Georgia’s Greg McGarity shares about anguish over firing Mark Richt

Credit: UGA Athletics

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Georgia’s departing Athletic Director Greg McGarity talks about the decision and discussion to replace Mark Richt with Kirby Smart as football coach in 2015.

Credit: UGA Athletics

ATHENS – When it comes to Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity, the expanse between perception and reality is massive. That has become even more apparent as the 66-year-old native Athenian prepares to ride off into the sunset of retirement.

McGarity announced Monday his plans to retire at year’s end. While that will happen officially Dec. 31, he’ll actually leave town for good by Dec. 20 at the latest. Then, he will pack his Toyota Rav 4 with his belongings and drive south to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to join his wife, Sheryl, in the home they put on contract on Mother’s Day weekend. She has lived there with their Lakeland Terrier, Riley, since the first of July.

So, behind the scenes McGarity has been very busy. But it’s there, behind the scenes, that McGarity is most comfortable and does his best work. It’s probably why he is so often misunderstood.

Like during those tumultuous months in 2015 when McGarity made the decision to part ways with football coach Mark Richt and pursue Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. The perception is that McGarity merely was a puppet for well-heeled boosters and doing their bidding with cold, calculated precision.

McGarity paints a different picture. He describes making a unilateral decision that actually was borne a year earlier with a loss to Georgia Tech in 2014. That excruciating overtime defeat not only knocked the Bulldogs out of what was going to be an Orange Bowl bid, but also convinced McGarity that Richt was never going to consistently win at the level McGarity desired and expected when he returned to UGA from Florida.

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Richt convinced McGarity that things were going to be better in 2015, so he kept him on. But they weren’t. So even after the Bulldogs beat Georgia Tech for a fourth consecutive win and another nine-win season in 2015, McGarity told Richt to meet him in his fourth-floor office at the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall early the next morning.

It was then that McGarity fired Richt. He considers that as one of the most difficult moments of his professional career. McGarity said he didn’t sleep the night before and, internally, was an emotional wreck.

“It was 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning. I was very emotional, and I had a hard time talking to Mark,” McGarity revealed during a 50-minute video conference call with reporters Tuesday. “You’re sitting across from someone that is, without question, maybe the greatest person you’ll ever meet, a person that was selfless. His story, the adoption of his children, my gosh, it was so difficult. I really struggled with that, and it wasn’t easy to do.

“But that’s the tough thing about being in a leadership position. Sometimes, it’s not the best thing for the individuals; you have to do what’s best for the institution. At that time, I thought it was the best thing for us.”

That has proved true. The dismissal of Richt led to the hiring of Kirby Smart, which occurred six days later in the suite of the Renaissance Atlanta Midtown Hotel after Alabama’s win over Florida in the 2015 SEC Championship game. That’s where McGarity and UGA President Jere Morehead met with Smart and his agent, Jimmy Sexton.

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The last press conference with Georgia's Mark Richt and Athletic Director Greg McGarity was not a comfortable one. (Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com)

The last press conference with Georgia's Mark Richt and Athletic Director Greg McGarity was not a comfortable one. (Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com)

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The last press conference with Georgia's Mark Richt and Athletic Director Greg McGarity was not a comfortable one. (Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com)

McGarity described it as a long but every efficient meeting that didn’t end until sometime after midnight. As for Smart being hired as Georgia’s coach, that deal was done upon the handshake greeting entering the room. The rest of the time was spent working out the details on Smart’s No. 1 requirement for taking the job – “to go big.”

“I said, ‘Kirby, you need to articulate that for us. What exactly do you mean?” McGarity said in a meeting over lunch at a west Athens eatery Tuesday. “We wanted him to be specific.”

Smart was. Most of his requests already were coming online, including an indoor practice facility and the promise of a new locker room and recruiting lounge at Sanford Stadium. Those, McGarity revealed, had been promised to Richt.

What Georgia wanted in return was for Smart and his wife and fellow UGA alum Mary Beth to take an active role in the fundraising for that and other projects.

They have. That’s why the Bulldogs are entering the final stages of construction on an $80 million expansion to the Butts-Mehre football complex. McGarity reported that “the Georgia people” have stepped forward with $64 million in donations and pledges to pay for that gargantuan addition.

“We’re still generating significant donations,” McGarity said. “To think our donors paid for the indoor building, the west end zone and then this, eventually, and they’re not taking on any long-term debt is a tremendous tribute to those members of the Magill Society. Otherwise, you’d have to tell the coach, ‘we can’t afford it now’ or ‘we’ll have to raise ticket prices to do this.’”

Therein lies another tremendous gap between perception and reality regarding. For much of his tenure of 10 years and five months, McGarity’s reputation has been as a cheap, penny-pinching AD. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, the amount of money the Georgia Athletic Association spent on new facilities and renovations during McGarity’s tenure is jaw-dropping – well over $200 million just for football, basketball and baseball alone. Including new construction, improvements and renovations on all 21 of Georgia’s sports, that number grows to $341 million over the past 10 years, according to athletic-association records.

That number does not include all the promises to Smart in that hotel suite that McGarity and Morehead have made good on. That has brought private jets, helicopters and limousine vans into Georgia’s recruiting process and grown the football program’s recruiting budget into one of the biggest in college football.

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

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Departing UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity lists his favorite moments during his tenure in Athens.

Credit: Georgia Bulldogs

Every one of those expenditures have had McGarity’s signature underneath it. And all of this has come while the AD remained fiercely protective of UGA Athletics’ infamous reserve fund. He has been widely criticized for always choosing to hit up donors rather than using cash stashed within the UGA Foundation’s coffers for projects.

McGarity always argued that money was needed to maintain the association’s 501(c)(3) status, as well as for the dreaded “rainy day” that could always come Georgia’s way.

“Well, it’s been pouring the last eight or nine months,” Morehead pointed out Tuesday, “and having those reserves has put us in a much better position than many other major athletic programs in the country that chose to go deeply in debt not to have anything in reserve. So, I appreciate the fiscal responsibility that Greg provided to the athletic association, along with many other things, of course.”

Unlike many other universities across the country, Georgia hasn’t had to furlough employees, reduce coaches’ salaries or cut sports.

Going forward, it is likely that other institutions or businesses are going to appreciate McGarity’s management style. He made it clear Tuesday that, while he is walking away from UGA and a relationship with college athletics that spans all six decades of his life, he’s not walking away from work. He intends to do something else. He just doesn’t know what yet.

Or, at least that’s what he claims. McGarity also claimed that since his last multi-year contract with UGA lapsed two years ago he did not know if or when he might retire. The fact that he has been living alone in a one-bedroom condo on South Lumpkin Street since June while his wife renovated their new home suggests this is not a whimsical stroll into the unknown.

Indeed, Morehead said he tried for months to talk McGarity out of his retirement plans. McGarity delayed it this long only because of the pandemic that has engulfed the country.

Whatever he does, McGarity knows it probably won’t be as fun and exciting as what he has been doing the last few decades or so.

Then again, there will be some things he won’t miss. In addition to the Richt-Smart transition, he has executed eight fire-and-hire transitions as Georgia’s AD. He’d just as soon not have to go through any of those again.

“Those are the difficult thing,” he said. “It’s not fun, trust me. You get no sleep the night before and you just dread it.”

As for the moves he did make, McGarity said he’ll leave that for others to judge.

“The jury will be out forever on those types of things,” he said.