On Thursday, Georgia announced a contract extension for Kirby Smart. That same day, Miami announced a contract extension for Mark Richt. There was no surprise in either move: Having led Georgia to the SEC title and the College Football Playoff, Smart was named the national coach of the year; having led Miami to the Coastal Division title, Richt was the ACC’s coach of the year.
As hackneyed as the phrase “inextricably linked” may be, it does apply. Georgia fired Richt after 15 seasons on Nov. 29, 2015. Three days later, Miami hired Richt. That same night, news broke that the Bulldogs planned to tap Smart, the Georgia grad who was running Alabama’s defense, as Richt’s replacement.
Two years and five months later, you’d have to say – apologies for sounding sappy – it has worked out for both schools and both men. Smart became the first Georgia coach to play for a national title since Vince Dooley; Richt took his new school, which was also his old school, to the ACC Championship game, where Miami had never been. And here, in the wake of concurrent extension announcements, we reflect on the “Sliding Doors” aspect – that being a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow, in which catching/missing a train sends her life in parallel directions – of these careers.
Paltrow’s character saw her life/lives change in a London Tube station. Richt’s and Smart’s changed in the Georgia Dome. The date: Dec. 1, 2012. The event: The SEC Championship game between Alabama and Georgia. The classic game came down to a moment: Fifteen seconds remaining, the underdog Bulldogs, trailing 32-28, on the Alabama 8.
With Georgia out of timeouts, Richt chose not to have Aaron Murray spike the ball – the quarterback had looked to bench and made a “clock it” gesture – because Georgia was flying down the field. Any hoped-for advantage was compromised by receiver Tavarres King, who’d taken a heavy hit on a catch and had been removed for one snap, checking back into the game. Murray wouldn’t catch the shotgun snap until 0:09, six seconds having elapsed.
Coaching Alabama’s defense, Smart called for two blitzers coming off the left side. (In Bama parlance, the set was known as “Spear,” the blitz itself as “green dog.”) Nickel back Geno Mattias-Smith, a freshman from Atlanta’s St. Pius, was supposed to blitz; instead he joined Robert Lester in a double-team on Chris Conley, the slot receiver on the right. On the outside, All-American cornerback Dee Milliner took Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia’s best receiver. That’s where Murray threw.
The delivery never reached its intended destination. Linebacker C.J. Mosley leaped high – a former basketball player, Mosley would be a Round 1 NFL draftee in 2014; he has made the Pro Bowl three times – and batted the pass with his right hand. (Todd Gurley, today a Pro Bowler himself, couldn’t get to Mosley fast enough to deliver an effective block.) The ball fell to Conley, who was himself falling, on the 5. Matias-Smith had chucked Conley coming off the line. The receiver had to double-clutch to catch a pass not intended for him.
A tipped ball can go anywhere. For Georgia, this tipped ball went the absolute worst place. Had it been intercepted, the Bulldogs would have credited a great defense for making a play. Had it fallen incomplete, they’d have had one more shot at a winning touchdown. As it happened, they saw those five seconds disappear because Conley caught a fluttering ball inbounds and fell to the turf. With another millisecond to think about, he’d have dropped it on purpose – but a receiver is trained to catch balls, not drop them. This 3-yard gain became the most excruciating reception in college football history.
Afterward, Smart sought out Mike Bobo, his old teammate who was then Georgia’s offensive coordinator. Said Smart: “Mike felt (Murray) should have thrown the fade to the other side” – meaning to King, who’d gotten a decent release against freshman corner Deion Blue.
Also of note: Had Gurley been sent on a pass route, Mosley wouldn’t have been where he was. “It was a called blitz,” he said, “but I had the back (if coverage was required).”
Murray would insist that his pass for Mitchell, if undisturbed, would have brought the winning touchdown. A month after the fact, Milliner sat in Miami’s Sun Life Stadium for Media Day ahead of the BCS title game and said: “I don’t think it would. But I’m glad we’re here and they’re in the land of ‘could’ve, should’ve, would’ve’.”
Alabama beat Notre Dame 42-14 for the national title. In those pre-playoff days, that SEC championship had been a de facto semifinal, albeit without the CFP cachet. Indeed, the Bulldogs weren’t even invited to a BCS bowl. They faced 23rd-ranked Nebraska in the Outback. They won by two touchdowns. They finished fifth in the final Associated Press poll.
It’s possible that, had the Bulldogs scored at the end on Dec. 1, they’d have lost to Notre Dame on Jan. 7. Possible, but not probable. There was little to separate Georgia and Bama save a tipped ball. Had the Bulldogs claimed that national championship, the only real knock against Richt would have been rendered null and void. Even if the next three seasons had gone as they did – 8-5, then 10-3, then 9-3 on the day of his firing – there’d have been no firing.
Greg McGarity, Georgia’s athletic director, fired Richt because he no longer believed the coach could deliver a national title. He couldn’t have made that case if his coach had, er, delivered a national title. (Yes, Auburn fired Gene Chizik two years after he won a championship, but Chizik was 11-14 over the next two seasons, and Auburn is an entity unto itself.) The 2012 BCS trophy mightn’t have made Richt the Bulldogs’ coach for life, but it would have come close.
As it was, Georgia under Richt became more forlorn, more desperate. By the end, Richt was reduced to deploying the third-stringer Faton Bauta at quarterback against Florida. For McGarity, that was the last straw. Richt was out. Smart was in. But what if those final seconds in the Dome had gone the other way? Where would Georgia’s $7-million-a-year coach be today?
Probably in Columbia, S.C., facing his alma mater on an annual basis. That was another reason McGarity moved when he did. Having served his apprenticeship under Nick Saban, Smart in 2015 was ready to run his own shop. South Carolina, which had seen Steve Spurrier quit in October, was pushing hard. Had McGarity stayed his hand, he would have faced the clear-and-present danger of his program slipping behind a divisional opponent coached by a Georgia alum.
As it is, Smart has a new deal at his alma mater, Richt at his. If not for one tipped ball, everything might be different – not necessarily better or worse, but definitely different. And as I watched the final play of the 2012 title tilt for maybe the 2,012th time, I was struck by Richt’s reaction. CBS cut to him as the clock hit triple zeroes, and his look wasn’t of disbelief or agony, although either would have been appropriate. It was of resignation. It was as if, even in that frenzied moment, he’d grasped that his best chance to take Georgia to greater glory had come and gone.