October 10, 1998 was a special day. Georgia was welcoming the fifth-ranked Tennessee Vols to town, and coming off a massive upset in Baton Rouge the week before, the Dawgs were favored over the Vols for the first time in as long as anyone could remember. "College Gameday" made its very first visit to Athens, and with Peyton Manning gone to the NFL and Jamal Lewis sidelined for the season by a torn ACL, there was both hype and hope that Georgia would break a then seven-year losing streak to Big Orange. I remember the sign I brought to "Gameday" and the one I brought to the stadium: "NO PEYTON, NO JAMAL, NO CHANCE."
On that day, the Dawgs mustered but a single first-quarter field goal and 254 yards of offense, and lost 22-3. Tennessee fans walked out of the stadium holding aloft little orange cards with a number 8 on them; my sign wound up crumpled under the bleachers, soaking in spilled Coke and whisky. We all thought that Georgia could win, but the Vols knew they could. That was what my mind kept flashing back to Saturday night as the Dawgs fell apart before yet another ranked opponent and lost by four touchdowns to South Carolina.
On Twitter I noticed a lot of comparisons to the "blackout" debacle against Alabama in 2008, but they don't quite fit: That Georgia team kept battling against an insurmountable lead and actually succeeded in making the final score look respectable. No, Tennessee '98 is the historical analogue that fits best here, and not just because of the lopsided score or the presence of "Gameday." It fits because of where Georgia had been coming from, what each game said about where Georgia was at that moment, and what Georgia could look forward to. None of it's going to make Bulldog Nation feel very good about itself.
I was a senior the year that "Gameday" came to town for the Tennessee game, so I arrived in Athens just in time to see the door mercifully closed on the Ray Goff era, followed by the "Donnan of a New Era!" billboards erected to welcome Jim Donnan to town. Under Goff, the Dawgs had descended to nonentity status, but after a 5-6 stumble in Donnan's first season, they won 10 games and earned only their second January bowl invite since Vince Dooley retired. Coming off that 10-win season, the hope in Athens was that Donnan's '98 team would build off that momentum and reclaim the program's former status as a national powerhouse. Obviously, that didn't happen. The team had gotten better, but only incrementally; the Tennessee loss in '98 was an omen of the Bulldogs' continued inability to break through to a higher plane. They still couldn't beat Tennessee, still couldn't beat Florida, and, just for good measure, started losing to Auburn and Georgia Tech regularly as well. The Dawgs made it to mid-tier bowls in the last four years of Donnan's tenure, but he quickly came to be regarded by Georgia fans as a coach who was too good to fire but not good enough to amount to anything. (Until he was fired, of course.)
More than a decade later, we're in the same position. And if you think about it, Mark Richt's tenure in Athens reads like the condensed version of the last 30 or so years of Georgia football. His early teams match up with Vince Dooley's best teams of the 1980s, disciplined yet full of swagger, and loaded with personalities Bulldog Nation still holds dear. As with Dooley, those teams gave way to some good-but-not-great squads, and the subsequent disasters of the 2009 and '10 teams bear a striking resemblance to the erratic, one-step-forward-two-steps-back Goff years.
And now we're in the Donnan phase. Richt pulled the program out of its tailspin with a 10-win season, and this year was supposed to be even better. Unfortunately, we've just been informed, in front of God and "Gameday," that that's probably not going to be the case. And there's nothing presently pointing toward a reclamation of national-powerhouse status, nothing indicating that we'll figure in anything more consequential than the race for the Outback Bowl over the next few seasons. We've still got a roster of arch-rivals we can't seem to beat, they're just not the same teams they used to be. God willing, we won't start losing to Auburn and Georgia Tech again anytime soon — and if you need to feel better about your own program's status, by all means, go hang out with those fan bases this week — but that'll be of minimal comfort as we sit at home watching someone else's team play in the SEC Championship Game.
We all know how Georgia finally broke through post-Donnan, of course: We hired Richt. But what do we do now that that's stopped working? What do you do when you have the savior you needed, and he's still not getting it done?
For a while, my answer was "nothing." Even as Bulldog Nation lost its collective mind over losses such as Alabama in 2008 or Tennessee in 2007, I stood by Richt for a couple reasons — for one thing, even the best teams can't win every game (as much as some members of our fan base seem intent on denying this), and besides, who could we realistically get who was better? But while even the best teams have to lose every once in a while, the best teams don't lose the way Georgia loses. On the rare occasion when Alabama loses a game, you find yourself thinking, Wow, that was definitely a surprise, but they still played a hell of a game and hung in there to the very end. When Georgia loses, it's a non-stop, every-phase-of-the-game clusterf$#@ that begins with the opening kickoff and doesn't stop until the final horn sounds. When Alabama loses, they still look like they were prepared; when Georgia loses, they look like they have no idea what they're doing on a football field, which was certainly the case in Columbia this weekend.
And no, I no longer believe we couldn't realistically hire someone better. I still don't think doing so is as easy as some of the more hair-trigger elements of the Georgia fan base would lead you to believe, but it can be done.
And yet — and yet, I still can't bring myself to make the words "Fire Mark Richt" come out of my mouth. How do you fire a guy with 111 career wins and a .740 winning percentage? How do you fire a guy who's managed both his personal and professional lives with the kind of integrity Richt has? From the day he was hired, I haven't stopped wanting for Richt to be the guy — not the kind of guy, the guy — who becomes a Georgia "lifer" and creates the Dawgs' next great dynasty.
But while I haven't stopped wanting it, I've officially stopped believing it can happen. If Greg McGarity takes a long hard look at the program and decides that Georgia as an institution should be content with winning nine, maybe 10 games a year and crossing our fingers that we can climb up into the Capital One Bowl, he doesn't need to do a thing. But if he holds aspirations higher than that, I just don't think he's got the right guy. Should he ever come to that decision, I'm sure it will be even more difficult and painful than when Georgia made the same determination about Jim Donnan 12 years ago. But we've seen this story before, and those who remember it as vividly as I do know there are only so many ways it can end.