ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt has won 96 games and two SEC championships (2002, 2005) in his 10 seasons as coach at Georgia. He is respected throughout college football as one of the most decent and moral men in his profession. He is a good guy and a good coach. You don't average 9.6 wins per year in the SEC and not know what you're doing.
But here is the reality: Richt coaches in the SEC, where four different teams (Florida, LSU, Alabama, Auburn) have won a combined five straight BCS national championships. It is a tough conference that is getting tougher by the year. And once a program in this league starts to lose momentum, it is difficult to get it back. Much like the NFL, the SEC is an unforgiving place to work.
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"We got beat in the bowl game because Central Florida played harder than us," Richt said. "That should not happen."
Richt's players agreed.
"We don't go 6-7. It's unacceptable to lose games the way we did," said sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray. "We had to make some changes."
And Richt made those changes. Before the 2010 season he shuffled his defensive staff, firing coordinator Willie Martinez, one of his best friends. Last December Richt made another tough call and removed Dave Van Halanger, who came with Richt from Florida State in 2001, as the head of Georgia's strength and conditioning program. Richt elevated assistant strength coach Joe Tereshinski, a former player at Georgia who is definitely old school when it comes to getting after it in the weight room. Tereshinski was charged with making Georgia's offseason program more intense and more effective.
"Coach T has completely changed the attitude of this team," said tight end Aron White. "It took some time for some of the guys to adapt but we had to get our mindset right. It is what we needed."
There have been other, more subtle, changes in the areas of player development and accountability. One of those was the decision to hire a nutritionist who is monitoring the players' diets. That was a recommendation of AD Greg McGarity, a Georgia grad who came back to Athens last August after spending 18 years as Jeremy Foley's right-hand man at Florida.
"My job is to give Coach Richt everything he needs to be successful and to tell him what I see," said McGarity. "I'm here to help so that Coach Richt is free to do his job."
Spring practice, which ends with Saturday's G-Day game in Athens, has easily been the most intense of the Richt era. Every drill this spring has pitted the offense against the defense and the coaching staff has used a point system to keep score. At the end of every day there is a winner and a loser. And it is no fun to be the loser because that team has to run twice as many sprints at the end of practice. After one particularly tough day for the offense, center Ben Jones called out everybody on his unit in what became a very heated post-practice meeting.
"Emotions have been flying pretty high. Some people might think that we're working more hours than we should trying to win the drill but it is paying off in the way we're practicing," said Richt. "We need for our guys to learn how to compete on a daily basis."
For several seasons the rap on Georgia around the SEC has been that the Bulldogs are talented but not particularly tough. This has been really hard for Bulldogs fans to take because for 25 years under Hall of Fame coach Vince Dooley, Georgia was the definition of a tough, disciplined, overachieving team. For the past two seasons Georgia has been among the most penalized teams in college football. And a series of off-the-field problems has led to the belief that the program had lost its discipline.
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This spring has been about changing both the perception and the reality of Georgia's persona as a football program.
Georgia also felt a sense of urgency this spring because the Bulldogs open the season on Sept. 3 against Boise State in Atlanta. Boise returns quarterback Kellen Moore, who has led the Broncos to a 38-2 record the past three seasons. A week later the Bulldogs host South Carolina, the defending SEC East champions, in a crucial conference opener.
Richt agreed to play the game with Boise because he knew it would focus his team from Day 1 of the offseason conditioning program and throughout the summer.
"I just felt like we needed a game like that to let the college football world know that Georgia is alive and kicking," said Richt. "When you watch the film you know why they [Boise State] have won so many games. They play football the way it is supposed to be played."
Richt said he also did some self-evaluating in the offseason and made changes in the way he will approach his job moving forward.
"I've decided that I'm not going to flinch when it comes to practicing a certain sort of way," said Richt. "We have to practice with intensity. Last year my goal was to just get them to the gate healthy -- to have everybody there [on game day]. I'm not going to have that thought when we get to camp [this summer]. You don't get better at tackling unless you tackle. Forget all that stuff about cooperation between the offense and the defense. Let's hook it up and compete every day. Let's dial it up and let it go."
Georgia players are ready for Richt and his staff to bring it on. They are tired of losing.
"Everyone is ready. They know what it takes to win," said Murray, who threw for 3,049 yards and 24 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. "It's going to be a grind, but what we did last year didn't work. It's time to spice things up around here."