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Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Devil's in the Details

No Georgia player has ever been arrested for failing to tuck in his shirt. Players aren't suspended for having chin straps unsnapped. The newspapers don't run stories on Bulldogs' facial hair.

But after a season in which his team developed a reputation for off-field trouble, Mark Richt has learned that there's a definite link between the minor details and the big disappointments.

In the weight room, players are working harder. On the practice fields, drills are being done with more precision. But the new dedication to Georgia's attitude this spring goes beyond the physical demands. Richt has adopted a new philosophy -- well, actually it's really his old philosophy -- that every little thing that happens on the field or in the locker room is significant.

"It's just setting an expectation of everything is important," Richt said. "Even our locker room. When those guys are out of there, all you need to do is run the vacuum, and that's it. It's not a pigsty. Every little thing matters, and if it's not done right, then we're on top of it."

So Richt has stepped up the basics -- like the chin straps and the shirt tails -- and the coaching staff is making sure every shortcoming is punished. More time is left after practice for discipline and more focus is given to the details.

Last year, that wasn't always the case, and Richt said the team paid the price.

"I think me, as head coach, allowed things to get just a little bit loose. It didn't seem like a big thing." Richt said.

So some of his old rules went by the wayside. The details were overlooked. If a player didn't want to shave, he didn't have to. Never mind the letter of the law.

The attitude trickled down, and this year, Richt hopes the opposite is true.

"If they have a beard and they keep it nice and trim, why not? What's the big deal? But I changed that and I've gone back to old school," Richt said. "What's the big deal about my shirt not being tucked in? I said, 'That's the rule.' I think it just starts with that and hopefully it will continue to permeate."

So far, the results have been promising. Richt said academically, Georgia's players are having a banner semester. Class and study hall attendance is at a superior level, he said, and no one is in any danger of missing playing time for academic reasons.

Other off-field issues seem to have subsided as well. Last year, Georgia's season was marred by player arrests and suspensions. Seven players missed time after off-field incidents resulted in suspension, with three eventually leaving the program. Several other players were involved in additional off-field issues that were handled in house.

The result was a bevy of media coverage that Richt said damaged the program's reputation and hurt the team's on-field performance. But Richt said this year's players have taken personally the problems that occurred last season, and he has preached a message of change -- even to those players who were involved firsthand in 2008's off-field distractions.

"They've got to understand that reputations take a lifetime to build and one night to damage," Richt said.

So Richt's message this season was simple: Start the healing process now.

"You do damage to your reputation, son, and it's going to take a long time for people to believe that you're truly back on the right track," Richt told his players. "But from this day forward, if you do right, you begin that process. This moment won't define your life and your career. What you do from this moment forward will define you."

So far, the message seems to have taken hold. Georgia has not had any off-field problems this offseason, and Richt hopes that continues.

"A lot of guys have really responded well to it," Richt said. "We do have to remember these guys are human. These guys are being watched more closely than probably any group in the state of Georgia. There's no place to hide. So am I going to sit here and say that these guys are never going to make a mistake again? That's very unrealistic, but I think at least we've had a very good start and guys, as a whole, want to do the right thing."

Richt said this offseason has been about returning to his roots, going back to the philosophy he employed during his first season in Athens.

Last year was a difficult one, but it was a learning experience, he said. In the end, the players failed to take responsibility for their actions, but Richt admits he failed to set the proper tone. That won't happen again.

"I probably asked myself, is it really that important that that guy's shirt is tucked in on that play?" Richt said. "Is it really going to make a difference between winning and losing? I think the answer is yes, and I spent a little moment there where I didn't think it was as important as it really was. Every little thing is important."

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