Washaun Ealey's departure is a loss for Georgia, but it may be worth it for the attitude shift it represents.
Over the summer I worked in the human resources department of a big company in my hometown, I learned an important rule of thumb about personnel decisions: You can always tell how good a hire you've made by how sad the guy's old company is to be losing him. If they don't seem all that broken up about it, you probably didn't make that great a hire.
I was thinking about that the other day as I read the news of Washaun Ealey being granted an unconditional transfer from the Georgia football team. If I were a coach considering bringing Ealey into my program, the "meh" attitude with which Bulldog Nation responded to Ealey's departure would give me pause.
It's not that Ealey isn't a gifted athlete. Any doubt about that was removed in his very first game as a Georgia Bulldog in 2009, when he injected life into a sputtering offense and nearly helped the Dawgs notch an upset over fourth-ranked LSU. Yet everything positive he did seemed to be balanced out by a head-slapping mental error. The fumble at the Kentucky 1-yard line in 2009 was followed by two more fumbles inside the five early in 2010, one at South Carolina, the other at Mississippi State. His missed block against Arkansas let Aaron Murray get leveled and took away Georgia's last chance to win the game.
And then there was the stuff off the field: the parking-garage hit-and-run that got him suspended for the 2010 season opener, the suspension for failing to show up for an early-morning "punishment run" -- the latter just days after Georgia signed Isaiah Crowell, perhaps the program's most highly touted running back recruit since Herschel Walker. The incredibly bad timing of that last offense seemed to indicate that Ealey just didn't get it, and those doubts lingered even after his suspension was lifted. When your own coach is telling Bulldog Clubs around the state that "the bottom line is we don’t have a tailback right now who deserves to start" -- weeks after the end of spring practice, no less -- it's reasonable to infer that you haven't been meeting his expectations.
Yet in spite of all that, Ealey still thought he should be the starter, and evidently wasn't happy that the position wasn't going to be dropped into his lap. Or, rather, he "just wasn't feeling the vibe."
"I’m a person where I want to be a premier back," Ealey said. "If I was to play here, I would have had to share the backfield with Caleb and Carlton also. Then they were going to try to give the freshman, Isaiah, his chance. He probably was going to get some carries at the beginning of the year, too. I just felt like I didn’t want to be in that mix of things anymore."
That comment may have been the final straw that turned Bulldog Nation's attitude from "Wait, you mean we're getting rid of our leading rusher from the last two seasons?" to "Don't let the door hit you in the rear end on the way out." If, even after his litany of mistakes and off-the-field transgressions, Ealey still had the chutzpah to think his seniority or stats earned him the right to somehow bypass the competition for the starting job, then clearly Mark Richt sensed attitude issues that were beyond resolving.
Here's the thing, though: If Ealey thought he shouldn't have to work for the starting job, it was at least in part because the coaching staff gave him that impression. Of the many things Dawg fans have complained about as the program has backslid from SEC titles to Liberty Bowls, the coaching staff's insistence on giving underperforming upperclassmen playing time over hungrier new recruits is a major sore spot. Now, however, the philosophy appears to have changed in a very high-profile way. You were the leading rusher the last two years? Fine, but you weren't that good, and you're still going to have to work for this. Washaun Ealey didn't appear to want to do that, and not only did Richt let Ealey leave, he said he didn't care where Ealey went once he was gone.
And that's why this decision may prove to be more significant for Richt as a coach than for Ealey as a player. If the better-conditioned offensive line holds up next year, the running game will be fine -- at the risk of sounding too glib, between Isaiah Crowell, Caleb King and Ken Malcome, somebody's going to be able to produce. What's more important, though, is that Richt has sent a stark message to his team: The time for resting on laurels is over. Doesn't matter how much experience you have or how many yards you racked up last season, you're going to be expected to work. If that new attitude results in even a couple more games in the wins column in 2011, then regardless of the effect it had on Georgia's running game, the parting of ways between Washaun Ealey and the Georgia program will have been worth it.