UGA's McGarity in conversation: On negative perception and Mark Richt

ATHENS – Georgia president Jere Morehead was asked in April if he still had confidence in athletic director Greg McGarity, who just fired Danna Durante, the gymnastics coach he hired in 2012. Morehead expressed faith in the program without mentioning McGarity by name.

A few weeks later, Clemson qualified for its first NCAA national tournament in women’s golf by finishing second at the NCAA regional at the Athens Country Club. Clemson’s coach is Kelley Hester, a Georgia grad who McGarity fired as head coach five years ago. (The Georgia women finished sixth and did not qualify.) That same month, former Bulldogs golfer Kevin Kisner took to Twitter to ask: “When was the last time we heard something good from the UGA athletic association?”

For the record, Georgia will finish 15th in the Learfield Directors Cup standings, an all-sports measure. (For comparative purposes, Florida is in the top five; Kentucky ranks ahead of the Bulldogs, Alabama roughly 10 spots behind.) Also for the record, Georgia isn’t under NCAA investigation, at least as far as is known.

McGarity, an Athens native and Georgia alum, is finishing his seventh year as AD. He’s 62. His contract runs through June 2019. This week he sat for an hour-long conversation in his office – sitting, we note, at the same table where, on the morning of Nov. 29, 2015, he informed Mark Richt his services as football coach were no longer required.

It seems to me that you’ve been playing defense about your department and you personally. Am I reading that wrong?

I think sometimes you have to be defensive -- because of the way the media has changed as far as the different formats. There’s so many ways to communicate, so many different platforms and so many people that weigh in now instantly that it makes it difficult to navigate through those waters. There are times when you are reactive. Trying to be proactive, so much information does go out on our website, whether it’s academic achievements or schedules or things along those lines that we can get ahead of or announce. But sometimes you are in a defensive mode reacting. I think that’s where we are right now, with so many different ways to communicate and everything’s so instant and everything’s done so quickly, sometimes without verification. Sometimes you have to respond to certain situations. I would say that there are times where not only us but probably every athletic association and every company is in a defensive posture.

Do you feel you have anything to be defensive about?

What upsets me the most is when people question our integrity or our honesty, when the whole picture is not presented. That’s very difficult to do in some ways right now.

Are you talking about the open-records stuff?

Instances where people question people’s honesty.

Yours in particular?

I haven’t felt that. I’ve felt like that some of our coaches, at certain times, their integrity had been questioned. Are they being truthful? Are they being honest? When I know (they are), those are the kinds of things that probably I react to. I don’t do it publicly. I usually do it with the individual that’s writing the story just to make sure they understand. I really never do it publicly. I always do it with a phone call to a media representative, to be sure to at least stand up for our program. But I do that behind the scenes. I don’t do it publicly and I don’t respond publicly. That’s not my nature.

If you react, the story becomes you reacting.

Correct. That’s why publicly we don’t really deal with it in that way. We just try to state the facts. We let the data speak for itself. I’ll go back to that: We don’t really do that publicly. I just prefer to deal with the writer or the journalist or a person. It could be an email I get that maybe questions something, and I’ll call the person back. I prefer to communicate in that manner, rather than in an email or a text. But that doesn’t get any publicity and I’m not doing it for any publicity. I’m really just trying to stand up for our program. When people are harmed with maybe a poor choice of words or maybe a certain way someone may look at someone, then I react. But I just do it privately.

It has been seven years since you came back to Georgia. You were a very popular choice. I saw a poll – granted, online polls aren’t exactly scientific entities – about your job performance. The response was hugely negative. I don’t know if you saw that one.

No, uh-uh.

Not to say one online poll is the ultimate reflection of reality, but do you feel you’ve gone from popular to unpopular in those seven years?

We get so focused on our work every day. Certainly I keep up with the major news organizations – the AJC and Athens and Macon and ESPN; I keep up with the national scope there – but I really don’t pay much attention to the other media outlets.

There are a lot of them.

Yeah, and if I focus on that, then I’m getting away from our mission here, which is doing everything we can to make the lives of our student-athletes the best – dedicate your time to things that will move the program forward. So I don’t get bogged down in that. But I do know that there are a lot of decisions when you’re in the position (about which) people have opinions. Everyone’s got their opinions. We have 15 head coaches. There’s a certain segment of our fans that focus on one of the sports that may not be football. So you’ve got a lot of different opinions there. What we try to focus on are our student-athletes and their experience here. What’s truly important are the lives of these kids. Are you creating an environment that allows them to be productive on the field and in the classroom? We’re kind of laser-focused on that. I haven’t really focused on polls or things of the nature. But I understand it. I get it. But our staff, we try to work as hard as we can and try to have some tunnel vision on the things that truly matter.

It works the other way, too. UGA athletics also has a website. I notice that you’ve taken to communicating with boosters or donors or fans directly.

I’ve done that for three years now.

So it’s not a recent development?

No. In fact, I keep them all. (He walks to his desk and lifts a thick stack of his missives.) I refer back to them periodically. I actually keep it here because I do it monthly. (Thumbing through them.) This is 2015. This is 2013. That note went to a certain level of donors back in the early days. I work with our leaders in the Bulldog Club, saying, “This is what I want to do; who does it need to get to?” At one time it was sort of a perk with a certain contribution level. We’ve had some turnover in that office, and the thought later on was, “Everybody needs to be getting this who’s a donor.” So it’s gone from a small cut of our donors to a much larger … well, to everyone now. The difference is that the distribution level has changed. But I’ve been sending the note out for four or five years, and it’s a monthly update to maybe get a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. I would sit down and do it myself. I still do it myself.

The old journalism major, right?

Right. So I would make that a priority to where it was in my own words, and it was in the form of an email. Now we’ve progressed in our new media to where we can format it differently, and it’s going to our entire donor base. It probably is new in the presentation. It’s just seen by 16,000 people now. That’s been sort of an institutional decision we’ve made, and it’s progressed to, “No, this needs to be sent to a large group.” And I would say, “It’s fine with me – whatever fits the goal of serving our donors.” It’s morphed from a smaller group into a much larger group, and I think it’s had good results.

That’s an opportunity to you to show, as you say, what’s behind the curtain. It’s also a platform for you to give your view of Georgia athletics. In your view, what is the state of Georgia athletics?

Well, I said at our (athletics) board meeting that our goal, first of all, is to graduate all our (athletes), and unfortunately that’s not a real popular topic. We’re coming off our best academic performance ever. I understand that moves the needle for some …

Yeah, but the football team went 8-5.

Yeah. So it’s a big melting pot. But I was very upfront: We’re not reaching our department goals, and that’s to have every sport competing for a national championship. You can’t win it unless you’re in it. We have some sports that have been phenomenal. We’ve have some sports that have had uncharacteristic results this time. At the end of the day, we will end up in 15th place from an overall perspective. And I understand that people will point out how we do in different sports, and football is extremely important to what we do.

Obviously you want to be successful in that sport because it drives every other program from a revenue standpoint. So we have not met our expectations. Our stated goal is to have 21 of our 21 sports compete in championships, and five did not this year. We came up short, but we’re still 15th in the country. I know some may say, “Why are you bragging on that?,” but it’s still a marker where only two SEC teams have been in the top 20 every year – Florida and Georgia. So if you take a step back – and granted, some sports took a step back from their expectations; some sports exceeded their expectations – no one’s content. No one’s overjoyed.

From a total standpoint, we realize there’s a lot of work to be done. But I think the perception earlier was that we’d be out of the top 20 for the first time in the history of our program, and that turned out not to be the case. Because we had some of our sports that really had outstanding years. Altogether the top 20 is something we should be proud of. Are we totally overjoyed? No, I think there’s so much room to improve. And we know if a few other teams might have advanced a little further, the top 10 could (have been) achieved this year if a few things had gone our way.

The Directors’ Cup is the won-lost record for ADs.

Among our peers in the business, that’s sort of the marker for all of us. Some institutions will be very successful in two or three sports, but it has always been – what I inherited here, and the way it was at the University of Florida (where McGarity worked as assistant AD before Georgia hired him) also – that all sports are important. I’ll tell this to non-football recruits all the time: I can assure you as athletic director that you’re going to have the same resources here as a football player as an equestrian student-athlete, as a gymnast. I may not be able to have 95,000 people watching you play, but everything else we can control, we’re going to provide to you. That’s important to a broad-based program. We want to really excel in every sport.

If you’re not where you want to be as an athletic department, why not?

I would love to go season to season: Football, (then) people excited about basketball and gymnastics, then baseball. (That’s) from a revenue standpoint. We go from fall to the winter to the spring. We’re competing at a high level. That has not happened yet. I want to see that happen. Especially our revenue sports, I want to see them become successful. Because we only have a few opportunities to generate revenue. All our other sports are complimentary admission. So I want to see us maximize that opportunity, and the way you maximize it is to be successful.

We’ll get to football, but one criticism leveled at you – and you acknowledged this at the board meeting – is that some decisions you’ve made about coaches you’ve had to unmake. Like with gymnastics. And the women’s golf coach you fired who came back with Clemson to qualify for the NCAA tournament on your course. Do you feel your decisions as to firing and hiring have contributed to the underperformance of the department?

You know, you wish that every decision you make is a home run. But as you see across the landscape of sports in the Southeastern Conference – you see it in pro sports all the time – there’s probably not a general manager or an owner of a franchise who doesn’t think the person they hire is going to be a home-run hire. Unfortunately, no one’s ever batted 1.000.

Nobody ever says at the press conference, “Who are we kidding? We all know we’ll be doing this again in three years.”

I understand I’m judged on those decisions. I’m evaluated on those decisions. You just try to make the best decision you can. There’s a lot that goes into a hiring. I usually surround myself with a group – members of our staff who are with me when we’re interviewing or when we’re discussing the job or when we’re going over a list of candidates. We vet those. We do a tremendous amount of homework. Unfortunately, we have not batted 1.000. I do think sometimes it takes time to develop things, perhaps a little bit longer than some would hope. With some of the hires, the coaches are in place for four or five years and you’re trying to give them a chance to make things happen and for them to get the job done. And when it doesn’t work, you’ve got to be 100 percent convinced it can’t work before you make a decision (to fire a coach). Those are probably the toughest decisions you have to make.

Is there one decision you wish you had back?

You can second-guess yourself all the time. Then again, you’re wasting time on moving forward. I think you can learn lessons from that. We all learn lessons from mistakes we’ve made – in every area, not just coaching hires. We always want to be learning how we can get better. I just know that, in my past experience at Florida, we didn’t get it right every time.

Ron Zook.

The good thing is that, when they finally work out, that’s the one people remember. I’m always very optimistic and very passionate about seeing these 15 coaches be successful. When it doesn’t work, you’ve got to be able to acknowledge that perhaps that was not the right choice, and so you move on. Hopefully the outcome isn’t that it just can’t get done. But I would say it is part of our role, part of any leader’s role, that there are going to be decisions that don’t work out.

I was really happy for Kelley. I remember (baseball coach) Andy Lopez at the University of Florida when we had to part ways. He won a national championship at Arizona. The first person you call is Andy Lopez congratulating him. Even those coaches that we part ways with, I want to help them in their next job. Because they’re all great people. You’re talking about really good people. When you hire someone and they don’t have the qualities of being a really good person, they have such a mountain to climb.

I could go through every coach that we’ve parted ways with, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. We’re not dealing with individuals that cheated or individuals who embarrassed the institution. We’re dealing with situations where things maybe just didn’t work out. Maybe in different environment, people can excel.

For Kelley to do what she’s doing at Clemson, I am so happy for her. You don’t want people to fail. You want people to succeed wherever they are. When she was up for the job there, I gave her a very high recommendation. I just said, “I didn’t think things were working out here. Doesn’t make her a bad person at all; I just felt like a change needed to be made.” You see a different environment, certain things kick in to allow a person to have success – I think it’s great. There’s enough happiness to go around in the world. I think it’d be wrong (not) to wish somebody nothing but success. And it’s not from a personal standpoint. These are good people. You want to see them have success, and maybe we both learned lessons along the way about how we would do things a second time. Or a third time.

Firing Mark Richt was the biggest decision you’ve had to make. When you finally made it, how did you think it would be received?

Fifty-fifty. No question. That was it all the time. It was pro and con. It was a consistent 50-50. I knew that whatever decision was made was going to be a 50-50 proposition. I knew that going in, whether I did anything or didn’t do anything.

I understand why you didn’t take questions about why you fired Richt at the press conference with him sitting next to you. That would have looked awful. But I’ve always felt the staging put you at a disadvantage. You didn’t want him sitting up there by himself, but you sitting there not talking about what just happened made you look awkward. If you had that to do again, would you do that differently?

Unfortunately there are no replays. It was awkward, I have to admit. We have to remember that, at that time, Mark was still going to be part of our program. So it wasn’t an adversarial environment. Going in, our thought was that Mark was still going to be part of our team, and we appreciate everything he has done for us. Just a phenomenal person. We were all looking at it as something that would be healthy for all of us. Mark comes in and he’s so engaging.

I mean, I’ve seen him in that environment in small groups to where he’s phenomenal. In the summer before the 2015 season, Katharyn (Richt) and my wife, Sheryl, and Mark and I flew up to Asheville to have lunch with this donor. I said, “Boy, we’ve got to do more of this.” We were trying to raise money for the indoor building. I told a number of people, “Mark was fantastic.” So I’m thinking that, with him in that setting (at the news conference), he was still the Bulldog and he’s going to these donor events in the summer and he’s focusing on his initiatives and things that are really true to his heart. That’s what I was thinking on that day. I was not thinking about him getting back into coaching.

I knew that this was a short-term decision because he didn’t really know what he wanted to do. I know that there was an offer (to remain on Georgia’s staff), and he wanted to sleep on it. I was trying to make that happen. That was the intent going in. When the Miami (coaching) position opened up, it obviously changed everything. Going in on that day, that was the thought process. Sure, it was awkward. If I had to do it over again, I probably would handle it a different way.

Just for the record: What made you decide to fire Richt?

I felt like we all needed to hit the reset button. There’s a great book (by Jim Collins) – “Good to Great.” What I was trying to do was to create an environment to where we could have a great football program. I felt like we had sort of maxed out. We had reached a certain plateau. Our conversation on that Sunday morning … I struggled more than he did.

It was here?

Right where we’re sitting now. He was at peace with it. At that time, I think it was sort of a relief (for him).

I should tell you that I’ve heard a counter-narrative: That you didn’t actually make the decision on Richt, that it was done for you by boosters …

I can put that to bed right now. I did not have any influence from anyone. People weigh in all the time. I get calls pro and con, pro and con. But there was not one person here on our campus that directed me to do anything. That was my decision. I made the recommendation to the president. He supported that, and so we moved on.

So if, on the way back from Atlanta and the Georgia Tech game, you’d decided, “We’re going to stay the course,” Mark Richt would still be here?

Absolutely. No question. Absolutely.

(Coming tomorrow: McGarity on Kirby Smart, Mark Fox and the future of Georgia athletics.)