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Michaux: Mark Richt says goodbye to Georgia with his head held high

Mon, 11/30/2015 - 8:14pm

ATHENS, Ga. — There’s an expression that accompanies the coaching-change ritual called “winning the news conference.” It almost never applies to the outgoing coach.

Then again, few fired coaches ever go out with their head as high as Mark Richt.

Looking 10 years younger with the weight of Bulldog Nation lifted from his shoulders, Richt owned the Richard B. Taylor Room adjacent to Stegeman Coliseum where he sat comfortably next to the man who fired him and talked about his past, present and future. He was far more comfortable than Greg McGarity, the director of athletics who organized this gathering and immediately took a back seat when the deposed coach started talking without introduction.

“I’m just very thankful for all the time that I’ve been able to spend here,” Richt said in a long exhale of gratitudes in his opening statement. “I’m doing great. With that, I’ll let Greg say what he wants to say, and then you guys can let it rip.”

McGarity didn’t have much to say. He heaped enough praise on Richt that you wondered why he ousted him in the first place. And in case you’re wondering, McGarity had nothing whatsoever to say about that.

“Those things will remain between Mark and myself,” McGarity said.

Richt didn’t hide the reason for his termination and accepted it graciously.

“I think that the expectations have been built to the point where, if you don’t win a championship, it’s kind of miserable around here,” he said. “It got to the point where there wasn’t enough confidence that my leadership could get it done. That’s the prerogative of the people in charge, and I understand that.”

The man who hired Richt 15 years ago and assumed he would eventually supplant him as the all-time winningest Bulldogs coach had a suggestion about what qualities McGarity needs to find in the guy who comes next.

“I think Mark Richt would be a good start,” Vince Dooley said.

If you watched Monday morning’s news conference, you saw what made Richt such a special leader beloved by players and the majority of Georgia fans even after he was fired. He was gracious beyond belief. He was more upbeat and energized than the day he accepted the job almost 16 years ago.

“You can tell the pressure is off him,” Dooley said.

“Thirty-three years straight is a long time,” Richt said of the coaching yolk he’s carried since graduating college. “It’s a very busy life, there’s not many breaks in the action. People have said the days are long but the seasons go fast. They really do. Before you know it, your life has flashed before your eyes. When you sit in the head coach’s chair, it might be times 10. You think you know, but you don’t know until you get there. Over time it can wear you down a little bit. The weight of a lot of the responsibility that I’ve had for a long time is gone.”

That said, Richt seemed eager to coach again. Truly coach, not just preside over a program as CEO.

“If and when I do coach again, I’m looking forward to coaching again in terms of being more hands-on,” he said. “I miss coaching quarterbacks. I miss calling plays. I miss that part of it.”

Whatever bitterness Richt might have at being forced out the door after restoring Georgia to prominence, he displayed none of it. Always the consummate professional, he practiced what he always preached to his players – “you may feel a certain way but you need to act another way.”

His loyalty to his players – even the ones he’s lured to Athens but will never coach – is uninterrupted. He wanted to stay another month to coach whatever bowl game the Bulldogs are invited to and “finish the drill” with his team and collect a 40th win for his seniors.

And he demanded the same accountability from them that he always has. A teacher of men until the end, he shared with them how it was when he originally took his first head coaching job.

“We were playing in the national championship,” he said. “In the morning I was trying to do Florida State and the afternoon I was trying to do Georgia. That little Nokia phone would ring every so often and every other time it was about some kid not behaving like he should. So I was like ‘Oh here we go. Before I even get on campus, I’ve got to deal with that.’ But I told them it’s really important to do the right thing and make a good first impression before you even meet whoever it is and then be supportive of whoever that is. I understand that the faster everybody buys in, the better off it’s going to be.”

Richt even reached out to star recruits including blue-chip quarterback Jacob Eason.

“I said, ‘Be patient. See who the next guy is. You might get really excited about that and the rest of the guys might get really excited about that,’” Richt said. “I’m not saying don’t check out other options and all that kind of stuff to be proactive. Don’t jump the gun. You chose Georgia for a reason and it was more than just me or coach (Brian) Schottenheimer. … I said it might be a blessing to be on the front end of a coach other than Year 16.”

He had a message for the fans, too.

“As soon as a new guy gets named there’s going to be electricity around here,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of excitement and a lot of momentum. Support him and support his staff, and obviously support the players. Georgia football is going to be around a whole heck of a lot longer than I’m going to be alive, and it’s been around for over 100 years.”

Pure class right to the end. That’s what they call a “damn good dawg.”

Before Sunday, Richt was about to embark on the road for 14 consecutive days of hard-core recruiting – the lifeblood of a collegiate program. Instead, he’ll sit down in the empty nest with his beloved wife, Katharyn, and enjoy the rare peace and quiet. His phone will surely be ringing with offers far and wide, but whether he’s ready to jump right into another coaching gig remains to be seen.

“Now that I’m not recruiting, there’s nothing on my calendar,” he said. “Even that bit of time will allow me to decompress a little bit and just prayerfully consider what’s next. There may be more opportunities that come in the next few hours, that type of thing. I’m going to listen to anyone that has interest in me coaching or not – in any area or any arena that’s a possibility.”

Bottom line, Richt wanted everyone to know he’ll be fine. And you believed it looking at him.

“We may stay in Athens for good,” he said. “I don’t know what’ll happen yet.”

Anyone in that room needs to worry about McGarity more than Richt. It’s McGarity’s job to replace and get someone to live up to expectations even Richt couldn’t meet. That’s no longer Richt’s problem.

Asked about his legacy, Richt never mentioned any championships or winning percentage. He talked about converting young men into responsible adults.

“How do I want Mark Richt to be remembered?” he said. “Just that he loved Georgia and he did it the right way.”

Richt still has a month to go, but on Monday he walked out of his goodbye news conference the biggest winner.

Michaux: Getting rid of Mark Richt is a huge mistake by Georgia

Sun, 11/29/2015 - 8:38pm

ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia made the biggest mistake it’s ever made and fired the best football coach it’s ever had on Sunday.

For 15 years, Mark Richt has served the Georgia Bulldogs with more class and dignity than any football coach I’ve ever covered in 33 years in this business – and he did all that while compiling the highest winning percentage in the school’s illustrious history. The only guy I’ve dealt with who compares (Frank Beamer) is stepping down at the end of this season at Virginia Tech on his own terms – the way a coach of their stature deserves to retire.

Richt deserved much more from Georgia. After Sunday’s decision, it’s clear Georgia doesn’t deserve a leader of his quality any more.

Bulldogs director of athletics Greg McGarity released a statement claiming he and Richt “mutually agreed that he would step down as head coach.” If you believe that, I’ve got a unicorn I can sell you.

Richt had no intention of leaving, as he very clearly stated in his press conference Saturday after beating Georgia Tech for the 13th time in 15 seasons. “The plan for me is to keep getting out on the recruiting trail and keep nailing down a great class and get prepared for this bowl game and be prepared for the future,” he said 19 hours before he suddenly reverse pivoted and “stepped down.”

If I were a Georgia fan, I would be sickened and shamed by what the school just did. The most prominent recent program alumnus certainly is.

“That hurts,” Todd Gurley told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after his game with the Rams on Sunday. “I heard that before the game and I was pissed off. He just a great dude, a great coach.”

Gurley later tweeted out the sentiment shared by many former Bulldogs: “Greatest coach of all time and even a better person. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”

I’ve heard all of the arguments for getting rid of Richt – he didn’t win enough against ranked opponents, he didn’t win enough Southeastern Conference titles in a down division, he didn’t win a national championship – and they’re all lacking. There is certainly plenty of valid criticism and things that absolutely needed to be addressed, but none of it added up to a need for regime change.

Georgia fans clearly want another Nick Saban who can annually bring in the nation’s best recruiting class and deliver repeatedly on national titles. It’s as if you can order another Saban up on Amazon Prime and get same-day delivery. Here’s what the actual Nick Saban thought about the disgrace that took place in Athens.

“I don’t know what the world’s coming to in our profession,” Saban said.

It makes no sense. Louisiana State was on the verge of firing Les Miles on Saturday before a groundswell of fan objections made the administration do an about face.

Georgia’s leadership vacuum clearly had already made up its mind before Richt led the Bulldogs (without its best player AGAIN) to four consecutive victories after it was eliminated from SEC title consideration. Clearly losing to the two conference finalists and a team that had playoff-lock Oklahoma on the ropes before losing in overtime was the nail in Richt’s career coffin. Forget the fact Richt didn’t have a team capable of living up to delusional preseason expectations yet still coaxed nine wins (and counting) out of it.

I personally like both McGarity and Jere Morehead, the university president, but after Sunday my respect for their leadership took a huge dip. McGarity kowtowed to moneyed boosters – which I suppose is what ADs do under pressure. He’ll be defined as much for firing Richt as he will be on the success or failure of his next hire.

It’s Morehead’s accessory to this personnel crime that shocks me the most. Richt embodied everything a university president could desire in a prominent football coach. He won at a high rate. He graduated players. He created a model of accountability that transformed the reputation of the program. He represented the school with class and dignity that don’t come naturally to most football coaches. Richt gave the school a reason to be proud of the way he conducted himself and his team.

Consider what Devon Gales, the Southern University player left paralyzed by a collision against Georgia in September, had to say on Twitter about the coach who treated him like an adopted Bulldog.

“Coach Mark Richt understands that football is about more than winning,” Gales said. “It’s about shaping and molding the lives of young men.”

Indeed it is. Yet Richt did it all while averaging nearly 10 wins a season. He’s on the verge of winning 10 for the 10th time in 15 years, but that’s apparently not enough.

Reasonable people can disagree, but Georgia has never had a better man as its football coach. Richt was better than Vince Dooley in ways both objectively quantifiable (winning percentage) and subjectively reasoned (never had a Jan Kemp scandal or stoked a mutiny against his school president). Richt wasn’t lucky enough to have his variations of Herschel Walker – A.J. Green, Gurley, Nick Chubb – make it through the high expectation seasons without missing significant playing time. He didn’t cut corners to keep his best players eligible when they made mistakes, demanding accountability that restored an element of pride in the Georgia way of doing things at a potential cost on the field.

Maybe Georgia will get lucky with its next head coach. Maybe Kirby Smart won’t turn out to be another Will Muschamp. Maybe Dan Mullen will have the magic touch with an upgrade in talent and depth. Maybe Chip Kelly will rekindle the offensive magic he had at Oregon. Maybe (fill-in-the-blank coach) will win an SEC title and reach a playoff with the players Richt recruited and keep filling the coffers with more five-stars and Georgia will never have to suffer the rebuilding pains that still haunt Tennessee and Texas and Nebraska and numerous other programs considered too big to fail.


But here’s what is hard to imagine happening even with the pending luxury of an indoor practice facility to recruit with – a feature that Richt finally made happen and which should bear his name even if he never gets to step foot in it. It’s hard to imagine anyone topping Richt’s .739 winning percentage (145-51) and 33 percent success in reaching the SEC championship game (five times in 15 years, more than any current program).

More importantly, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it with the class and character that Richt exhibited right until the end.

Georgia has elected to go the win-at-all-costs route by getting rid of a coach that didn’t do it that way. In one day it’s already cost the school a measure of respect.

Future of Bulldogs coach is still unclear

Sat, 11/28/2015 - 7:57pm

ATLANTA — At some point in the second quarter of the Florida game on Halloween, Georgia’s football season from the outside looking in ceased being about wins or losses or X’s or O’s and became exclusively about its head coach Mark Richt.

Everything was analyzed through the Richt filter. Will he be fired if he loses to Kentucky or Auburn? Would Georgia Southern be his last home game? Could beating Georgia Tech save his job?

We don’t know the answer to any of those questions yet. Richt’s future at Georgia is as much a mystery after the Bulldogs’ 13-7 victory at Georgia Tech as it was a month ago before winning four in a row to close the regular season 9-3.

Richt’s had “no conversation whatsoever” with Georgia’s authorities about his future, and he seems less concerned about it than everyone else.

“I think the Lord is in charge of everything and I’m fine with whatever He’s got in store for me,” Richt said after running his record to 13-2 against the rival the Bulldogs had lost three in a row to before he took over in 2001. “The plan for me is to keep getting out on the recruiting trail and keep nailing down a great class and get prepared for this bowl game and be prepared for the future. I don’t need any clarity right now. I’m ready to recruit.”

Whether or not you think the Bulldogs did enough in winning its past four games against unranked opponents in unremarkable fashion, a little credit should be given for stemming the tide of a season on the brink of catastrophic collapse. In the darkest hours after a succession of unpalatable losses to Alabama, Tennessee and Florida, it would have been easy for the Bulldogs to give up and make regime change an easy option.

Richt doesn’t deny to disappointment in missed goals, but he takes pride in how they responded to that adversity.

“I think you also look at a team being in the position we were in and just watching everybody come together,” he said. “We certainly could have gone one way or another. It was that moment of truth. What are we going to do? Lay down and die or lock arms and get after it.

“I hope anybody watching can at least say these guys fought and fought together. They turned around a situation that wasn’t as good as everybody hoped.”

It says something about Richt the way his players rebounded.

“We just stuck together when our backs were against the wall and tried to tune out all the noise,” senior tailback Keith Marshall said. “Coaches still gave us their all and we gave them our all, it shows a lot about us.”

“We won’t give up,” senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell said of the meaning behind a perfect November. “It doesn’t matter what people say, as long as we stick together we’ll be okay.”

Every Georgia player who spoke to the media after the game was asked about Richt, and every one of them had their own variation of praise. If it was up to the lockerroom, there wouldn’t be any debate.

“What I have to say to people is coach Richt is helluva coach, recruits great players and we fight to the very end for him and are with him every step of the way,” senior linebacker Jordan Jenkins said.

“I think coach Richt does one of the best jobs in the country getting us ready week after week,” senior transfer linebacker Jake Ganus said. “In the end it’s on the players and if people want to complain they can complain about us. We’re the ones who didn’t get it done those three games.”

“Personally coach Richt has been supportive throughout my entire career here and under his leadership I’ve become a better person and better player as time went on,” Mitchell said. “That’s what you want out of a head coach – to transform his team to be a great team and individually transform the men on the team. He’s definitely done that.”

Marshall was the most succinct: “There’s not a better coach or better man in the country, so I hope he stays here forever.”

Nobody stays anywhere forever. After 15 seasons, Richt might not last longer than another month. Days like Saturday don’t hurt his cause, however. Rivalry games still matter, especially after enduring a bitter loss the year before and seeing Yellow Jackets ripping off pieces of their beloved hedges.

“The loss last year put the rivalry in perspective,” Mitchell said. “That was probably one of the worst feelings I’ve had, ever. It always meant a lot, but before last year I’d had never lost to them so I didn’t know the feeling. So I didn’t want to feel that again and we didn’t want to as a team.”

The end result was closer than it appeared thanks to a curious personal foul that extended Georgia Tech’s only scoring drive. Looking closely at the details through the Richt filter didn’t reveal too many clues.

Does he get blamed for an offense that repeatedly bogged down in scoring range or credit for a defense that kept making stops when it had to? Did one fourth-down call that provided Georgia’s only touchdown overshadow another that got stuffed for no gain? Will he be ridiculed for getting conservative on his last third-and-6 to potentially end the game or hailed for daring to throw it from his own end zone on first down with the outcome in the balance?

That all depends on the perspective of the beholder.

Richt saw fit to fairly faithfully paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt regarding the debate on his fate.

“It’s not the critic who counts,” he said. “It’s not the man who points out where the strong man stumbled or the doer of deeds could have done better. But the credit belongs to the man who’s actually in the arena. Who’s been to battle. Win or lose, at least he wasn’t one of those timid souls who knows neither victory nor defeat.

“So we know we’re in the arena and we’re going to take shots. That’s part of it. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take shots. I’m not saying people shouldn’t say what they think. People think a certain way, they have a right to say what they think. The fans don’t like what they’re seeing, they have a right to do that. We love the fans and their passion and want them to get excited about Georgia football. And when we don’t win, they hurt.”

Georgia won four straight to finish the season. Will it be enough to sooth the pain of earlier wounds and satisfy the critics for another chance? Or is change inevitable?

Eventually, somebody has to take off the Richt goggles to make a decision so Georgia football can get back to what matters.

Georgia's Charley Trippi was a thorn in the side of Georgia Tech in the mid-1940s

Tue, 11/24/2015 - 9:02pm


ATHENS, Ga. — When it came to the annual “game you had to win,” Charley Trippi had a lot of good days against Georgia’s biggest rival.

“I never lost a game to Georgia Tech,” said Trippi, 93 years old and still living in Athens and attending every Bulldogs home football game. “My freshman year and three years varsity – the four times we played against Tech we won.”

Truth be told, it was never even close when Trippi was involved, no matter how good Georgia Tech was advertised.

The Yellow Jackets were 9-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country when Trippi and fellow legend Frank Sinkwich delivered a 34-0 drubbing in Athens in 1942. Winner earned a trip to the Rose Bowl, which the Bulldogs won 9-0 against UCLA behind an MVP effort by Trippi to earn the national title. After the Tech game – in which Trippi rushed for 110 yards on eight carries and passed for 126 more – Sinkwich received a telegram saying he’d won the Heisman Trophy.

“Sinkwich was a tough runner,” Trippi said. “He didn’t have the speed of a lot of the backs but he was strong. He broke a lot of tackles.”

The Ramblin’ Wreck was on an eight-game winning streak and ranked No. 7 in 1946 when Trippi and the Bulldogs stomped them 35-7 in Athens en route to Georgia’s first perfect 11-0 season.

“We just had good days against Tech for some apparent reason,” Trippi said. “They had good teams, too.”

The game that stands out, however, came in 1945 on Georgia Tech’s historic Grant Field. It was not the Jackets’ most distinguished team in coach Bobby Dodd’s first season at the helm, but it was Trippi’s most distinguishing game.

The United Press account of that Dec. 1 game called Trippi “Georgia’s one-man gang, surpassing all his advance notices as he powered, passed and punted an inspired Bulldogs team to a lopsided 33 to 0 victory over Georgia Tech before a capacity crowd of 35,000.”

Even 70 years later, the game stands out in Trippi’s memory.

“We were able to do almost anything we wanted to do in that game – passing and running and played good defense,” said Trippi, who never left the field as the team’s halfback, safety, kicker and returner. “It was a great defensive game.”

It was an even greater offensive game for Trippi, who set the Southeastern Conference passing record with 323 yards on only 12 completions. He added 61 rushing yards to set the conference all-purpose yardage record as well.

Consider this: in a modern era when passing is paramount, the current Georgia team has only one game this season with more passing yards (330 vs. South Carolina) than Trippi had as a halfback that Saturday against Tech.

“It was just one of those days everything kind of blended in real good,” Trippi said. “Our game plan was to throw the ball and we had a good passing game and good receivers and were able to blend it in with the running game. I think a lot of teams respected our passing game more than the running game because over the course of the season we were gaining a lot of yardage throwing the ball.”

Trippi threw for four touchdowns and rushed for another to have a hand in every Bulldogs score that game.

The Jackets must have wished the Air Force hadn’t released Trippi from his service midseason in time to headline for the Bulldogs. During the 1943-44 seasons when Trippi served in the Third Air Force, Georgia Tech collected a pair of blowout wins against what was left of Georgia’s war-depleted team. The two results have asterisks in Georgia’s media guide as the schools have disputed the validity of those games ever since with differing series totals.

It’s one of the things that defined the rivalry known as “clean, old-fashioned hate.”

“A little animosity built up between us when I was playing against Georgia Tech,” Trippi said. “I think it’s simmered off quite a bit. It was a game you had to win. You could lose nine games and win that and you had a good season. Beating Georgia Tech was the key game. It was the game that the most emphasis was put on.”

Trippi only played half the 1945 season because of his military service, but much to the chagrin of the Yellow Jackets he returned already in midseason form from the high-quality competition all the service teams had with the best players across the country.

“I was conditioned to play because I’d just left the Third Air Force to join Georgia, so I was playing all the time,” he said. “If I’d stayed to the middle of the season and then tried to play it would be hard, but I was conditioned to play and was ready.”

Trippi is still regarded as Georgia’s “greatest all-around player” even though he was denied the Heisman Trophy in 1946 after the perfect season when Army’s Glenn Davis earned it despite less laudable stats.

“I was (disappointed) with several others,” said Trippi, who settled instead for the Maxwell Award given to the most valuable player in the country. “(Davis) was a good football player. I can’t deny him winning it. Of course, several other players thought they were good enough to get it as well. You always have an opinion, but of course your opinion doesn’t count. It’s a tough decision.”

Trippi’s best decision was coming to Georgia in the first place from the small Pennsylvania town of Pittston, nestled between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. He turned down a scholarship offer from Notre Dame to come south.

“Harold Ketron, former player at Georgia, promised me a job with Coca-Cola Company when I finished,” Trippi said. “When I graduated high school I was driving a Coca-Cola truck. I had my own route. I was making more money than my dad at that time. That feature stimulated me to go to Georgia.”

In a storied career that included the 1942 national title with Georgia, Rose Bowl MVP, an NFL championship with the Chicago Cardinals and induction into the pro and college football halls of fame, Trippi still ranks his perfect record against the Yellow Jackets among his favorite accomplishments.

In those four meetings won by a cumulative score of 131-20, Trippi had a hand in 76 of Georgia’s points by passing for six touchdowns, rushing for five scores, catching another touchdown pass and kicking for four more points. He also intercepted three passes in the series.

“We won, that’s the main thing,” Trippi said, “You don’t look at the stats when you lose. You look at the score.”

Mark Richt's status is still open for debate after the Bulldogs eke past the Eagles

Sat, 11/21/2015 - 11:51pm

ATHENS, Ga. — They honored the seniors playing their final game between the hedges Saturday night. Mark Richt greeted each one before the game with their families as they trotted onto the field.

Richt’s name was not announced among them. But there’s no guarantee the coach with the highest win percentage in school history will be back with the underclassmen next fall.

A 23-17 overtime win against Georgia Southern didn’t do much to clear the air on Richt’s future. While the coach dug in his heels with a publicized cross-country recruiting visit, his critics got more ammunition with an in-state wrestling match that seemed unfathomable.

Sony Michel’s 25-yard touchdown run up the middle on Georgia’s first play of overtime might have ended things Saturday night, but the debate about the Georgia’s future is only beginning to heat up.

Three consecutive wins – no matter how tenuous – after three brutal losses has certainly clouded the picture. But Richt has something to build his case upon.

“I’m proud of these guys and there’s a lot of things to overcame and a lot of things that we’re dealing with that we’re partially responsible for happening,” he said. “But we have kept our poise and stayed together as a team and handled our adversity the right way.”

Saturday was already looking like the most important referendum on Richt since the Florida debacle on Halloween. The threat was only heightened by events elsewhere in the SEC East earlier in the day.

0South Carolina succumbed to Division I-AA Citadel 23-22 at Williams-Brice Stadium, reprising darker days from the past and illustrating that the post-Steve Spurrier rebuilding in Columbia might be harder and more painful than anyone anticipated.

Florida barely survived against two-win Florida Atlantic, requiring some favorable no-call pass
interference infractions in overtime to eke out a 20-14 victory on its way to the SEC Championship game.

Now Georgia had to be ready for a Georgia Southern team and its dangerous triple-option that only two years ago beat the Gators in the Swamp. The Eagles are a bowl-eligible member of the Sun Belt Conference now, even if it’s hard for anyone in Athens to think of them as anything more than the former Division I-A power from Statesboro that had never come within 20 points of beating the Bulldogs in five previous tries.

That threat got an unlikely boost earlier in the week when Alabama coach Nick Saban hailed the Eagles’ offense with an unusual tin horn reference in defense of his own team. (Google it.)

Georgia needed a decisive showing to slow down the regime-change train, and it looked like a likely option early.

The Bulldogs drove easily for a touchdown on its opening drive for the first time all season. Georgia’s defense smothered the Eagles for minus-2 yards on its opening possession.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to a no-panic night. Senior Malcolm Mitchell, one of the most reliable weapons in Georgia’s arsenal, caught a slant and crossed inside the Georgia Southern 10 before fumbled the ball away.

Then Marshall Morgan missed a field goal on the next possession, leaving the Eagles down only a touchdown as its option offense was gaining confidence. Georgia Southern capitalized with a tying touchdown before halftime.

If this season has taught us anything it’s that Georgia can’t afford to squander any scoring opportunities. Georgia Southern knew this as well as Bulldogs fans and grew more emboldened every passing minute.

Next thing you know it’s all knotted at 7-7 at halftime. Then it’s 14-14 after three quarters. Then it’s 17-all after regulation. The Bulldogs actually had to rally late in both quarters for those last two ties with a muffed punt, diving catch by Terry Godwin and a 43-yard Morgan field goal saving the day.

There were enough cheers from all corners in the predominantly red crowd every time Georgia Southern did something well that you had to wonder if some of the Bulldog faithful weren’t rooting for an upset that might turn the tables and make the decision easy. Richt even received a hail of boos when Georgia didn’t even take a timeout or try to take a deep shot for field goal range from its own 40 with 15 seconds left in regulation.

We won’t know how things might have changed if Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz had decided to go for a winning shot on fourth down at the Georgia 40 with 39 seconds left. Maybe Georgia’s defense wouldn’t have had the chance to stuff the Eagles’ L.A. Ramsby on fourth down in overtime. Maybe Michel wouldn’t have had the chance to end the historic upset foolishness with his clutch burst.

“The guys that ought to be making plays were making plays,” Richt said of the end result.

Georgia Southern wasn’t rejoicing any moral victories when it was over. And Georgia’s actual win was hardly the morale boost the Bulldogs fan base was looking to get.

There’s a floundering Georgia Tech posing the next in-state challenge and a second-tier bowl after that. Another 10-win season remains a viable option for the Bulldogs that makes any decision all the more difficult,

The answers will come after all that. If the judgment ultimately proves unfavorable, at least Richt walked out of Sanford Stadium a winner.

Michaux: Dabo, Cam show us why football is fun

Thu, 11/19/2015 - 7:34pm

Football and joy don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

It’s easy to forget that sometimes when every news cycle is inundated with coaching anxiety, injury reports, domestic abuses or a host of other things that are the antithesis of fun.

It’s a violent game, certainly, and often infused with warfare terminology that is insulting to the life-and-death seriousness of actual war.

At its heart, however, football is still a game. A man’s game, for sure, but a game nonetheless. And games should be about fun. It’s okay to dance when you’re having fun.

Dancing has become a big theme for two teams separated by about 125 miles of I-85 that have a lot to be joyful about. The Clemson Tigers are 10-0 and ranked No. 1 by the College Football Playoff selection committee. Up the road in Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers are 9-0 and join the reigning Super Bowl champions as the only remaining unbeaten teams in the NFL.

Back in 1995, the Tigers and Panthers actually shared Clemson’s Memorial Stadium. Neither team had too much to cheer about back then. The expansion Panthers (5-3) actually had a better record in Death Valley that season than the Tigers (3-3).

Twenty years later, Clemson and Carolina have much to celebrate. Which brings us to the stories of Dabo and “The Dab.”

Dabo Swinney, Clemson’s head coach, is an irrepressible optimist. He talks about a hundred miles a minute in a cascade of motivational jargon and acronyms that have infected the delirious Tiger faithful. And Dabo dances without any inhibitions. He dances like nobody’s watching even when the videos keep going viral. He breaks out the Whip, the Hotline Bling and the “Happy” dance.

“We’re going to do the Whip and Nae-nae tonight,” Swinney bellowed on ESPN after Clemson launched its title hopes with a signature win over Notre Dame.

It’s uncomfortable and awesome at the same time. It’s pure joy and everybody can’t help but cheer along with him.

Cam Newton, Carolina’s franchise quarterback, is an irrepressible showman. He’s a rare talent who at his best can make the most ordinary teams championship caliber. In his one season at Auburn, he kept making dramatic saves that carried a program that was no better than 8-5 before and after him to a 14-0 record and national title in 2010 while picking up a Heisman Trophy along the way.

Now Cam is doing the same thing with a Panthers offense that nobody is going to mistake for the 2007 New England Patriots. His best wide receiver is journeyman Ted Ginn Jr., for goodness sake. Yet with Newton’s arm, legs and knack for making the big play when absolutely necessary, the Panthers have managed to score more than its terrific defense has allowed for 13 consecutive regular season games. Carolina has a three-game lead in its quest to win a third consecutive NFC South title and a two-game cushion on everyone else in the NFC race for home-field advantage.

So Newton has a pretty good reason to dance – and he does. His “Superman” move has been part of his celebratory repertoire since he was a rookie, and it galls some folks who prefer their champions to remain stoic.

Last week after a hard-fought, victory-sealing rushing touchdown in Nashville, Tenn., against the Titans, Newton added a new routine when he danced “the Dab.” Some actually incorrectly attributed the origin of the dance to Dabo Swinney, since Dabo “dabbed” as well after the Florida State win two weeks ago. But the dance actually originated in Newton’s hometown Atlanta hip-hop scene.

Cam was just being Cam and having fun before giving his touchdown ball (as he always does) to a young fan in the stands. Judging from the fallout reaction, however, you’d have thought Newton was a bigger monster than Greg Hardy.

Two Titans defenders objected that Newton’s dance went on too long and was showing them up. Titans coach Mike Mularkey said it violated a “code of ethics.” A mother in the stands claims her 9-year-old daughter was shocked by his “pelvic thrusts” and wrote Carolina a letter lecturing Newton on his behavior modeling “egotism, arrogance and poor sportsmanship.”

Newton is somehow public enemy No. 1 in the NFL for dancing. Are you kidding me? Nobody ever seems to get upset with Tom Brady’s primal touchdown celebrations or Aaron Rodgers’ “double check” that inspired an ad campaign. On the same Sunday that Cam danced, Arizona Cardinals’ back-up quarterback Drew Stanton ran down the sidelines and danced wildly like a caffeinated mascot while starter Carson Palmer made a crude gesture and exclamation to the Seattle crowd that will surely draw a fine but little public outcry.

It’s understandable why some people are arguing a racial double standard.

“I’m sick of people getting upset about cam dancing in the endzone really?? Is it that serious,” tweeted Rafael Bush, a former Williston-Elko star now playing for the New Orleans Saints.

It shouldn’t be serious. There’s room in the NFL for stoicism and charisma; humility and boldness. It’s entertainment.

Leave it to Dabo to bring a little perspective. Asked about his Tigers feeling pressure as No. 1, he laughed it off compared to real pressures in the world today.

“This is a game. That’s the message I try to instill in our players all the time,” Swinney said. “First of all enjoy the moment. This brief, brief moment in your life to play a game that your body is not going to allow you to play forever even if you go to the NFL. ... But also understand through this game you have a chance to bring some joy to people who really have pressure in their life, who really have problems. What kind of pressure do I have? Give me a break. I love what I do and it’s important, but when you have the cross as the foundation of your life football ain’t going to bring no pressure. I promise you that. Absolutely zero. That’s why it is fun. This is a game. It’s fun. People lose total perspective out there a lot of times.”

Here’s hoping Dabo and Cam keep dancing all the way to title shots. Given the chance, I for one can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Michaux: Feherty will be stage, not at course during 2016 Masters

Tue, 11/17/2015 - 7:41pm

After 19 Masters Tournaments, David Feherty has given up his annual perch behind the 15th green working for CBS. But golf’s comic genius has one more treat in store for Augusta this spring.

In the evening after Thursday’s opening round, Feherty will perform his one-man show at the Bell Auditorium on April 7. Tickets are available at Augusta marks the last of six Off Tour performances in the second season of his popular live series.

“It’s kind of nice to be able to come back,” said Feherty, who will work for NBC/Golf Channel in 2016. “You know there were a lot of people in Augusta I’ve always felt that weren’t able to go to the tournament for one reason or another. That’s my public, to be honest with you. These are my people, the ones who don’t get to go. I think I identify more with them perhaps than many others. It’s really a nice opportunity for me.”

His live stage performance is different from his self-titled interview show on the Golf Channel. It’s “uncensored and unhinged” with tales from golf and his own poignant personal experiences with alcoholism, growing up in a country torn by urban warfare and becoming an American citizen. He is uniquely qualified to make his audience laugh and cry almost simultaneously.

“It is hard to do and it is therapeutic,” he said. “That’s why I do it. And I think it makes other people comfortable as well. … But it is an important part of my life. A lot of it is quite funny. If I can help even one other person in that audience that means the world to me.”

There are no guests and no FCC restraints performing live, which suits Feherty well as he tries to pack as much of four hours of material into a two-hour show.

“In many ways it’s a lot easier because it’s just me and the spotlight and a microphone and a chicken, for some reason,” Feherty said. “I don’t have to worry about camera moves and I don’t have to be so politically correct or stuff like that. Having said that, it’s a laxative, standing back stage waiting to walk out there. I could screw it up quite easily.”

Feherty’s irreverence can be a little shocking in golf’s “buttoned up” realm – especially in the shadow of Augusta National Golf Club where a certain decorum is expected. But Feherty tells it all with a terrified fearlessness, if that makes any sense.

“I hope they cringe, at least a certain percentage of them,” he said. “If you’re not upsetting somebody I don’t think you’re really doing it right. It is a different show. It’s very anecdotal with some personal material as well as some of the stuff that’s been told to me – stories that will die if I don’t tell them from people like (Ken) Venturi and Arnold (Palmer) and about Jack (Nicklaus) and Tiger and the various other characters throughout the history of the game. Stuff that I’ve been very lucky to have been privy to. In a way I feel like I’m telling the story of the professional game and the history of it. You can’t be involved in professional golf and not find it funny.”

Feherty has long been one of golf’s most popular personalities with his sharp wit and commentary. The native of Northern Ireland turned professional at age 17 with a 5 handicap and fared well enough on the European Tour to compete in the 1991 Ryder Cup and the 1992 Masters. He even finished top-10 three times in major championships.

Fame, however, reached Feherty when he retired from competition in 1997 and picked up the microphone for CBS as an on-course analyst.

“The thought of me being a part of the Masters for nearly 20 years ... if somebody had told me that was going to happen, I would have laughed,” Feherty said. “I was immensely lucky that (Tiger Woods) turned pro about 10 minutes after I became a broadcaster. You talk about the luck of the Irish being assigned to that group every week. … First Masters was Tiger in ’97 and my last Masters was Jordan Spieth, which are pretty good bookends right there.”

His show at the Bell Auditorium will include material he never could have gotten on the air during the Masters. CBS follows a very strict set of protocols at Augusta National, though Feherty says he was never told what he could or couldn’t say other than the Masters’ unique jargon.

“I’ve never really felt inhibited,” he said. “The people at Augusta National have never said to me, ‘Oh, we don’t like that.’ These are stories that I’ve told before. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that I think would upset anyone. That’s a good idea, though.

“It’s not like I wasn’t uncomfortable there – I was. At times very uncomfortable because I have to edit myself. But I understand why. It’s the one major championship that comes back to the same venue every year and people become familiar with it. It really needs punctuation and not so much commentary because people are so familiar with the venue. In that sense, I was happy to take very much a back seat and allow the pictures to tell the story.”

Feherty launched his popular Golf Channel show in 2011, and it’s been a ratings success for the network heading into its sixth season.

“I’m surprised that it lasted one season never mind five and going on into six and beyond,” he said. “I’m still terrified every time. That hasn’t changed. I’ve only ever been able to watch one show, that was the first one with Lee Trevino. I can’t watch myself on television. It’s too horrifying. I would need therapy for weeks afterwards. To have Lee as my first guest meant the world to me because I grew up wanting to be Lee Trevino. He was my hero, still is.”

Feherty left CBS in August and a few weeks later it was announced that he was joining NBC/Golf Channel full time in 2016. He is pleased that CBS will give Dottie Pepper the chance to replace him as on-course analyst and be the first woman on its Masters broadcast.

“It’s about time that we had a female voice – or another one – in that position,” he said.

As for himself, he’s excited about the new opportunities that come with his network switch.

“The Open Championship, the Ryder Cup, the Olympics – I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “I’m very sad to have left the people behind at CBS. They were really wonderful to me over the years and closed ranks around me when I wasn’t well. But it’s a wonderful opportunity for me and chance to go in a slightly different direction and work in a different environment. I’ve done something different every 20 years or so of my life it seems. Hopefully this next 20, if I survive them, will be as much fun as the last.”

Michaux: Not all college football announcers are sold on product placement

Sat, 11/14/2015 - 5:35pm

What would Larry Munson think?

Imagine those iconic Munson play calls in the current era of product placement live reads on the radio.

“Run, Lindsay, run … to the AutoZone end zone.”

“We just stepped on their face with a Florsheim boot and broke their nose.”

“Look at the Stevia falling out of the sky.”

You can listen to all of those classic Munson play calls unencumbered by the commercialism that marks – or more accurately, mars – modern radio broadcasts. When the multimedia companies started the process of branding every aspect of college football broadcasts, the late Munson passed those business bucks off on his booth mates.

“Even when we had a few of those in-games when Larry Munson was doing it, I had to read those,” said Scott Howard, the current voice of the Georgia Bulldogs. “I think about what his reaction would be to doing this kind of broadcast because of how it’s changed.”

This, of course, is not unique to the Bulldog Sports Network from IMG. Collegiate football broadcasts everywhere are cluttered with so many promos that it can get distracting.

There’s the Georgia Metals drive summary. The Comcast Business scoreboard. The BB&T scoring summary. Sideline reports brought to you by Cook’s Pest Control.

Every Allstate Good Hands field goal prompts a $500 donation from Walton Gas.

Every Southwest Airlines touchdown draws a $500 donation from Scana Energy.

And please don’t forget the “icing on the cake brought to you by Tastykake.”

In between at various lulls you find out that Georgia football is powered by Georgia Power, brought to you by Athens Regional Health System or StubHub or Flash Foods or Toyota’s Tundra.

Did you know that any play could be the play that changes the game? Well, Coke Zero wanted you to know that.

Howard should consider himself lucky. He was driving last year listening to a Miami game on the radio when heard the voice of the Hurricanes call a touchdown a “Seaquarium Splashdown.”

Product placement goes back farther than you’d think.

The man who brought it to the forefront was actually Alabama legend Bear Bryant, who opened his Sunday TV show by twisting the cap off a Coca-Cola and opening a bag of Golden Flake potato chips.

Now it’s a ubiquitous element in sports. Bowl games have become shameless tongue twisters. We’ve heard enough Red Baron’s red zone’s and Safeway sacks to be numb to the intrusions.

“I have some concerns to where this is all going from a creative standpoint,” said Wes Durham, the radio voice of the Atlanta Falcons. “The game is still the game and people still want the game. You can strike the happy medium in this business.”

Durham dutifully delivers first-and-10 by the Home Depot once per quarter and throws down to sideline reports brought to you by Marco’s Pizza, but he strives to keep it as seamless as possible to keep it from detracting from the game action.

When Durham called the play-by-play for Georgia Tech as well, he drew the line at a maximum of 32 reads per game. During the first half of Saturday’s Georgia-Auburn game, by my count Howard read 18 promos in the first half including the multiple tosses to Chuck Dowdle for his Cook’s sideline reports.

“Once you go to 42 elements in a broadcast, it’s real hard to go back,” said Durham, whose father, Woody, was the longtime voice of the North Carolina Tar Heels. “Once you show them you can fit 42 into a game, it’s hard to say I only want to do 30.”

It’s safe to say we’ve reached a saturation point already. Nothing on the local football broadcasts has reached the point of Brent Musburger belting out “This is for all the Tostidos.”

But if Larry Munson were alive today and asked to reference the “Wonderful Wonder Bread extra point,” chances are he’d go worse than bonkers.

Michaux: Clemson should have smooth ride to semifinals

Thu, 11/12/2015 - 10:32pm

Now that we’ve had a couple of weeks to get used to Clemson ranking No. 1, gracing the regional cover of Sports Illustrated and being considered the closest thing to a lock for the second installment of the college football playoffs, it seems like a good time to examine the challenge of determining a four-team field.

The stat gurus at FiveThirtyEight project Clemson with a 67-percent chance of both winning the Atlantic Coast Conference and reaching the playoff – the highest probability rating of any team. Ohio State is the second most likely at 56 percent to reach the playoff while Alabama sits third at 43 percent even though the 11-person selection committee ranks the Crimson Tide No. 2 ahead of the Buckeyes.

The only thing we know for certain is that if Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State win out through their respective conference championship games, they’ll each be in the semifinals. The favorites for that final fourth spot would be an undefeated Baylor or the winner of the Notre Dame-Stanford game.

With the exception of Clemson, which has already passed the toughest tests on its schedule with wins over Notre Dame and Florida State, most of the heavy lifting remains for the playoff contenders. With three top-10 teams in the initial ranking losing last week, there’s plenty of time for more upheaval at the top.

We’ve learned some interesting things about the way the selection committee thinks by studying the weekly twists in the rankings over the last two seasons – much of it laudable and some of it a little laughable.

For instance, the committee is not above embracing excuses to cover up blemishes. This was evident last year in the way it repeatedly favored TCU ahead of Baylor despite the Bears winning the head-to-head matchup. Ultimately both got bypassed.

This year’s head-scratcher is the discounting of Stanford’s opening loss at Northwestern. The committee downgraded that result by factoring in that the Cardinal body clocks weren’t adjusted for an 11 a.m. kickoff in Illinois.

“I think we would not be doing our due diligence if we didn’t recognize that that team was playing at 9 a.m. Pacific,” said Jeff Long, the selection committee chairman. “So we look at those things, and they’re a factor. How big of a factor? I can’t quantify that for you, but I know it was discussed by the committee members and probably should have been.”

That goes to show that the committee is certainly paying attention to more things than the average poll voters are when they scratch out their weekly ballots. The rainy weather in Clemson has been considered a mitigating factor for Notre Dame’s lone loss.

But the two biggest dynamics are strength of schedule and style points. It matters not only who you beat but how you beat them. The application of those elements might be a little inconsistently applied, but you’ll assume they all settle together appropriately after all the results are completed.

Schedule strength may be the most defining element. A zero in the right-hand column of your record means nothing if the tally on the left-hand side has been rung up against an array of patsies. Baylor and Iowa might be undefeated, but the committee ranks two one-loss teams ahead of them in the top four at this stage presumably based on the quality of wins and not the number of losses. Unbeaten Oklahoma State is ranked eighth behind once-beaten Stanford, as well.

In Baylor’s case, the reason is simple – the Bears haven’t played a single team with a record currently above .500. But a back-loaded Big 12 heavyweight schedule brings matchups with three straight top-15 teams that will make or break it for Baylor.

“They’re going to get an opportunity to show us,” Long said.

Style, however, is worth enough to keep Baylor perched higher than fellow unbeaten Oklahoma State, which owns far and away the best Big 12 win so far with a dominant victory over previously unbeaten TCU. Baylor’s gaudy offensive stats have the committee intrigued enough to draw a little subjectivity to the table.

“I think the committee remains feeling that Baylor is stronger, therefore we voted them ahead of Oklahoma State,” Long said.

The same can be made of unbeaten Iowa ranking two spots behind reigning champs Ohio State. The committee concedes that the Hawkeyes have played the second best schedule to date among the unbeatens behind only Clemson, with quality wins over Wisconsin, Northwestern and Pitt.

“They’re not a flashy team, but they are consistent,” Long said of Iowa.

Yet the Buckeyes, whose only substantial win is over Penn State, remain ensconced in the top four based on a more exciting array of stars.

“We think they have incredible talent,” Long said. “We think that that team is a team that hasn’t played their best yet. We think that their best games are in front of them.”

So you can see where some mixed signals get sent in these preliminary polls – a combination of relying on objective evidence mixed with a little bit of subjective “thinking.” But since these are really only dress rehearsals until all the precincts have reported on Dec. 5, the discrepancies should level off by then.

None of this, fortunately, is Clemson’s concern. All that matters is that the Tigers have to avoid any missteps on what appears to be the smoothest road to the playoffs. For what it’s worth, those FiveThirtyEight experts who nailed the 2012 national election also project Clemson as the favorite to win it all by two percentage points over Ohio State and five over Alabama and Baylor.

Michaux: Missouri football team set precedent that no doubt will be followed

Tue, 11/10/2015 - 10:34pm

ATHENS, Ga. — A graduate student at Missouri was committed to dying for his cause – and he might have had he not been rescued by a football team.

Jonathan Butler began a hunger strike a week ago, determined to not eat until the university’s president, Tim Wolfe, resigned or his own organs shut down and he died – whichever came first.

Wolfe – criticized for his ineffective leadership regarding a culture of racism on campus – stayed quietly in office for five days while Butler grew hungrier and weaker.

Then late Saturday night, the “athletes of color” on the 4-5 Missouri football team tweeted out a group picture and statement saying “we will no longer participate in football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences.” The next day, Tigers coach Gary Pinkel tweeted his support of the whole team.

Tuesday morning, less than 48 hours after the football team drew a national spotlight to the situation at Missouri, Wolfe and the university system’s chancellor resigned.

The football team missed only a day of film study. Butler resumed eating after eight days of starvation that few people outside the Missouri community bothered to notice.

“It shows you the university’s true values,” said Reuben Faloughi, one of the primary student organizers of the protests. “They value revenue dollars over the student experience here. They were going to let this man die. For eight days I watched my friend dwindle. It took us putting our hand in their pocket to take us seriously.”

If the name Faloughi rings a bell, it’s because he was a 2009 graduate of Evans High School who walked on as a linebacker at Georgia from 2009-12. In the third year of a doctoral program in psychology at Missouri, Faloughi was in a unique position between regular student activist and the student-athletes who made the movement go viral. Talking about his experience with some Tigers players helped “connect the dots” between the student community and the football team.

“It’s important to acknowledge the initiative of the football players themselves,” Faloughi said. “They were already trying to think, ‘How can we get involved.’ It was a matter of connecting the dots and connecting the issues. Obviously being a student-athlete is a lot different than being a regular student. However there are a lot of similarities because as a black male, after Saturday of being the star football player you’re a regular black student on campus and treated as such. They knew they had a platform and that’s all they wanted to give to us.”

Any illusions about the power of amateur college football players ended the second it brought down a university administration simply by refusing to practice for one day. A sleeping giant awakened and a massive precedent has been triggered.

“I think that opened the door for a lot of teams to come together to rally behind whatever it is they stand for as an individual group,” said Georgia senior wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, whose career at Georgia overlapped with Faloughi. “Because the football team is its own community on universities, with obviously a lot of power as we saw at Missouri. I think we’ll see that more often now, if not from other sports as well.”

If university presidents are quaking a little in their offices today, they really have only themselves to blame. It was the universities that fostered a collegiate sports culture that has grown into a colossus. The courtship of dollars brought in by major football programs with their television contracts made those programs essential revenue generators to the point that athletics programs can’t survive without the football or basketball teams.

The players always knew they had a certain amount of power. Now they have a blueprint for how to use it.

“I think we speak of power today, a lot of times it refers to the amount of wealth accumulated,” said Mitchell. “And football teams accumulate a lot of wealth for their programs. So when they threaten to stop doing that, you have no choice but to pay attention.”

Georgia’s football players, as well as others across the country, paid close attention to what was happening at Missouri. The racial tensions that have plagued Mizzou’s campus aren’t unique to that school. Similar tensions have certainly been felt in Athens, Ga., where some fraternity customs have offended black students for years, and Columbia, where the Confederate flag only recently was lowered from the statehouse grounds.

Faloughi hopes what happened at Missouri is “a catalyst for a lot of change.”

“It is ground-breaking, historical, monumental – and it’s heart-warming,” he said. “Athletes are kept in this bubble where they’re not given a real student experience at a university. That they were willing to bridge that gap, that’s powerful. It is my hope student-athletes and student organizers can continue to work with one another to affect change on their campuses.”

Faloughi experienced racism at Georgia as well but it was different as a Bulldogs football player in the sea of adulation on Saturdays. When he went to Missouri three years ago, he didn’t expect to find a “toxic culture” existing outside the South.

“I thought when I got out of Georgia I’d get away from racism for some reason,” he said. “It’s very present here. It’s just a lot different. … In general, racism is just more covert here.”

When the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent non-indictment of the police officer who shot him sparked riots in Ferguson, Mo., just a couple of hours away, Faloughi said “the activist in me was activated. Since then I’ve grown as an activist for marginalized communities.”

Faloughi, his friend Butler, their fellow students and finally the Mizzou football team eventually forced the university’s hand to start a process toward improved relations.

“They came together and stood strong for something they believed in that was really powerful,” said Jay Rome, Georgia’s tight end. “If you want to get a message across, any sports team has a tremendous amount of power and influence over the population. Especially nowadays with Twitter and other social media outlets.”

Said Bulldogs junior safety Quincy Mauger: “College athletes, not just in football, hold a platform that a lot of people idolize. We can make differences in the world and not just on the field. Knowing how to use that power can change the outcome of a lot of different things.”

Missouri used that power to stand up to racial injustice.

“We have a platform to be as persuasive as we want to be,” Mitchell said. “It’s your choice to use it or not. But if you use it you give yourselves opportunities that are endless.”

Michaux: ACC torch has been passed to Clemson

Sat, 11/07/2015 - 10:21pm

CLEMSON, S.C. — The floor of Clemson Memorial Stadium was an orange sea on humanity as the loudspeakers blared Kool & The Gang – Celebrate Good Times.

Somewhere in the middle of all that revelry, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher shook Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s hand and screamed a challenge into his ear.

“Win the whole thing.”

The torch has officially been passed in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Clemson took the Atlantic Division crown from the Seminoles with a smashmouth second-half rally Saturday in Death Valley to win 23-13.

Now with a No. 1 ranking already in hand based upon the first impression of the College Football Playoff selection committee, the Tigers have a genuine opportunity to “win the whole thing” like Florida State did in 2013.

“They’ve been a great champion in this league,” Swinney said of the Seminoles, who didn’t yield the top rung easily. “But tonight, it was our time. We’re division champs. This is what championship football is all about, baby. You got to win in the fourth quarter. Our guys just made the plays when we had to make them. It’s great to be a Tiger!”

It doesn’t take much to get the perepatetic Swinney wound up, but Saturday was a worthy outlet. The Tigers coach adopted the phrase “B.Y.O.G” – bring your own guts – after a defining victory over Notre Dame last month. But this moment was a much bigger gut check. Tagged with the No. 1 ranking from the selection committee Tuesday, the Tigers came in as the primary target against a team that’s handled that kind of pressure for the past two seasons.

There was a nation of skeptics out there waiting to see Clemson fall on its face.

And just like two years ago against the Seminoles with similarly high stakes, their heightened emotions came crashing down in the first chords of the game.

Second snap of the night, Florida State star tailback Dalvin Cook – a player who very nearly came to Clemson out of high school – burst through a yawning gap in the middle of the Tigers’ heralded defense and went 75 yards for the touchdown. It was the longest play against Clemson all season.

The sudden hush was deafening. It hadn’t gone that quiet that fast on this field since the Tigers fumbled the first play to the Seminoles two years ago and subsequently fell into a 17-0 hole in 12 minutes that they were incapable of climbing from.

The sense of deju vu was powerful as the Seminoles were driving again on the second possession threatening to go up 14-0 before Adrian Baker made an interception that was desperately needed.

But that only staunched the bleeding. Clemson wasn’t itself most of the first half. Cook gouged the defense for 157 yards by halftime.

And Clemson’s quarterback Deshaun Watson wasn’t hitting on all cylinders either. He was missing open receivers. He lost track of downs and spiked the ball on third forcing the Tigers to settled for a field goal and a 10-6 halftime deficit.

Swinney took his prized QB aside at halftime for some one-on-one time “to get him dialed in.”

Watson and the defense both proved their mettle from then on. The QB finished with his first career 100-yard rushing game while throwing for 297 more.

“He showed why he’s the best quarterback in the country – maybe the best player in the country,” Swinney said.

The defense was even more impressive, limiting Cook to only 44 yards after halftime. Leading 16-13 with 6:17 remaining, Ben Boulware and Shaq Lawson stuffed Cook on a fourth-and-1 to take over on downs.

After the offense responded with a 25-yard Wayne Gallman touchdown, the defense struck again with Boulware stripping the ball from Florida State’s receiver to seal it.

This is certainly not the same Clemson team that dissolved in a “comedy of errors” a year ago in Tallahassee.

“We didn’t lose to Clemson this year,” Swinney said. “In order to beat people you can’t lose to yourself.”

Before Saturday, the mathematicians rated Clemson’s chances of finishing the regular season undefeated at 43 percent – a huge number compared the the 6 percent chance it gave No. 2 LSU. That number will rise significantly with sub-.500 foes Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina on the menu before the ACC title game in Charlotte.

If there are any skeptics left, Fisher isn’t one of them. He sees something in Clemson and Watson that he was had with his Seminoles and Jameis Winston.

“Until you play a team it’s really hard to judge,” Fisher said. “They have a heckuva team and I hope they go win it all and represent our conference. Anytime you have a quarterback like that, you have a chance.”

None of this shocks Swinney. He might be the most optimistic football coach who’s ever danced in the locker room, but he comes by it honestly. This is exactly where Swinney believed his Tigers belong.

“I’ve been voting our team No. 1 for three weeks,” he said. “Y’all are just catching up.”

He told his team that Monday before the committee unveiled its initial poll that validated his own beliefs. And then he showed them photos of exotic destinations on the itinerary.

Williams-Brice Stadium for the state championship. Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte for the ACC title. The Orange and Cotton Bowls where the semifinals will be staged. “That big toaster” in Arizona where a national champion will be crowned.

The he showed them all the place they need to show up in every day from the practice fields to the meeting rooms to Death Valley where they had to win Saturday night to keep the dream alive.

“We’re in the hunt. We’re in the conversation,” Swinney said. “Every game is a playoff game.”

Michaux: Ranking shows Clemson is elite program

Thu, 11/05/2015 - 9:12pm

Dabo Swinney pledged to deliver the grandaddy of all pizza parties on Dec. 6 in Death Valley if his Clemson Tigers are among the four teams invited to the second college football playoff. Come one, come all.

“I promise you we will have the biggest poll party you’ve ever seen,” Swinney said. “That will be a time to celebrate a poll. Until then, it just doesn’t matter.”

Swinney’s 8-0 Tigers debuted at No. 1 in the initial rankings by the 11-member selection committee released Tuesday. The charismatic coach, however, was not dancing in the locker room about it on Nov. 3. His official stated stance hours before the poll was released was “I don’t care – not unless they will give me an exemption, like a pass. Like in golf, you win a tournament and you don’t have to play the rest of them. You just show up for the Masters.”

No exemptions were handed out Tuesday. No promises were made. The first poll is merely a snapshot of what the committee is thinking based solely on results through Nov. 1. For any playoff hopeful teams, there are four or five more games to be played before anything becomes official.

“It is an honor to be ranked No. 1 and it shows we have had a very good year to this point,” Swinney said. “But anyone near the top of this poll today should not throw a party and no team should be down in the dumps because they aren’t ranked high.”

That’s fair enough. A year ago when the first playoff rankings came out, only one of the initial top-four teams (No. 2 Florida State) made it into the playoffs. The first top-ranked team, Mississippi State, eventually wasn’t even competitive with Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. The eventual national champion, Ohio State, started out No. 16 and didn’t squeak into the top four until the last week.

For something he calls “just so irrelevant,” Swinney seems to have studied the last year’s numbers thoroughly.

“The first poll Georgia Tech wasn’t ranked and finished ninth,” he said. “The first poll, Notre Dame was top 10 and finished unranked. I know that they’ve got to fill the air time and it’s great for college football. You’ve got to have something to talk about and create some drama and excitement and sell advertising, but it just has nothing to do with us.”

Swinney is right – but only to a point. The Tigers being ranked No. 1 in the initial poll is far from irrelevant. With its biggest test sitting in front of Clemson on Saturday afternoon at Death Valley with No. 16 Florida State, the fact that the committee already values what the Tigers have accomplished to this point is a very, very big deal.

Essentially, Clemson can feel pretty confident that if it wins Saturday and doesn’t stumble in its remaining three regular season games plus the Atlantic Coast Conference championship, the Tigers will be invited to one of the semifinals on Dec. 31. After Saturday, Clemson will have already done most of its heavy lifting.

Playoff destiny is essentially Clemson’s to lose – which is the best position any program can hope to be in at the start of November.

“You’ve got to go earn your way there,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to win the games. You don’t get any passes. Our focus in on trying to beat Florida State.”

Clemson has understood since the start what it needs to do to qualify for the playoffs. Florida State was the only undefeated team in the nation last year coming off a BCS title the season before, yet the Seminoles were considered fortunate by many to slip into the playoffs as a No. 3 seed. Unlike the Southeastern Conference, the ACC is not given a lot of slack, so any misstep is magnified. You can see that national bias in the other beauty polls, where the Tigers have climbed only as high as No. 3 in the AP voted by media and No. 5 in the coaches poll.

But the selection committee is a consensus evaluation based purely on results and not reputation. That’s why beating the Seminoles on Saturday is essential.

“If we want an opportunity, we’ve got to win this game,” Swinney said. “We’ve got to find a way to beat these guys. That’s easier said than done.”

The Tigers should have beaten Florida State last year in Tallahassee, Fla.. But this team is in a very different place. Clemson has won 11 consecutive games and 17 of the last 18 since that Florida State loss. If you’re into omens, that’s the longest overall winning streak for Clemson since the 1980-81 seasons, when the Tigers won 13 in a row including a 12-0 run to the 1981 national title.

Clemson ranks fifth in the nation in total defense (278.1 yards per game) while topping the charts in third-down conversion percentage defense (21.2) and first downs allowed (104). With a healthy Deshaun Watson at quarterback, the Tigers rank top 20 in most key offensive categories as well.

It’s certainly a much more polished Clemson team than the one that reached 8-0 in 2011 before winning its first ACC championship in 20 years despite losing four of its last six games, including an embarrassing 70-33 beatdown in the Orange Bowl.

“We didn’t handle the success well that year,” Swinney said. “In 2011, we were just kind of getting going. We jump out to an 8-0 start and we had 42 freshmen on the team and our veterans hadn’t been there before. It was kind of uncharted territory for Clemson to be kinda high in the rankings like that, but that’s kind of become the norm. That’s been my goal since then to consistently be a top-15 team. Because if you can hang in that area you’re winning a bunch of games and all of the sudden the expectation and mentality of your program and the buy-in and the culture, all of that stuff develops from that.”

Swinney says that four years later, “we have a different DNA. We’re built differently in every regard than we were in 2011.”

What that No. 1 ranking from the selection committee means is that Clemson is being treated like the elite program it has become. If it keeps things up, a pizza party when playoff invites are handed out on Dec. 6 might only be the beginning.

“I’ll tell our guys, this is the good ol’ days,” Swinney said. “This is the best of times. And we ain’t even scratched the surface. We’re just getting going. We’re in the midst of what I hope to be the best decade in the history of this program.”

Michaux: Richt won't let fans' opinion change who he is

Tue, 11/03/2015 - 9:46pm

ATHENS, Ga. — For 15 seasons, Mark Richt has consistently preached one thing to his players in good times and in bad – ignore the noise.

It gets a little hard to ignore the noise, however, when it’s blaring down from all sides on the Georgia football coach like Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle ferreting out a holed-up Panamanian strongman.

As the national echo chamber purporting that Georgia needs to make a change in football grows louder after three ugly losses in four games, Richt continues to hold his head above the fray. He acknowledged the elephant in the room in his usual dignified and measured fashion that drives his shrieking critics nuts.

“Here’s the deal everybody – y’all can pay attention to this,” said Richt, scanning the room while wearing his familiar grin. “We’re Georgia. We’re a team. We work together. We’re gonna fight. We’re gonna fight together. We’ll do the things we think we need to do to get better as we go. But the Georgia people can count on us fighting our tails off and doing it in a way that everybody would be proud of in our young men, to get better. So that’s where we’re at right now.”

It’s getting lonelier on the island defending the coach with the highest winning percentage in Bulldogs history. The coach who has transformed the program’s reputation as outlaws to a model of collegiate accountability.

You’d think it would be easy, but apparently calling for Richt’s head has become trendier than watching someone “whip/nae nae.” Everyone’s doing it these days. It’s a pretty sad commentary on modern college football priorities.

It’s easy to understand where all the frustration is coming from. Georgia has underperformed for expectations the last few years – even if those expectations this season were fairly unrealistic. Georgia could still win 10 games for the second consecutive year despite its best player not playing more than half the season each time, but that’s not good enough to please a passionate fan base.

Richt gets that more than anybody.

“I’ve said for years that I’ve always wanted to be at a school where the people care,” he said during a 30-minute news conference that kept circling back to the temperature of his seat. “I’ve always wanted to be at a school where there’s tremendous support, where people are going to get in the stands and get excited and have passion. And you can’t just decide to have passion one way. People have opinions, and when things don’t go well, I don’t blame people for getting mad or upset or whatever. But I do want everybody in the Bulldog Nation to support our players. I think that’s the most important thing, support these guys.”

The two sides on the Richt debate are about as polarized as Democrats and Republicans. One side admires how Richt does things “the right way.” The other side believes the only “right way” is to win championships.

And let’s be perfectly honest, that side is perfectly willing to sacrifice the goodwill Richt has accomplished in rebranding Georgia as a team that won’t tolerate foolishness and holds the players’ best interests above winning at all costs. They’d be perfectly happy keeping the bad apples on board, taking advantage of oversigned “grayshirts” and brushing infractions under the rug if it means the difference between a Peach Bowl and a playoff berth.

And that crowd might be winning the building debate. Rumors are out there claiming Georgia “power brokers” have already made up their minds to make a change and get rid of Richt. The longest-tenured coach in the Southeastern Conference says nobody has discussed his fate with him.

Has he had any conversations with director of athletics Greg McGarity or school president Jeri Morehead about his staff or future?

“No,” Richt said coolly.

Has he thought about taking over play-calling duties?


The players, who universally admire Richt and his principled leadership, don’t believe his job should be on the line.

“It’s easy from the outside looking in to have all the answers,” said junior tight end Jeb Blazevich.

“Coach Richt has been here, what, 15 years?” said senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell. “And how many times have we heard this same story? I’ve heard it twice since I’ve been here. In 2011 season we lost the first two games and people were saying the same thing. Now in 2015 they say the same. I’m not sure I’m interested in that conversation. Because the longer someone is in a certain area, things begin to cycle over and over again. That’s just the way life goes in general.”

For his part, Richt is only focused on turning things around these last four games. Championship dreams are gone, but the season isn’t over and he’s still at the helm.

“You know, what we’ve done to this point really doesn’t define us as much as what we do from here on,” he said. “And that’s how you’ve got to handle adversity in a season and that’s how you’ve got to handle adversity in life, in my opinion. You have to decide what are you going to do now. What we’re going to do now is we’re going to focus on our jobs, we’re going to fight like mad and we’re going to do it together.”

That might be easier said than done. Georgia’s offense is a mess without its best player, without a quality quarterback and without its longtime offensive coordinator whose replacement has proved ineffective. Georgia hasn’t found the end zone in two games. Asked to describe the offense, Mitchell could only say “scoreless.”

Changing for change’s sake, however, isn’t likely to change all that.

“I think sometimes people have a misunderstanding of how long it takes change to take place,” Mitchell said. “This last offseason there’s been a lot of changes and I think people have expected immediate results, which is not the way change works. Over time you begin see the effects of those changes. But there’s not one person who can come in and in one year fix something. That’s just not the way it works. This being my senior year I wish it would have. I had the same hopes every other fan had, but being real with myself, that’s just not the way things work.”

All Richt can do right now is try to hold his team together and find ways to win.

“You just never know how close you are to success,” Richt said. “In 2011, if everybody said the sky was falling and everybody fell apart at the seams, we never could have won 10 in a row like we did that year. You just keep playing, keep believing, keep moving forward in a positive way.”

Michaux: Gary Player still going strong at 80

Sat, 10/31/2015 - 5:43pm

Gary Player turned 80 today and isn’t slowing down – which for him is the whole point.

In the 54 years since the South African became the first international player to win the green jacket, he’s kept the throttle wide open as one of golf’s most ubiqitous ambassadors.

“I’ve been a pro for 60 years and if there’s a man on this planet who’s traveled more than I have I’d like to meet him,” Player told me last year. “I’ll probably travel another 8-10 years to design golf courses and give clinics.”

You never quite know what you’re going to get from the Black Knight when you ask him a question. One day it might be allegations that he knew of players in golf who used performance enhancing drugs, as he said before the 2007 British Open.

Another day he might be asked how he’s doing and embark on a rant about the “tragedy” of Chambers Bay and how it might turn people away from public golf and misuse water resources, as he did at last year’s U.S. Open.

But usually, Player’s passion beyond the game he won nine majors playing is physical fitness. He still travels the globe as much as he ever did as a player, crusading against obesity and promoting good health.

A favorite story retold for years happened at Augusta National when a pudgy young boy approached Player for an autograph. Player happily obliged, though his blunt lecture about the health risks associated with his weight sent the boy whimpering away.

“Was I too harsh?” a puzzled Player asked nearby witnesses.

He’s always been like that, even as a young pro routinely beating all his peers in South Africa.

“We thought he was crazy because he was the only one eating bananas and peanuts and doing press-ups and all that bloody stuff,” fellow South African pro Simon Hobday said. “So we all thought he was, you know, a lunatic. Meanwhile he was right and we were all wrong.”

“We laughed at him – like everybody else,” said Dale Hayes, another South African peer. “Gary said to Simon, ‘I’ve never had a drink. I’ve never had a cigarette. I’ve had very few women. I’m celebrating my 70th birthday next week.’ Simon said, ‘Well, how are you going to celebrate?’”

Player heard the snickers (which incidently happens to be the same word as the candy bar allegedly one of his rare guilty pleasures).

“There were two of us who exercised with weights on the tour – Frank Stranahan and myself,” Player said. “We were ridiculed. We had to go to the YMCA and wait your turn. We kept on doing it profusely and eventually we had a great impact on golf. That for me is the biggest thrill I had in golf. I won a tournament at 63. I can still play well because I’m in good shape – not on Augusta but on a regular golf course. I’m the only one to win a Grand Slam on both tours. You know why I did it? Because when I was 50 I was in almost as good a shape as when I was 30. Very little difference. Now you have a traveling gymnasium on almost every tour in the world. They are blessed to have what they have on the tour today.”

There’s no concern that Player won’t be fit and ready to make his 59th trip to Augusta in April to hit his honorary tee shot – hopefully sharing the stage again with his Big Three mates Arnold Palmer, 86, and Jack Nicklaus, 75.

“I don’t know whether I’d be able to go on the first tee at Augusta more than 20 more years,” he said. “That depends, you know.”

Reaching 100 at the Masters seems like a reasonable Player goal.

“That’s longevity, which is my great passion as I’m trying to get the youth of America that’s so obese and so out of shape interested in,” Player said. “It’s nice still to be around. Most of my friends are dead.”

Player served as “wellness ambassador” at the PGA Tour event in Palm Springs, Calif., which partners with the Clinton Foundation promoting global health. It’s a subject guaranteed of eliciting all of his passion.

“These are some of the stats that break my heart because I love this country,” he said. “Twenty-five percent of the youth of America are obese. America is rated 25th in the world health wise. Not in the top 20 education wise. This country should be No. 1 across the board. We need athletes to play a very prominent role in telling children and not using any of these damn performance-enhancing drugs. We want them standing up and saying, ‘You’ve got to exercise. You’ve got to be fit. You live in America and owe America something.’ Get these kids to get their butts off computers when they come home and the parents have got to stop feeding them all this junk and start feeding them fruits and vegetables and salads and not all these fatty snacks and sugar drinks. You wouldn’t even give that to your dog. So we’ve got to get America to wake up and we as athletes have got to enhance that.”

In 2013 at age 77, Player was talked into posing (discreetly) nude for ESPN Magazine’s fitness issue – holding up a globe like Atlas. While he has no plans to reproduce that image at age 80, he says the publicity it generated served his higher purpose.

“We had more tweets and emails and telephone calls – it’s one of the best things we ever did,” Player said. “A man in Iowa sent an email and I phoned him from my ranch in South Africa I was so impressed. He said, ‘I’m 40 pounds overweight, my children are little porkies and after looking at you at nearly 80 and seeing no body fat I’m now exercising and watching my diet and my family are as well.’ This is my passion to speak to the world about this terrible obesity because more people are dying of obesity-related diseases than all the wars put together, It’s very simple: get everybody to walk and eat half of what they eat. That’s the secret. Eat only when you’re hungry. Don’t eat like it’s the Last Supper.”

So in honor of Player’s 80th birthday today, perhaps we should all skip the cake.

Michaux: Bulldogs in control of their destiny again

Thu, 10/29/2015 - 4:01pm

ATHENS, Ga. – We have reached the nearly annual “control our destiny” portion of the Georgia football season – otherwise known as Georgia-Florida week.

This time, that phrase carries a double meaning regarding coach Marck Richt.

Despite a growing perception to the contrary, destiny in their own hands has more often than not been kind to the Bulldogs. This is the ninth time in Richt’s 15 seasons at the Georgia helm that the Bulldogs have reached their annual rivalry game on Halloween weekend knowing that if they win out in conference play they would be Southeastern Conference East champions.

Five of the previous eight occasions, Georgia has won the East (even if they didn’t win out).

“Here we go,” Richt said when he walked into his weekly press conference Tuesday. Even with two conference losses to Alabama and Tennessee, the Bulldogs once again control their own fate – but only if they can beat the favored Gators on Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla.

“We want to win the East – that’s it every year,” Richt said. “I mean, that’s our focus, that’s our goal. When you think about it, going into the eighth game of the year and we’re still right in the heart of it, that’s a good thing. So I’m pleased with that. But now we’ve got to do it.”

Motivation should never be a problem when Georgia and Florida meet in one of the nation’s signature rivalry games on neutral ground in a sold-out stadium split down the middle with rabid fans from both sides.

But it’s always a little more special when both teams have a title at stake. The last time that was the case was 2012, when Malcolm Mitchell made a fourth-quarter 45-yard catch-and-run touchdown and Westside’s Sanders Commings recovered a goal-line fumble in the end zone to seal a 17-9 Bulldogs win.

Mitchell, now a senior, remembers that game not so much for his heroics in it or the SEC title shot it created but for the attitude that his team brought into it and left with.

“I think the way we competed as a team would be why that was one of my favorite games,” Mitchell said. “From the first play you will see us compete at a high level, not backing down. I think as long as we do that this Saturday we’ll put ourselves in a position to have a good outcome.”

Competing at that “high level” is what has hijacked the narrative about the Bulldogs. A year ago as presumptive favorites with everything at stake, the Bulldogs played one of their most confounding games in Richt’s tenure. A Florida team that was reeling under the stress of an inevitable coaching change took momentum from a fake field goal touchdown and turned it into an avalanche of rushing yards and points that buried Georgia’s title aspirations.

There was no logical defense for the crushing defeat.

Along with the blowout loss to Alabama four weeks ago and the blown lead at Tennessee the next game, the grumbling about Richt’s failure to deliver any championships in 10 years has intensified. Fair or not for a man with the highest winning percentage in Georgia coaching history, it has become the narrative.

Monday night, a caller to Richt’s radio show was particularly blunt.

“I cannot get out of my truck without people telling me, ‘When are you going to fire that guy?’” the caller said to Richt. “It’s getting harder and harder to defend you, man.’”

Saturday’s game should not be about Richt’s “destiny” and there’s no reason to believe his job is in jeopardy. But as veteran SEC journalist Tony Barnhart called it, this is a “quality-of-life” game for the coach. Beating the Gators and setting up a chance to beat Kentucky and Auburn and represent the SEC East in the championship game would quiet the unrest and put the focus back where it should be on the team’s goals.

“We are this deep into the season and we’re playing Florida and we’re in a very meaningful game,” Richt said. “We know if we win the next three games, we’re in. Obviously, Florida wins the next three games, they’re in, or however many they’ve got left. We’re the two teams in the East that kind of control our destiny. So that’s where you hope to be. To me, there’s still a lot to be written this season. It’s just a little past halfway. So I’m not ready to say what kind of year it (is) yet or not.”

Richt’s plight isn’t helped by the immediate success of his counterpart Saturday, first-year Gators coach Jim McElwain who will be the fifth Florida coach Richt has faced in 15 seasons at Georgia.

“Most of them have whooped me, so I don’t know if it means a whole lot,” Richt said of the Gators turnover at the helm.

McElwain inherited a team hardly bereft of talent – especially on defense. And the Gators caught breaks in narrow wins over East Carolina and Tennessee that might have sent the season in a different direction.

“(McElwain) really did a tremendous job of turning around that program ... walking into a situation where there’s a really fine talent base and he got everybody going in the right direction in a hurry,” Richt said. “Certainly (former coach Will) Muschamp deserves some credit as far as the talent base that’s still in the house there, but Coach McElwain and his staff have done a great job of getting everybody on the same page and getting them rolling.”

Georgia can’t worry about what Florida is doing other than stopping its offense and figuring out a way to move against its defense. The Bulldogs haven’t fared too well against the best defenses its faced in Alabama and Missouri.

Richt’s coaching destiny shouldn’t be the story Saturday. Only Georgia’s immediate destiny that, as is usually the case, falls under things they can do something about.

“At first it was out of our control,” said defensive tackle Chris Mayes, “but now with the losses and everything that’s happened, the situation is back in our power. We control our destiny from here. I think (it feels bigger) because so much is at risk here, mostly the rest of the season. We know if we take this game and the next two games after that we’re definitely kings of the East.”

Michaux: Jackets' win over Seminoles won't be forgotten

Tue, 10/27/2015 - 8:09pm

Sometimes we all lose sight of things and need to be reminded of why we care about sports in the first place.

We lose focus because a couple of disappointing losses cripple our outsized visions of grandeur.

We lose enthusiasm because a couple of down seasons portend a need to rebuild.

We lose interest because a five-game losing streak spoils expectations and long-range goals.

We lose perspective of what’s actually at stake in recreation.

It’s not all championships and glory. At its core, sports is about moments and memories – and being present in a shared experience so they can be treasured when they’re history.

Georgia Tech provided one of those perfect moments on Saturday night. Smack in the middle of a season fast-tracking toward forgettable, the Yellow Jackets did something unforgettable. Something the players and sellout crowd of 55,000 will be talking about long after it will take a Google search to recall the 2015 won-loss record.

Something that left grown men screaming and crying and young students pouring onto the field in delirium.

The last-second blocked field goal and improbable 78-yard return by previously little-known defensive back Lance Austin was one of the most electrifying moments in Ramblin’ Wreck history.

“It feels great to be a part of a play like this, a game like this that is going to go down in history,” said Pat Gamble, the 6-foot-5 defensive lineman who got his paw on Roberto Aguayo’s 56-yard attempt and set the most fortunate series of events in motion. “I’m going to be old and gray one day, and I can tell my child about this.”

Instantly dubbed the rather bland “Miracle on Techwood” by Yellow Jackets play-by-play man Brandon Gaudin, you can forgive him failing to instantly come up with something catchier in the hysteria of it all happening in real time. Given a little time to digest, “Block and Awe-stin” might have captured the moment a little snappier. Or simply the “Block-Six” like the similarly stunning “Kick-Six” in the 2013 Iron Bowl or the “Drop-Six” in Michigan’s Big House a week ago.

ESPN2’s broadcast provided a shouting word avalanche by Mark Jones.

“Blocked! Snuffed! Rubbed out! Erased! ... And Georgia Tech with an opportunity. ... Austin, still on his feet. ... One man! You can’t believe what just happened. ... What a time to be alive!”

Georgia Tech’s radio team went berserk, with analyst Sean Bedford hollering “You’ve got to be kidding me!” as Gaudin bellowed “And he scores! He scores!”

A game written off as a throwaway based on the Jackets’ five-game losing skid coming in became an all-time classic. The Football Writers Association of America named Georgia Tech the “team of the week” for ending No. 9 Florida State’s 28-game ACC winning streak. ESPN threw the replay in loop as its game of the week and gave Lance Austin its “Big Man on Campus” feature treatment on Monday, where he got a standing ovation when he went into Chick-fil-A to get a sandwich.

It’s hard to find comparable moments in Bobby Dodd Stadium history. Maybe Gary Lee’s 95-yard kickoff return that sparked a victory over Georgia in 1985, but that happened in the third quarter. Maybe Luke Manget’s overtime field goal to beat the Bulldogs in 1999 after already having one blocked on third down that was recovered by his holder. Possibly the 1998 win over No. 7 Virginia when the Jackets rallied from 21 points down with 20 minutes to play and the Cavaliers’ 54-yard game-tying kick slid under the crossbar.

Or perhaps the 2008 game against Florida State dubbed the “Miracle on North Avenue” when the Seminoles were driving for the win in the final minute and fumbled the ball away in the end zone.

But all of those moments were relatively conventional by comparison. This one had it all with time already expired. A conference Goliath sending its perfect kicker for the win with six ticks left. A sophomore hesitating before disregarding his coach’s instruction to pick the ball up and turn back upfield from inside his own 20. A white wall of blockers in formation as the decibels rose. The kicker flailing desperately past the last cutback. Austin’s twin brother Lawrence – who minutes earlier broke up the end zone pass that led to a hope-saving interception – escorting Lance across the goal line. The bedlam that ensued.

“What a great play by Lance to pick it up,” said coach Paul Johnson, who tried to wave him off the ball before waving him on as cheerleader. “He got some key blocks and he made a couple guys miss. We were due. It was our turn.”

An unsuspecting moment like that can change a season. The 3-5 Jackets still need three more wins as they hit the easiest three-game stretch of the final four games on the schedule to become eligible for a 19th consecutive bowl.

“We’ve still got a big, big hole to dig out of,” said Johnson, trying to stabilize the euphoria of Saturday night and focus ahead. “The goal of the team right now is try to get to a bowl game. So we’ve got to win No. 4.”

Whether they reach that adjusted goal or not, Saturday reminded us all that it only takes a moment to be remembered forever.

“That’s great; that’s what it’s all about,” Johnson said of the scene pouring over historic Grant Field. “That’s college football.”

Michaux: NFC South no longer joke of NFL

Sat, 10/24/2015 - 5:14pm

Was it really only 10 months ago when the NFC South was football’s biggest punch line?

Mid-December rolled around in 2014 with no teams from the NFL’s weakest division sporting more than five wins. It ultimately came down to a year-ending lightweight bout between six-win jugger-nots Carolina and Atlanta to determine who would become only the second sub-.500 playoff team earning a playoff bye.

This space back then stated “the official mood of the NFC South should be chagrin.” The four division teams combined for only 22 wins all last season.

Six weeks into the 2015 NFL season and the NFC South has gone from laughing stock to blue-chip stock. It’s only late October and the NFC South is the only conference to boast two five-win teams already – the 5-0 Panthers and 5-1 Falcons.

USA Today this week ranked the NFC South as the third best in football (behind the AFC’s East and North), citing the Panthers and Falcons as “responsible for one of the largest turnarounds of a division in recent memory.”

Whichever side of the Savannah River your allegiance falls, Carolina and Atlanta have collectively “risen up” to make it safe to root in public for our regional programs.

Under new head coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons needed only five weeks to sweep right through the historically-vaunted NFC East – beating the Eagles, Giants, Cowboys and Redskins. Atlanta’s only misstep is a short-week Thursday night loss to division arch-rival New Orleans.

They are determined to exorcise that setback today against the struggling Tennessee Titans coached by Richmond Academy grad Ken Whisenhunt.

“It’s a bounceback week and we’re fully prepared to get back on the right track,” said Falcons veteran receiver Roddy White.

“We can’t let one loss and everyone focusing on one loss last week determine the outcome of our season,” said Falcons superstar wideout Julio Jones.

With only three of its 10 remaining regular-season games against teams currently with winning records, the Falcons are certainly favorably aligned to win 11 or 12 games. Minnesota (3-2) and Indianapolis (3-3) are the toughest non-division games left.

But of course two of those tough tests left are against Carolina just two weeks apart from each other in December.

The Panthers have won 10 of their past 11 games dating back to last season, including a playoff win over Arizona. While the first four wins came against weak foes with a combined 7-16 record, rallying to beat reigning NFC champs Seattle in Seattle quieted the Panthers skeptics.

“You look at the pools and people still have us as one of the worst undefeated teams and we’re okay with that,” said Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, a former Georgia star. “We love flying under the radar. We don’t need anyone outside of this lockerroom believing in us other than our fans.”

Carolina still has the NFC East to contend with starting with Philadelphia tonight. And the next two weeks bring on the Colts (on Monday night) and Packers. All three games in this toughest remaining stretch, however, are in Charlotte.

Considering the Panthers already own back-to-back division titles – the first team to do that since the NFC South was formed in 2002 – they should be the de facto favorites despite the moderately tougher remaining road. The last time the Panthers started 5-0, they made it to the Super Bowl in 2003.

Who prevails? Carolina has a better defense than Atlanta, which still has a ways to rebuild (particularly against the pass) under its defensive architect Quinn.

Offensively, Atlanta has the edge with its receivers and the emerging rushing force of Devonta Freeman. But the Panthers have Cam Newton, who has been a wildcard intangible since charmed Auburn days and just seems to make things happen.

Whichever team ultimately wins the NFC South (and chances are strong that both the Panthers and Falcons could be postseason bound), the mood has completely changed around here.

They’ve buried the title as the worst division in football (the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal can stand alone there). There’ll be no shame when the Falcons and Panthers settle it on the field this December.

NFC South pride is something worth bragging about now.

Michaux: Georgia Tech's struggles cause matchup with Florida State to lose luster

Thu, 10/22/2015 - 7:44pm

This week’s game was circled on a lot of calendars. It was certainly circled on mine.

Florida State versus Georgia Tech on historic Grant Field. A rematch of last year’s Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game.

The team that hasn’t lost a regular season game since 2012 against the team whose bowl streak extended to 18 years with a lopsided romp in the Orange Bowl.

It was the kind of matchup that surely might draw ESPN’s College GameDay to The Flats for the first time since Oct. 24, 1998, when 23rd-ranked Georgia Tech played host to No. 5 Florida State in a showdown that determined the ACC title and helped the Seminoles reach the BCS Championship game.

The national spotlight, however, turns away when a team loses five consecutive games as these Yellow Jackets have. Instead of ESPN setting up its iconic GameDay underneath Tech Tower on Saturday, the road show will broadcast from Harrisonburg, Va., before the FCS Colonial Athletic Association showdown between Richmond and James Madison – a game featuring former Georgia Tech starting quarterback Vad Lee and not the Jackets who chased him to JMU.

That has to sting.

So how did this game fall so far off the map? Florida State did its part, riding its Heisman candidate tailback Dalvin Cook and Notre Dame transfer quarterback Everett Golson to a 6-0 record and No. 9 ranking.

Georgia Tech, the preseason Coastal Division favorite, has fallen from its high of No. 14 two weeks into the season and can’t get up. The Jackets are 0-4 in the conference and at 2-5 (.286) overall hold the worst winning percentage in the ACC. Only Kansas (0-6) and Purdue (1-6) are worse among the 64 Power 5 teams.

The situation has reduced Jackets coach Paul Johnson – one of the ultimate accountability coaches – into making excuses for his team’s lousy record. During his weekly Monday press conference, Johnson repeatedly kept bringing up the quality of Georgia Tech’s opposition like he was a politician hammering home his prepared talking points.

“I would venture to guess nobody else in the country had played five teams in a row that are 27-4 and six teams that have been 33-4,” Johnson said of the vanquishers that include Notre Dame, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson and Pitt.

That’s fair enough, considering five of the six teams (all but North Carolina) in this stretch are currently ranked in the top 25 and three of them were unbeaten top-10s when facing the Jackets. But outside of road trips to play the Irish and Tigers this hardly represents a murderer’s row.

Georgia Tech wasn’t remotely competitive against Notre Dame or Clemson, trailing the Irish 30-7 going into the final minute and the Tigers 33-10 at the half. They couldn’t convert second-and-3 at the Duke 28 in the fourth quarter, with its vaunted triple-option stuffed on three consecutive plays. It blew a 21-0 lead late in the first half against North Carolina. It yielded a long late field goal to lose a see-saw game to Pitt at home.

It all has driven Johnson to the point of playing the pointless “what if” game.

“There’s a really fine line between winning and losing,” Johnson said. “We win at Duke, which we had every opportunity to win and we didn’t. And you have to give Duke credit. They are 5-1 and a lot of people haven’t beaten them. I think anybody who saw the North Carolina game knows we had a chance to win that game, but we didn’t. And you have to give them credit. They made plays and we didn’t. We couldn’t get it in on the goal line and couldn’t get a stop. And same with last game (Pitt). You win those three games, you are 5-2 and it’s deja vu.

“Two years ago, we would have scored on the goal line or we would have picked it off when they threw it to us on the goal line. The guy wouldn’t have made a 56-yard field goal. We would have gotten the ball at midfield and probably went down and won the game. That’s how fine the line is.”

That’s some fine tortured logic. If you aren’t buying that, Johnson is also under-selling last year’s 11-3 as an alternative.

“I don’t know if there’s a huge difference between last year and this year,” he said. “With the exception of the offense is not quite as good. I mean, we weren’t stopping people last year either.

“I don’t think we are a bad football team. I don’t think we are a great football team, but a bounce here or there. All I’m telling you is we’ve played some pretty good teams. And you don’t have to take my assessment, take the record. They are 27-4, the five teams we’ve played. So, a lot of people have struggled with the teams we just played. And the next one coming in is 6-0. I would venture to guess that it’s been a long time since anybody played three top-10 teams in the six games in a row.* And the other two were in the top 25. That’s a pretty good stretch. And it’s a really good stretch when you’ve got the injuries we’ve got, and the freshmen we are playing and the struggles.

“So, are we playing as well as we’d like to? No. I’m not saying that’s an excuse. We want to win the games. I’m just saying it is what it is. You could have a different schedule and be 5-2 and not be near as good of football team as you are at 2-5. And nobody would know.”

(* – Off the top of my head, I know Mississippi State – the team Georgia Tech rolled 49-34 in the Orange Bowl – played three consecutive top-eight teams last year and beat them all.)

Georgia Tech isn’t near as good a football team as Johnson seems to think it’s close to being. It would be surprising if the Jackets beat the Seminoles this week – but not entirely shocking since the oddsmakers only deem Florida State a six-point favorite.

And while the schedule certainly ratchets down after this week (Virginia, Virginia Tech and Miami), it will require the best rally the Jackets can muster to reach a season-finale showdown with rival Georgia with an opportunity to get bowl eligible for the 19th consecutive season.

Even if Georgia Tech makes it to the Georgia game with postseason hopes, chances are College GameDay doesn’t have it circled on its calendar.

Michaux: Georgia seeks consistency, return to Big Dance

Tue, 10/20/2015 - 8:03pm

ATHENS, Ga. — Sustain.

Every basketball team wants it. Only a few have ever really possessed it – Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State … generally the same names you hear every year come postseason time.

Georgia has never been one of those teams. Only once in its 107-year history have the Bulldogs ever won 20 games in three consecutive seasons (1995-98). Only three times has Georgia been invited to consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

This Georgia team can hit both those milestones. Mark Fox’s team hopes it built the foundation for its own sustainability.

“I think that the roller coaster historically – we have to one day get away from that,” Fox said Tuesday. “If we can find success again and put together the third straight 20-win season then that only helps. It’s going to take time to establish the consistency and this year is just another opportunity to do that.”

“Another opportunity” is an understatement of massive proportions. Only two coaches in 107 years can claim their Georgia teams produced consecutive basketball seasons of at least 20 wins – Tubby Smith and Fox. Hugh Durham had four 20-win teams in his 17-year tenure at Georgia, but never two consecutively.

In six years at the helm, Fox has hit the mark three times. His 2010-11 team finished 21-12 and reached the NCAAs. His 2013-14 team went 20-14 and went to the NIT.

Last year’s team pushed eventual Final Four participant Michigan State to the limit in the NCAA’s round of 32.

Despite the loss of Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic, this year’s team has high hopes.

“I definitely think so,” senior guard Kenny Gaines said. “Even though we lost Marcus and Nemi I feel like with the freshman we have coming in this year we still have the same firepower to get the job done.”

Two weeks into preseason practices, Fox said this team hasn’t even reached the stage of establishing its goals. But the two seniors – Gaines and Charles Mann – have an idea of what they want to achieve before they leave and that involves at least 20 wins and another crack at March Madness.

“It would be amazing,” Mann said. “Me and Kenny want to have a good legacy leaving here and by doing that we could pretty much put a stamp on it.”

Establishing consistency is a legacy worthy of aspiration. It’s a rarity around here. Georgia Tech used to have it in the Bobby Cremins and early Paul Hewitt days but last went to the NCAAs in 2010. Clemson had a four-year NCAA run from 2008-11 but hasn’t returned since. South Carolina last reached the NCAAs in 2004.

Since Georgia Tech reached the NCAA final in 2004, the flagship programs from Georgia and South Carolina have largely been overshadowed by the mid-majors like Mercer, Georgia State, College of Charleston and Winthrop in terms of March Madness wins the last decade.

Since Jim Harrick went afoul of NCAA rules in 2003, the Bulldogs haven’t had much postseason success. They’ve reached the NCAAs only three times in the last 12 years (2008, ’11 and ’14), and the first was the closest thing to a fluke you can get when a squad with a 4-12 conference record won a tornado-disrupted SEC Championship.

Even when Gaines and Mann arrived in 2012 after a sub-.500 season, the mood surrounding UGA hoops was less than exuberant. That’s changed with consecutive seasons finishing among the top three in the Southeastern Conference.

“We definitely got the fans back that we used to have in 2011,” Gaines said. “There’s just a different feel when Georgia basketball is talked about now. Me and Charles kind of talked about when we first came here, we wanted to revitalize the program and turn things around. We feel like we’ve done something for the most part.”

Mann said it’s been a complete turnaround – though he errantly doubled the number of degrees of “evoluton.”

“The last four years have been like a 360,” Mann said. “Me and Kenny didn’t do it by ourselves. We had Marcus and Nemi. I felt like we brought some excitement back to Georgia basketball and we’re just going to have to continue to build on it.”

This squad, with the addition of heralded freshmen William “Turtle” Jackson and Derek Ogbeide in particular, should be more athletic and faster paced.

“I feel like we can push the ball more and make it a faster game,” Gaines said.

“Try to make the game a little fun,” Mann added.

If it develops as Fox hopes, perhaps Georgia can get off that inconsistent roller coaster and become a more sustainable program.

“It’s very hard and only a select few teams do that,” Mann admitted. “But it’s doable. We just have to take it one day at a time and continue to get better and believe in each other.”

Michaux: Bulldogs' win not exactly inspiring

Sat, 10/17/2015 - 11:43pm

ATHENS, Ga. — In a Southeastern Conference East rivalry series that is short on history, the annual state-of-emergency game with Missouri has become an unwelcome Georgia tradition.

For the third consecutive year, the Bulldogs have reached the Mizzou game on the schedule a deeply fragile team forced to lean more heavily on its preseason fourth-string tailback Brendan Douglas than desired.

In 2013, Georgia emerged from the carnage of losing three skilled offensive starters at Tennessee and couldn’t shake the gloom in a 41-26 loss that signaled a downward spiral.

In 2014, Georgia shook off the shock of a four-game suspension to Todd Gurley and hammered the Tigers 34-0 on the road that triggered a short-lived recovery.

On Saturday night, with backs to the wall at 1-2 in the conference and another crushing loss of a Heisman hopeful at Tennessee, the Bulldogs desperately needed an inspired response.

What it got was an offensive gameplan that appeared to be scribbled in crayon and a 9-6 “victory” that had all the creativity of piling up sandbags to avoid a total washout disaster.

“I’ll take it every day,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Just as long as there’s a victory after it, I’m happy.”

Happy seems a strong emotion for what transpired between the hedges. Without its defense stepping up repeatedly, Georgia’s season goals would have been a total loss. As it stands, they have two weeks to prepare something better than Saturday’s script for a make-or-break showdown with the Florida Gators.

Florida seemed a long way off watching the Bulldogs try to avoid disaster against Mizzou. At times, things looked hopeless.

Georgia’s two most prominent offseason acquisitions – offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and transfer quarterback Greyson Lambert – inspired more profanity than confidence in a stunned fan base. Tethered by apparent necessity, neither newcomer seemed capable of handling what is on their SEC plate.

The best that could be said of their collective efforts is that they somehow didn’t do enough to lose.

This was a matchup that was doomed to be ugly before the late 7:30 p.m. kickoff ever arrived. Mizzou is a team that’s learned to thrive – or as often as not survive – on ugly. It’s a recipe that has produced consecutive SEC East titles for the Tigers.

Saturday’s game quickly lived down to its potential. First play of the night, Georgia’s erratic quarterback threw a batted-ball interception that came within a Malcolm Mitchell hustle tackle at the 1 of being a Pick-Six but ended up a Pick-Three when the defense pushed the Tigers backwards a yard.

It was a sequence of events that foretold the rest of the night. What followed was a game of confusing play calls by Georgia’s NFL-import assistant and a tortured display of offensive football broken up by inspired defense.

Given enough chances, Bulldogs placekicker Marshall Morgan made enough field goals to eke out the victory – nailing a 34-yarder with 1:44 remaining after missing a 26-yarder his previous try.

As is tradition in this budding rivalry, Douglas played an outsized role. The former Aquinas star was called into emergency service for the third straight year against the Tigers.

In 2013, with both Gurley and Keith Marshall out with injuries, Douglas led the team with 14 carries for 70 yards rushing and six receptions for 43 yards and a touchdown. But his goal-line lost fumble late in the first half was a rally killer.

In 2014, with Gurley serving the first game of his suspension and Marshall and Sony Michel out with injuries, Douglas worked behind Chubb and gained 65 rushing yards including a heels-over-head flip into the end zone for a touchdown.

This time, Douglas provided more head-scratches than results that could hardly be blamed on him. His first carry came on a third-and-13 at the Missouri 40 that ended one series and had every watching perplexed.

His next two carries came with the Bulldogs needing 1 yard on third and fourth down at the Mizzou 45, and both were stuffed.

His next touch came on a third-and-9 pass at the Missouri 20, and it came up a yard short leading to a tying field goal in the second quarter.

Douglas’ three straight rushes totaling 20 yards in the third-quarter set up another game-tying field goal. His contributions were done for the night.

Other areas of Schottenheimer’s plan seemed to lack any cohesion. Every time Michel would provide a spark with his rushing, the Bulldogs would call up a first-down deep pass by a struggling Lambert that would be the beginning of the end of any momentum.

By halftime, the Bulldogs were losing 6-3 to a team that had a grand total of 1 rushing yard. The crowd was largely silent watching the Bulldogs sweat it out as 16-point favorites.

In the end, Georgia’s players and fans evacuated Sanford Stadium with an uneasy sense of relief.

The state of emergency is still in effect. Crisis was less averted and more diverted to Jacksonville.