. Though the production has dropped significantly on the field, the most alarming number, however, is off of the field — 35.

That is the number of non-academic disciplinary actions taken against the Bulldog players since 2008. The most recent are the dismissal of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and the arrests of safety Tray Matthews, wide receiver Uriah LeMay and defensive linemen James DeLoach and Jonathan Taylor.

LeMay has since transferred to the University of Charlotte and Matthews was dismissed from the team following a classroom altercation last week. These recent transgressions are just a few additions to a long list that has made Georgia football a punch line across the nation. South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier has joked that he enjoys playing Georgia at the beginning of the season because he can always count on “a few of the players being out for the game.”

Every team in college football has disciplinary issues — it is inevitable. With over 100 players on a team on average, it is impossible to monitor them all of the time and so mistakes are bound to happen.

But how does a team that prides itself on doing the right thing and carrying themselves to a higher standard get to this point? Many across the nation feel as though Richt is the problem, and the dismissals will continue as long as he’s the coach. However, Richt handles discipline better than any coach not only in the SEC but also in the nation. It is his players that have failed him.

Georgia has one of the strictest disciplinary policies in the SEC, which includes at least one game suspension on the first violation of team rules. Weight increases on the second and third offenses, which result in removal from the team. Other schools across the nation don’t reach suspension until their second offense. At Alabama and Florida, dismissals come after the fourth strike.

At LSU there is former Tyrann Matheu being available for the biggest games despite multiple failed drug tests and head coach Les Miles putting running back Stephen Hill’s status up to a team vote following an arrest. Also, for as much as Spurrier has said about UGA’s discipline, his former quarterback Stephen Garcia was often suspended but never missed a game and was not removed from the Gamecocks until his sixth offense.

It is clear that Richt disciplines his team and does it better than the rest. He disciplines, yet nurtures his players, and makes sure they find their way back to the field whether it be at Georgia or another school. Richt doesn’t restrict where his players can transfer as most coaches in the nation do, which explains his recent duals with former players Zach Mettenberger (LSU) and Nick Marshall (Auburn).

Which brings me to challenge the players to do better and hold themselves to a higher standard. It is clear that when a player “commits to the G” they are not only committing to excellence on the field, but excellence in the community and classroom. Despite the frequent issues, Richt has made a point that those who want to adhere to the “Georgia Way” will remain on the team and those who choose not to will no longer be along for the ride.

Molding men on and off the field is something Richt values, and it does not go unnoticed by current and former players. Eventually it will pay dividends on the gridiron.

Kennington Smith is a summer sports intern for the Henry Daily Herald and Clayton News Daily newspapers. He can be reached at ksmith@henryherald.com. Or you can follow him on Twitter @skinnykenny_.