Richt going old school on the Bulldogs

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

ATHENS, Ga. -- Blink for just a millisecond in the SEC, and you risk being cast off into football oblivion.

That said, wasn't it just yesterday that Mark Richt was the fresh-faced newbie of the league, a Bobby Bowden protégé from Florida State, who was about to endear himself to Georgia fans forever with his signature "hobnail boot" victory over Tennessee?

The truth is that was eight years ago, and there have been 17 head coaching changes in the SEC since Richt took over at Georgia in 2001. He enters next season as the longest-tenured head coach in the league at the same school.

With Phillip Fulmer and Tommy Tuberville being pushed out following last season, Richt suddenly finds himself as the dean of a conference that chews up and spits out head coaches.

"It changes fast, and you have to be willing to change with it," said Richt, who's been the hallmark of consistency at Georgia.

He's won 10 or more games in six of his eight seasons, and the Bulldogs have finished in the top 10 in the polls five of the past seven seasons. Richt is also one of only six head coaches who has won 80 or more NCAA Division I football games in his first eight seasons, joining the likes of Pete Carroll, Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Barry Switzer, George Woodruff and Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Along the way, Richt has won two SEC championships and six bowl games, including two wins in BCS bowls.

About the only thing he hasn't done is beat Florida consistently or win a national title.

Richt is committed to doing both, but he's not consumed by either.

"My goal is to watch these guys become men and develop into the best possible football player they can be," Richt said. "My goal is to get a team to reach its full potential on a yearly basis and come out of here better men than when they showed up.

"We absolutely want to win a national championship. We have the goal set to do that. But the national championship goal is one you really don't control. You can control winning the East and control winning the SEC and then hope two other cats on the other side of the country didn't go undefeated.

"We've won 82 games in eight years, (tied with LSU) for the most of anybody in the league. We've either won or shared the East four out of eight years. So we've done a nice job. But because of the national championship, if you haven't won that, then people say, 'You haven't done it yet.'"

Despite his remarkable success, Richt isn't too proud or too stubborn to change.

He takes much of the blame for the Bulldogs' defensive struggles last season. In retrospect, he said they scaled back too much on practice when guys started getting hurt out of fear that they were going to lose more players.

And because of that, he said the Bulldogs lost their edge, particularly on defense.

"We were never able to get that mindset last year of the way you have to play football," Richt said.

His idea to fix things is going back to the same attitude he had when he was a first-year coach at Georgia. No detail is too small. No practice is too physical and no mistake is too minor.

In other words, no cutting corners.

"In a lot of ways, we just want to make sure we have a focus on detail," Richt said. "I remember the very first practice here. We took the coaches and the trainers and the managers, and we went onto the practice field and got the clock going and the horn blowing and we stood where we were going to be for flex and then the horn blew and we transitioned to where we were going to be next and the managers transitioned and the trainers transitioned.

"So when the kids came out, we were organized. We were ready. We've got to get that kind of mentality back, not leaving any detail for chance."

The players admit now that there might have been a sense of entitlement that plagued the team a year ago.

The Bulldogs were the No. 1 team in the polls entering the season, and the national championship talk echoed across the state of Georgia.

"With the expectations we had going into the year, nothing short of a national championship was going to be acceptable for all of us," Georgia junior offensive tackle Clint Boling said. "We didn't live up to those standards, and that's just the way it is around here."

The only thing drowning out the national title talk entering last season was the grumbling about all the Georgia players running into problems with the law. The Bulldogs had almost as many players arrested or cited in the offseason as they won games.

It's been refreshingly quiet this offseason, and the Georgia players say that's no coincidence.

"Everybody is here to compete, and everybody is here to win," Georgia junior defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. "It's more of a player-driven team than a coach-driven team like it was last year. You can see leaders emerging in all the classes. We're not going to go through the same problems we had last year."

Junior linebacker Rennie Curran takes it a step further.

"No matter what it is, we're going at it full speed," said Curran, who led the Bulldogs with 115 tackles last season. "We're playing at one speed, one tempo, one mentality -- and that's relentless. Everything we do is relentless, but it's going to be disciplined at the same time.

"That goes for everything, on the field and off the field. There was a lack of discipline on this team that got us last year. Guys weren't holding each other accountable. Now, we've got everybody on each other."

While the right attitude is obviously essential to winning a title, there's also the matter of having the right pieces in the right places.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford is gone, and he might be the No. 1 pick in next month's NFL draft. Running back Knowshon Moreno also bolted early, and he, too, is a first-round talent. Losing receiver Mohamed Massaquoi and cornerback Asher Allen just compounds matters.

But if the Bulldogs don't challenge Florida for the Eastern Division title in 2009, it won't be because of a lack of talent, Richt said.

"People notice the starters and notice the signees. They forget about all those other cats in between," Richt said. "They forget about all those guys who've been working and preparing and getting ready for their moment to take over a starting position or a leadership position.

"I've got a lot more peace than most people about this team's chance of competing for the Eastern Division championship. I believe we've got an excellent shot of doing that. I know what's leaving, but we still have some outstanding players here.

"Our focus now and attitude now is outstanding."

And that may be the biggest change of all.