It has been well-chronicled that Zach Mettenberger did something dumb three years ago. He used one of his two fake IDs to get drunk in a college town (so far, he blends) and then, presumably in his own unique manner of introduction, excessively groped a strange female in a bar (no longer blending). Long story short, the talented freshman quarterback was out at Georgia.
It has been significantly less recognized that three years ago, Mark Richt had hit a wall. His program seemingly was eroding. The Bulldogs were losing games, but even worse, the roster and the police blotter constantly overlapped. Mettenberger, who eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery, was one of 11 players arrested between March and early October 2010.
“I think Mark and his staff were just fatigued dealing with all of the things that were off-the-field issues,” said Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, who was hired that September. “There was a lot of noise in the program, and that was fatiguing for everybody.”
Richt changed. His tolerance level for knuckle-headed tendencies of young and immature players was lowered. His bar for disciplinary measures was raised. An increasing number of players were suspended or told to leave.
Maybe Richt didn’t morph into a human billy club. But he seemingly began to distance himself from the teachings of his soft-on-crime mentor, Bobby Bowden. No longer were running stadium steps and nurturing considered the major steps of discipline.
As Georgia senior defensive back Blake Sailors, a friend of Mettenberger’s since the second grade, said, “I guess we were a little bit stunned (at Mettenberger’s dismissal) because it was his first offense and usually coach Richt gives you two or three.”
It’s bad when even the university president says something. From Michael Adams early that fall: “We have had too much in the football team. We expect coaches and the ADs to provide role models and leadership for their players …”
Georgia has had some issues since 2010, but there is relative serenity now. Sometimes it takes a while to feel the ripple effect of new standards.
“I’m looking for some wood to knock on,” McGarity said. “It’s much more pleasant in the building when people are focused on good things.”
Asked about the relative quiet, Richt said, “I like that,” and smiled. He stood in the team’s practice facility Tuesday following his news conference, pondering the thesis of how much the Mettenberger situation and others like it had changed him.
“I don’t know. But I guess other people may see it that way,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s coincidence or just dumb luck. I’ve always tried to weigh everything out, measure everything and be as fair as I can and in the end do the best for the program or the player.”
Richt conceded one thing: He no longer clings to the belief that every player who goes astray at Georgia has to be reformed under his watch. Sometimes, a change of venue is better for all parties concerned.
“It’s still gut-wrenching to try to make that call,” he said. “In some circumstances, it’s going to be policy, and then it’s out of my hands. But a lot of times it’s the judgment of the head coach: Should he stay or should he go? And that’s the toughest part. There’s no book or manual that says, ‘This is what you do in this situation.’
“I do really love a story of redemption, a story of a guy turning things around and learning from it. But I felt like for years I loved that so much that I wanted it to happen at Georgia. I’ve learned — and this is the thing that’s changed — that if it doesn’t happen at Georgia, it’s OK. They can do what Zach did or Nick Marshall (dismissed and subsequently enrolled at Auburn) did or Michael Lemon (dismissed, transferred to North Carolina State) did. Sometimes you need a clean slate. Sometimes you need to go somewhere else rather than come back to a place where you have some baggage that you have to overcome.”
Richt and LSU coach Les Miles represent a study in contrasts. Miles has become one of college football’s worst enablers. He kept Tyrann Mathieu despite multiple reported failed drug tests until the situation became unavoidable just before the 2012 season. Similarly, Miles has coddled running back Jeremy Hill, whose rap sheet includes a sex crime against a 14-year-old girl (Hill was 18 at the time) and misdemeanor battery for punching a guy outside of a bar.
Miles then allowed his players to “vote” on whether Hill should be allowed back on the team. This will shock you: They voted yes.
Ultimately, he was suspended for one game. In Athens, he would be gone.
McGarity said things at Georgia “had to get better. The noise was affecting everybody — parents, recruiting, the entire group of Georgia supporters.”
Quieter is better.