With ‘lid knocked off,’ No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs want more

Remember when Georgia used to talk about knocking the lid off its football program? Well, the Bulldogs finally did.

It just took a couple of decades to get that thing fully removed.

Seventh-year coach Kirby Smart finally got it all the way off. Now that he has, the Bulldogs find themselves swimming in some pretty deep water.

Last week, No. 1-ranked Georgia (12-0, 8-0 SEC) closed out back-to-back undefeated regular seasons for the first time in school history. On Saturday, the Bulldogs will make their fifth appearance in the past six years in the SEC Championship game. They’ll play LSU (9-3, 6-2) as 17-point favorites with a College Football Playoff berth as a foregone conclusion. Bag that, and Georgia next will seek to become the first back-to-back national champion in college football since Alabama in 2012.

That’s some heady stuff that would’ve sounded like sheer fantasy just a short time ago.

“I don’t really understand lids on programs,” Smart said Thursday, confused by the metaphorical reference. “I’m just doing the best job I can for our young men each and every year.”

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Mark Richt, Smart’s predecessor, is the coach who coined the phrase “knock the lid off” in the context of Georgia’s football program. It’s a leadership concept about removing a metaphorical lid from an organization. It was developed by renowned speaker and pastor John C. Maxwell in the late 1990s.

Richt was introduced to Maxwell’s teachings by the late Bobby Lankford, a character-education specialist, shortly after Richt was hired as Georgia’s coach in 2001. But it wasn’t until 2002 that the phrase became part of the Bulldog Nation’s lexicon. That was when Bulldogs began to reap the actual benefits of the “Law of the Lid,” which Maxwell lists as No. 1 in his best-selling book “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.”

It certainly seemed to have some merit to it. Georgia that year won its first SEC championship since divisional play had begun 20 years earlier. Before 2002, Georgia hadn’t even competed in the game.

“I brought it up in a team meeting,” Richt said this week “I asked them, ‘what’s been holding Georgia back? Is it recruiting? No. Is it facilities? No. We’ve got a ball and a field and meeting rooms. We’ve got everything we need here. So, if it’s not any of those things, what could it be then?

“I said, ‘well, maybe it’s been our leadership. Maybe it hasn’t been strong enough to knock the lid off the program.’ That’s kind of where that all came to be.”

When Richt spoke of “leadership,” he was talking about leadership within the team. He was talking about being player-led. And eventually, that’s what would come to pass.

Several young players on that 13-1 team of 2002 became famous, including quarterback David Greene, receiver Fred Gibson and defensive end David Pollack, all sophomores, and redshirt freshman safety Thomas Davis. But the true backbone of that team was an all-senior offensive line and senior inside linebackers Boss Bailey and Tony Gilbert.

Credit: JOHN BAZEMORE

Credit: JOHN BAZEMORE

“The whole knock-the-lid-off thing really started when coach Richt first got there,” said Greene, who’s now a partner in a corporate insurance company. “That’s when we first heard about it. Georgia was going 8-4 a lot in those days. We’d win the games we were supposed to win, then we’d lose the tougher games against the Tennessees and the Floridas of that day. Coach Richt’s whole philosophy was that it was time to knock the lid off the program, ‘let’s take it to the next level.’”

Georgia did. After winning that first SEC championship 30-3 over Arkansas on Dec. 7, 2002, the Bulldogs would play for two others in the next three years, win again in 2005 and then finish No. 2 in the nation in 2007.

Then there was a drought, followed by another couple of runs that saw Georgia come up short in the national championship chase. Richt averaged 10 wins during a 15-year tenure with the Bulldogs, but he never played for the national title.

Smart would get that shot in only his second season with the Bulldogs. And while they’d come up short to Alabama that time – remember second-and-26? – they didn’t last season in Indianapolis.

Richt and his sons, David and Jon, were there at Lucas Oil Stadium to witness Georgia’s 33-18 victory over Alabama in person.

“We loved it,” Richt said. “The biggest thing I enjoyed was watching the Georgia fans’ reactions. That was great. There were a lot of people crying.”

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Should the Bulldogs not beat LSU on Saturday, their fans might be crying for different reasons. This SEC championship has been a tough nut for Georgia to crack. It’s just 3-6 in the championship game all these years later.

And while there’s every reason to believe the Bulldogs are the better team -- between records, personnel, statistical data and injury reports -- there’s just something about those purple-and-gold-clad Tigers that seems to ruffle the Bulldogs’ fur.

Georgia is 1-3 against them in SEC Championship games. LSU also is one of two SEC teams Smart has never beaten. Ole Miss, which Georgia played in Oxford in Smart’s first year, is the other.

The Bulldogs have been pretty good, too, when they’ve gone head-to-head with LSU. They were ranked No. 2 when Smart took them over to Baton Rouge the first time in 2018. An early fake field goal blew up in Georgia’s face on the way to a 36-16 humiliation. In the 2019 SEC Championship game, the Bulldogs were just a minor bump on the Tigers’ road to perfection behind quarterback Joe Burrow.

Now a new but familiar face is at the helm of LSU’s ship. Brian Kelly and Smart did battle twice when Kelly was piloting Notre Dame. The Bulldogs won both games, but by a total of only seven points. For Georgia, the scary prospect is that Kelly should have much better players at LSU, if not now, then eventually.

“In-state recruiting; we didn’t have that certainly at Notre Dame,” Kelly said on a video conference call Thursday. “It was much more national. You’ve got to go into each state and pull out the best players in those states at Notre Dame, whereas you have it right here in the state of Louisiana. This is the flagship university. Kids want to go to LSU. They grow up wanting to be a Tiger.”

Smart has that working for him at Georgia, too. Like Richt did, Smart has been able to pluck the best of the best from one of the richest recruiting states in the union. But Smart has taken it a step further. He’s nabbing some of the best not only from surrounding states, but from some clear across the country, too.

The Bulldogs’ roster these days features a star cornerback from Tacoma, Wash., (Kelee Ringo), a couple of freakishly athletic tight ends from Napa, Calif., (Brock Bowers) and Las Vegas (Darnell Washington) and, yes, even an all-conference center from New Orleans (Sedrick Van Pran).

That is what it has taken for the Bulldogs to truly knock the lid off the program. And they’re still swinging with all their might to keep that cover from being popped back on.

The motivation is different now. Having missed out on the SEC title during last year’s run to the national championship is a void Georgia desperately wants to fill. And like LSU in 2019, it’s pursuing perfection.

“I’d say probably the main difference is the target is moreso on your back coming off of a national championship,” said Georgia safety Christopher Smith, a fifth-year senior. “We won last year, and we had a lot of hunger and ambition to get to that point, from coming close so many times and not being able to make it. So, it was great for us to get over that hump, get that monkey off our back.

“But now, when you’re pursuing it for the second time, everybody knows what you’re about. I feel like you have a lot more respect as a team, and you’re going to get every team’s best shot every weekend.”

That’s the problem with the lid being off. Everybody else wants in.