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Thursday, August 07, 2008
Recently, I had the chance to interview Rob Suggs, the author of Top Dawg: Mark Richt and the Revival of Georgia Football (link directs back to Rob's blog regarding the new book). The promotional information I received about the book reads:

Now the nation’s top-ranked team in the coaches’ poll and #2 according to the Associated Press, the Bulldogs were, when Richt took over in 2001, at a crossroads. It had been twenty years since they’d won a conference championship and one of the nation and game’s proudest programs had nearly completed a two-decade descent to the depths of mediocrity.

It’s been a remarkable journey,” says Suggs. “And I wanted to tell the story of how Mark and his staff have rebuilt this proud program.”

Complete with input from players, coaches and program insiders, Top Dawg is filled with behind-the-scenes stories from the biggest games of Richt’s tenure.

Rob and I had a lengthy discussion, which I have posted in its entirety below. He has given great insight into how Richt grew up, his philosphy on coaching/recruiting, Richt's handling of discipline issues and so on.

I haven't read the book yet, but I will as soon as I receive it and I will also be giving away a copy when it arrives in the mail. Stay tuned for that, but I for one, am very excited about getting my hands on this book and reading it in its entirety.

Dawg-gone Blog: What was the deciding factor to write this book right now? Granted, the football team has had marked success since Richt took the helm, but we are still without that elusive National Championship. Most critics would say write the book after we've done it all. What prompted you to say "now's the time?"

Rob Suggs: Kit, like most books, this one was in the works quite a while back. One year ago, I believed we would make steady progress in 2007 and be ready for a championship run in ’08. However, the book is not the story of a championship, but of a restoration. It’s about getting in position for championships. When Richt came at Christmas of 2000, we were in position to go to decent bowls, but now we’d be counted among the elite. I wanted to tell the story of how we got there.

DGB: Bulldogs know the three versions of Mark Richt very well. The family man, the man of faith and the football man. What many Bulldogs don't know much about is his family life before he had his own family. Was he raised in a similar environment to what he provides to his family and players today?

RS: Coach Richt’s parents divorced he was young, but they obviously did a great job raising him because, as everyone knows, he manages to be a terrific parent while following the crazy hours required of his job. Baseball was his game growing up; that’s the game in South Florida, though Joe Namath of the New York Jets was his idol. He made the switch to football in high school because a smart coach came along who convinced him that football would pay his way through college. Richt’s dad was a notable softball and baseball coach in the community.

DGB: Your description of Chapter 7 (a look at character, faith and tradition and its nourishment in the Athens/UGA culture) really intrigues me because you state there are a lot of little stories the media never covered. Is there an example you could share with us?

RS: I really think anyone who follows the Dawgs closely sees the little things that don’t get reported as much by the media—just what good people most of the players are. But for me, the most interesting story was the crisis just after the 2002 championship (the eBay ring scandal and a pot bust involving several freshmen). Richt redoubled his efforts to put in a character-building curriculum that would extend four years, be led by various coaches, and really impact the lives of Georgia athletes. A great fellow named Bobby Lankford helps to guide this program.

DGB: D.J. Shockley (who is probably The Dawg-gone Blog's all-time favorite Dawg) wrote the foreword and his senior season is the focus of Chapter 10 (the SEC Championship run of 2005). With all the UGA greats during Richt's tenure (Greene, Pollack, Fred Gibson, Reggie Brown, Musa Smith, etc.) what stood out about D.J. that prompted you to not only have him contribute to the book, but also make him a large focus of one chapter?

RS: A lot of things make D. J.’s story special. He was really the first Mark Richt player, the first guy Richt focused on nailing down as a recruit. Richt sees Charlie Ward, his Heisman Trophy quarterback from FSU, in Shockley’s character. I think he also seems himself to some extent, and you’ll see that as you read Richt’s own college story. Richt expected to be a Heisman-level athlete himself, and Jim Kelly, who was the same class, emerged in a game up at Penn State which was the mirror image of David Greene’s game at Knoxville in 2001. What happened to Shockley, having to wait so long, had already happened to Richt. But I believe Richt wanted to help Shockley manage the frustration and be in position when his time came, and that’s what happened. The book is about UGA’s redemption, but in that little story you can see a reflection of Richt’s personal story and how he helped another young man with it. Also, Shockley is such a great representative of the Dawgs—helping children’s causes and so on. Fans love him. He was my first and only choice to write the foreword.

DGB: Chapter 9 deals with high school recruiting. We all know Georgia is a wealth of high school talent, but we've also been able to reach outside the borders (and even into Florida, which has rarely happened before) and grab top tier players who want to call Mark Richt their Head Football Coach. Can you give us some insight on why you said you were impressed with your findings in regards to this chapter?

RS: Yes. I won’t give too much away, but I talked to people from out of state and in-state and here is what I found. High school coaches love their players. They’re like extended parents, and they share in the parents’ desire to see the kids go somewhere and be loved and cared for, not just used athletically. In-state, Richt’s staff has dramatically enhanced UGA’s relationship with high school coaches. They go out and visit the coaches whether there is a prospect there or not. I know of some who are fans of other SEC schools and they have Richt’s back—they won’t allow anyone to put him down, because they love our head coach and our staff. If I had to highlight one word to define our recruiting it would be honesty, and there are examples in the book. Another thing: I showed how one year nearly everyone we got was in-state, then the next year it was the opposite. We have a terrific flexibility in being able to go wherever we need to get the talent we require at a given time.

DGB: Lately Georgia has been in the news for some discipline issues. When this happens, a lot of people forget that these players are kids with mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. However, while they're on campus, they're pretty much Mark Richt's kids. How does Richt handle the balance of disciplining a player and keeping his family involved as well?

RS: The very first thing Richt does is get with the parents. He and the coaches become close to the whole family during recruiting, and they maintain those relationships. Sometimes people think Richt is slow in responding to something that happens. What he’s doing is to make sure he talks to the family, then he gets all the information available. As we all know, he is a very intentional, detailed individual.

I mentioned earlier that we have a character education curriculum that is not just for show, but very intense and thorough. The Atlanta Braves have picked it up, county boards of education are implementing it for high school, and so on. The real irony is that while we have the media obsessing over an irritating string of disciplinary incidents, there is really so much progress being made. I honestly believe that. But when you get 85 healthy young men together in an environment like the downtown one of Athens, where the players are lionized as heroes—and when you add in the town and university turning up the heat on student excess—these incidents are simply inevitable. Not to condone or excuse them, but it will always be an uphill battle to maintain perfect deportment in the environment that is there.

DGB: You said that you hoped Chapter 11 (essentially your take on the Richt/UGA journey so far) was not so much an end as it is a beginning. What do you foresee for our team/program/Coach going forward?

RS: Chapter 11 is actually an account of the last two seasons. The title is “Redeeming Adversity.” By the end of ’05 we’d won a second championship and become an established contender. We were the essence of consistency, if not a national championship candidate. During these last two years we finally hit some rough spots: midseason collapses both years, once with a freshman quarterback and once with a freshman offensive line. I’ve seen other programs fall apart at midseason and not recover. In our case, the recovery was dramatic, beating three ranked teams in 06 and finishing second-ranked in 07—two very remarkable turnaround back to back. My contention is this was a prelude to going after the big prize. I’m not predicting we attain it, but we’ve certainly put ourselves in position. I look for much more consistency, at a much higher level, this year, regardless of a tough schedule. The depth and talent are at an unprecedented high, with the playmakers we’ve really needed at key positions. We’re going to have some formidable teams, and it’s simply up to the players themselves to make it all happen.

DGB: Finally, this a question for former Redcoats like myself and those that tend to read this blog. Richt has always made an effort to support the students and Redcoats by walking to those sections after any win to thank them, give a wave and possibly a thumbs up. In the more recent years, he's made the effort to stop by and speak to the Redcoats during one of their practices. Richt understands that football is more about X's and O's, but how much do you think it means to Richt and the team to have that kind of support every Saturday?

RS: I come from a Redcoat family that extends back to Roger Dancz in the mid-sixties, when my aunt marched with the “Dixie Redcoats.” Then my brother in the seventies and my niece in this decade. I’ve always known the Redcoats were one of our secret weapons, and I was delighted to see in 2001 that Richt realized the same. He will jog over and give them props, as he should. Not every coach is this band-savvy. I’ll never forget being in Tuscaloosa in 2002, and hearing the Alabama fans say they wished their band could be as intelligently involved in the game as the Redcoats are. Richt is all about the Dawg Walk, the crowd noise, the band—he buys into the full package, and I believe he is the full package as a coach.

I'd really like to thank Rob for taking the time to have this discussion about Richt and his new book. Please check out his new blog about the book and his other musings when you have the time. If you would like to go ahead and reserve your copy in advance, please click here.

Thanks again to Rob for taking the time to let us pick his brain some!

Until next time kids.

Be safe.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
Nice job Kit!