UGA's Greg McGarity, Pt. 2: Smart, Fox and the Bulldogs' future

ATHENS -- As promised, here's the second half-hour of an interview with Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity. Part 1 can be found here.

Hiring Kirby Smart was an obvious move, but there was a measure of risk given that he’d never been a head coach. Was his first year what you thought it’d be?

I’ll say yes. I knew that Kirby was extremely passionate about the University of Georgia. I knew he was a relentless recruiter. I knew he would surround himself with relentless recruiters. I knew his way to communicate with these kids was off the chart. I knew that he had obviously learned from the best coach in college football – for a long period of time. So I knew those intangibles would be there. It was my hope that they would translate, which they did – the passion, the amount of time spent here, the way he approaches everything. Every proposal or every idea he presents is well thought out. He spends a tremendous amount of time preparing to make a presentation or to proffer an idea. Very rarely is anything just off the hip. There’s always some documentation: “This is why we need to do A and B.”

I wanted someone who knew kind of what it looked like to be at the highest levels of college football. A lot of those things we needed to learn from Kirby. Because we had been operating under one way of operation for 15 years, so there was one perspective on how to approach things. So there was a different perspective coming in on “What do we need to do?” We listened when it made sense, and 99 percent of the time it made sense and we went ahead and helped make it all happen administratively. So the passion, the ability to recruit, the way he treats these student-athletes, the people he surrounds himself with and his attention to detail is outstanding. Those are the things that coming in I knew were important. If you have that solid foundation, then you can build upon that. I knew that the foundation had to be set. I think he did a wonderful job in executing that plan.

Still: 8-5.

8-5 and two great comeback wins and two tough last-minute losses. It’s such a game of inches, like everything else is. A yard here or there. What you can’t do is play the could’ve and should’ve game.

Mark Richt and I sat in his office downstairs and talked about it would have been if Auburn’s Horace Willis had jumped and knocked down the ball in 2002 and fourth-and-14 never happened. It’ll drive you crazy.

And you’ll go to bed at night saying, “What if? What If?” But you’ve got to flush it. You’ve got to move on. You can’t let one loss turn into two losses.

So your confidence in Smart …

It’s off the chart. Absolutely. I’m 100 percent convinced that we’re on the path to really doing great things here.

One flashpoint came when you decided to keep baseball coach Scott Stricklin for another year despite four years of not very auspicious results. I know that playing-for-championships thing, that’s not just lip service with you. Do you feel the baseball program is going to be in a position where that can happen? And if that is the case, are you still confident that basketball coach Mark Fox is going to play for championships?

Absolutely. Because if it wasn’t, they wouldn’t be here. When we sat down with Scott Stricklin, he made it very clear in the very beginning: “Greg, I need four to five years to basically get this program in the right direction because we are going to focus on high school graduates.” There’ll be some junior college kids because there are some wonderful people who became great college players who came up through junior college. So this is not a slam against junior college kids. But the way Scott wanted to build his program was setting a foundation to where the vast majority of your program was based on your freshman class, and then your sophomore class.

(Fired coach Dave Perno’s) class, the Stephen Wrenn class, was already on campus. Scott worked hard to keep every one of those kids here. And the (high school) junior class, Keegan McGovern’s class, they were already committed and were going to sign in November. So Scott comes in July and he wanted to keep that group intact. So really the first group – and this is no disrespect to any of the other kids because they are really great kids; it’s not to be negative to them at all – but I remember Scott saying, “The sophomores in high school are going to be the class that we look at, and the group that’s freshmen in high school, Cam Shepherd’s class, is the group we’ve really got to get to know” … So really you start with (the current Georgia) sophomore class – Michael Curry’s class, LJ Talley – you’ve got really two classes that I view that he’s looked at, he’s evaluated, he’s recruited. Those are people he has seen play (as recruits).

I always judge programs by a lot of measurables. Wins and losses are extremely important, but also: Does the coach lose the team? Is the team still hustling? Are they giving their best effort? The body language – all these things come into play. I have a meeting with our coaches once a month. That’s a lot of time to spend, and I usually meet in their offices. When things are bothersome or there are things you want to bring up, we bring them up at that time. We talk about things we need to see. “What should I expect to see?” Even in the toughest moments, Scott was extremely confident that this thing was going to turn around. It’s just that we’ve got a lot of young people who aren’t accustomed to playing SEC baseball. He said, “I’m waiting any day for it to happen.” It started to happen in small doses. In other words, the Tech series. Granted, Tech was about .500 this year, but still it’s Georgia Tech, it’s a big game. But really our last three SEC series were really critical when you evaluate everything.

We travel to Kentucky – at that time Mississippi State and Kentucky were fighting for the league championship – and win Game 1. So we go to Kentucky and we win Friday night, we lose Saturday and we come back and win the clincher on Sunday. We come back and beat Tech in a midweek game. We start off with Mississippi State here and we get beat 9-3 in Game 1. So you’re kind of down in the dumps. It just wasn’t working out. All of a sudden we win the Saturday and Sunday games. These kids battled back. They didn’t stop coaching. They didn’t stop pursuing their goals of getting better every day. We beat Furman in a midweek game, and at that time Furman was red-hot. Then we play South Carolina at South Carolina, and South Carolina was battling for an NCAA berth. We go there and win two out of three games.

So I knew that this was a talented group of young men, and I knew Scott was coaching just as hard in Game 56 as in Game 1. He didn’t panic. He basically was very confident that this thing would turn around. I just felt the thing we had talked about along the way was actually coming true. Sure, from the baseball community there was a lot of disappointment (in the decision to keep Stricklin), but as I’ve said earlier, you’ve got to be 100 percent convinced it can’t work before you make a decision. I’ve just got faith he can show improvement next year.

The same with Mark Fox – a lot of people upset about that. Nobody wants to win more than these coaches and these student-athletes. Nobody wants to win more than us. We’re around these kids all the time. We see how hard they work. We just couldn’t win the games at the most pivotal times this year in basketball. It bothers Mark to no end, and that coaching staff that works so hard to get a team in position to win a game, and when it doesn’t work out, it can be devastating. Still, they had a team that didn’t quit. Maybe on the borderline, maybe on the bubble, but you’re talking about a team that didn’t quit. I really think that with the new kids who are here right now and with the kids who are coming back, I’ve got a lot of faith that we’re going to have a really good year.

You’ve said in the past that you ask coaches, “What can I do for you?”, but – maybe implicit, maybe explicit – in that is, “What are you going to produce for me as an AD?” Is there something that stops you from giving a coach everything he or she wants, or do you just say, “I’ve given you what you need”?

If you ask every coach what they wanted …

It’s everything.

So you have to evaluate what really translates into winning. What translates into making a difference? So the answer is not always yes, but it’s yes a lot more than it’s no. That’s the first thing I ask a coach: “What can I do to help?” Because I want to know on the front end what I can do to help. Sometimes it may something where, “Help me understand that a little bit more.” Or, “I have trouble believing that, so let’s talk through to where I get it now.” Sometimes a coach says, “That’s not something I need to be worrying about.” Sometimes it’s re-centering. But I think that’s the value of having a monthly conversation instead of waiting until the end of the year and saying, “Coach Bradley, you really screwed up in February on that call.” A coach will say, “Why didn’t you tell me right then?” I’m the same way. My staff that surrounds me, when there are times that things don’t make sense or they have a question about something, I expect them to come in and say, “Hey, Greg. Help me understand why we did this.”

Fans tend to want everything, too. Fans of a pro team want to buy all the good players. Fans of college teams want the best facilities because facilities make you win, even though there are a lot of teams with good facilities that don’t win.

That’s true. Facilities don’t guarantee national championships. I read a comment, and I won’t say who said it or what school it was, but they said, “If that’s the case, with the facilities they have they should win every national championship.” Facilities are important. Don’t get me wrong. But at the top of the food chain are the people you have leading your program.

Do you feel your facilities are comparable to others in your conference?

I think certain parts are. Look at this (football) practice facility here now, with the two grass fields, the artificial field and the (new) indoor building and the locker rooms … sure, everything can be better. We have that wish list. We have Priorities 1, 2 and 3 with every facility that we have. But I think right now, we’re in the midst of (pointing to the window) … notice the tracks under construction. We have projects at the golf course, projects at soccer, projects at basketball, gymnastics, women’s basketball and football west end (of Sanford Stadium). You look at baseball two years ago. You look at certain things we’ve been able to do -- not for every sport right now, but they’re on the list of things we’ve got to do to enhance our facilities. You just have to be strategic in what those facilities are, and certainly those facilities that you have you need to maintain them at a very high level.

Why is this year's home football schedule so unappealing?

When we made the Notre Dame game, when you play a home-and-home you give up a home game. So there are only six home games. What you have is, on odd years, you have four SEC home games, Florida (in Jacksonville) being one of those. So this year our Western foe is Mississippi State. In the eyes of a fan, if Mississippi State was LSU or Alabama, then they may be looking at it a little bit differently. The perception would change. But what happens is with our model, we have eight conference games and our other Power 5 game is always Georgia Tech. And (this year and next) Notre Dame. And our three (home) conference opponents (Mississippi State, South Carolina and Kentucky), which fans view as weak, though they certainly aren’t viewed that way in our minds. When you don’t a play home-and-home game, you have to attract teams here that will play for a guarantee. This year, for example, Appalachian State and Samford. I understand (the dissatisfaction). Certainly if the teams in the East were in the top 10 in the country, people would say, “Look at this.” These games are set so far in advance.

Your schedule is largely a prisoner of the Jacksonville thing.

I would agree with that. It eliminates a home game for both institutions. But that’s part of the Georgia fabric. Right now we’ve got a contract to go through the next four years there. So you’ve got four non-conference games to fill, and we’re playing Notre Dame in ’19, we’re playing Virginia in ’20 and we’re working on some neutral-site games in ’22 and ’24 and we have UCLA in ’25 and ’26. More often than not, we’ve played two Power 5 schools over the past 10 years. You look at Clemson two years. You look at North Carolina, you look at Boise State. You look at Colorado. We’ve scheduled up more than some of our conference peers, who’ve chosen to schedule three guarantee games. But I think the Notre Dame series is something that has gained so much attention, and when they come back here in ’19 I’m sure it’s going to be, probably in our lifetime, the only time we’ll play on a regular-season basis.

Given your background as both a tennis player and coach here, how disappointing was the news that Georgia wouldn’t be playing host to the NCAA tennis championships in 2019 and 2021?

It was a very difficult day.

Did you take it as a personal rebuke?

I’m the leader. I’m the director. Everything that happens weighs heavily on me. You want to find out why. I had a conversation with the right individuals that let me know exactly how things went down. I would just say we were very disappointed, and we’re going to work harder than ever to get the championships back here as early as 2023, but that was a difficult day. I was actually out seeing my mom at the care facility, and after I saw Mom at lunch I called (tennis coach Manny Diaz) and told him, and that was a very difficult call. You know, committee decisions are made, and sometimes they’re in four-year terms. It was very difficult, but we respect their decision. We saw the whole committee while they were here. We are moving forward with planning for the tennis facility. But yeah, that was a tough day.

How much longer do you want to keep doing this? It’s not an easy job.

The question really doesn’t come up. I don’t focus on that. I just focus on the next day. I try to focus in short terms, like right now we’re so focused on fiscal year ’18 because ’17’s in the books. We meet on certain things that impact us – “get betters,” how we can improve on everything. That started as far back as April from a budget standpoint on what we needed to focus on. We’re actually moving forward, but I don’t really think about (his future). I think once you start thinking about that, your mind starts focusing on that, as opposed to, “What’s the best thing we can do for the immediate future?”

When you took this job, you had to believe you were the right guy for Georgia: You know the place, you’re from here, you played here, you went to school here. Do you still feel you’re the right guy?

Yeah. I feel very confident. My passion is … my workdays are maybe longer than they have been in the beginning.

You start pretty early, as I recall.

I make sure I take care of my exercise before the day starts, and I try to be in the office at least by 7. Some days earlier. It depends on what’s on your plate that day. I don’t really focus on, “Hey, I’m going to work 10 to 12 hours this day.” There’ll be some days when you’ll leave at 5 or 5:30. There are other days maybe when you’re at a practice or an event and you don’t get home until 10 or 11. And I’m so blessed to have a great support stuff. They do a lot of the heavy lifting. When you’ve got (assistant AD Carla Williams) as your right-hand person and you’ve people leading our other departments, our senior staff team, they are extremely talented.

The student-athlete experience here is amazing, and that’s the story that never really gets told, as far as everything that goes into helping these young people. And again, it doesn’t move the needle publicly, but from our kids’ standpoint – the nutritional end of it, the academic support, the career development that we're into full speed ahead with new resources developed, a new website that all our student-athletes use connecting with future employers – there’s so many things that once people understand … like members of our board that are exposed to that at every meeting, they get to see a picture of that. Unfortunately, that’s not the picture that everybody wants to see because it doesn’t move the needle in your profession.

But I feel very confident that if the students in our “Lead” program or the students in the student academic advisory committee … we are around these kids. I don’t miss one of the student academic advisory committees, and they meet like every other week. I’m always around these young people to make sure that they know we’re connected: What can we do to make their lives better. We absolutely excel in that area, from an academic side, student wellness, facilitating these kids to where they feel appreciated, they feel like they have all the resources they need. Sometimes when you get lost in all the noise out there, you have to focus back on your main mission. I know that it’s the essence of what we do.

Do you feel the institutional support for you is still strong?

Absolutely. What president Morehead has done … we meet twice a month. We are in constant communication with each other. So we’re very connected, and I think that’s one of the strengths that we have from an institutional standpoint. We have great relationships. We all get along. We really have nothing to hide. We help each other. You’ll see athletics involved with Terry (the business school) events. There’s so much crossover. Beneath the surface, there’s a very connected web that really enjoys each other’s company. And we’re not afraid to disagree. We’re very open with each other. We’re very transparent. We don’t hide things from each other. The support I’ve received has been phenomenal – from the president, from the athletic board, his support staff and really all our peers here at the campus. I think we have a great working relationship – the way you would want it to be.