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Georgia Football

What Happened at UGA in 2015? Part One... The Vacuum is Filled

July 23, 2018

Please be advised: This series of articles occasionally contains strong language

ATHENS - Claude Felton rarely heard news like this. 

During his nearly 40 years as Georgia’s sports information director it was uncommon for Felton to have to deal with reports that an assistant football coach had been fired midweek during the season. 

But this wasn’t a normal week, and it was anything other than a normal season. 

The fall of 2015 in Athens was like very few others in past few decades. It ended with one of the most successful and popular coaches in school history being terminated. Mark Richt was fired the day following his 13th win in 15 tries over Georgia Tech. Another ten-win season was in sight. But the program Richt built and took to three Sugar Bowls and won two SEC titles with had been in chaos for months. 

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Assistant coaches were beyond bickering, calling each other out in non-professional ways in meetings. Players were uncertain of who was actually in control of the program, and eventually gave up on the coaching staff and fought for themselves. The Bulldogs underperformed on the field, too. The program lost to Alabama and Florida by a combined 52 points with schemes that didn't take advantage of what Georgia had and personnel decisions that were curious at best. A 21-point lead wasn’t safe enough in Knoxville, as the Vols celebrated their first win over UGA this decade after Georgia melted down on national TV. 

UGA scratched out wins over Vanderbilt, Missouri, Auburn and Georgia Tech with particularly ugly offensive efforts. It needed overtime to beat Georgia Southern

Athens native and former UGA QB Fran Tarkenton told 680 The Fan that November: “This staff that is over there today - and I am going to be very kind about it - it is not functioning properly.”

Tarkington was correct - Georgia's football program had become a mess.  And the consequences were severe. 

This series of articles is the behind-the-scenes look at the final year of Mark Richt’s time at Georgia. Dawg Post has talked with former players, coaches and administrators on the condition of anonymity about UGA during the tumultuous time. 

PART ONE: The Vacuum is Filled 

On the morning of November 5, 2015, Tony Eason, the father of five-star quarterback and UGA commit Jacob Eason had just poured coffee when he first read online that Georgia was in the middle of firing its defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. 

It was the sort of news that made the parent of a very gifted prospect wonder what in the world was going on where his son was set to enroll in a matter of a few weeks. 

“Did Pruitt get fired? Is Richt going to survive this?” he asked as he sipped his coffee in his Lake Stevens home, some 3,000 miles from Athens. 

Very good questions. The answers, which were very unclear that moment, were “no” and “no”. 

The chaos that was Georgia’s 2015 season was reverberating all the way to the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile in Athens, speculation abounded that Pruitt had been let go, and that a fight in the coaches’ office precluded that drastic move. 

“There we were sitting in class thinking Pruitt was fired,” one player said. “We had to have a team meeting about him still being around.”

Claude Felton, the sports information director at Georgia, had been inundated with phone calls about Pruitt’s dismissal. The lightning rod assistant coach had been recruited to Athens to replace Todd Grantham, who left for a huge contract at Louisville. Pruitt’s defense in 2015 had improved, but Georgia’s defense allowed 30 points or more six times in 2014. Things seemed to be better, but not remarkably better, than with Grantham. Still, UGA gave Pruitt a contract extension two days into 2015. 

“Pruitt had two years left on his original three-year contract at an annual salary of $850,000. His new deal adds a year back to the original contract giving him three years at a new salary of $1.3 million per year,” a UGA release said of Pruitt’s bump in pay. 

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ATHENS - Jeremy Pruitt talks with Mark Richt during Georgia's 9-6 win over Missouri at Sanford Stadium on October 17, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

Meanwhile, Richt, who was entering his 15th season as head coach in Athens, had slowly backed away from much of the day-to-day operation of the program. Longtime offensive coordinator and former starting UGA QB Mike Bobo had become a very important figure in the program, but he left to be the head coach at Colorado State following the 2014 season. With Bobo gone and Richt slowing down his responsibilities, a leadership vacuum was filled by Pruitt, who wasn’t as skilled as many in the genteel diplomacy of university campuses. 

“When you let evil into your life I think it is hard to take back that control. Does (Pruitt) go about things the way I would? Probably not. If you get into his way he’s going to road rage you,” one person in the program said of Pruitt. “And I love Jeremy.”

Another former player saw it differently: “I always liked Pruitt. What do you want - a best friend or a football coach?”

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Another, a starter, put it this way: “If you played for him he really got things done for you. I never really dealt with him a lot because I played offense, but it seemed to me that if you didn’t play for him - really if you didn’t start for him - he didn’t have any time for you.”

Pruitt’s hard-charging ways started a year before when he declared that Georgia would have something in place that had only started on the drawing board at the University level. 

Two Tuesdays before UGA took on Georgia Tech in 2014, Pruitt, who didn’t make himself regularly available to the media, decided to take on a media session to specifically talk about Georgia’s lack of an indoor practice facility. 

See photos from Georgia’s turbulent 2015 season... 

"I know our competitors are not gonna say anything bad about the coaching staff here. They're not gonna say anything bad about the people here, because it's a great place," Pruitt said. "But what they're gonna say - and that they've always said is - how important is football to Georgia if they don't have an indoor practice facility? Well, they won't be able to say that anymore."

Georgia’s president and administration took Pruitt’s impromptu press conference that night as a shot at them. That, even though the planning for an indoor facility had already begun, Pruitt was saying that it should be completed on the timeline he suggested rather than those responsible for completing the project. 

Simply put: Many took it as the first of several shots Pruitt would take at Georgia and its leaders. Georgia’s president Jere Morehead told Pruitt not to act out like that in public again. Nonetheless, Pruitt was given his new contract weeks after he ranted about the lack of a practice facility. 

No, Pruitt had not been fired midweek in November of 2015. But what was not known at the time publicly was that Pruitt would not be allowed to return to UGA - no way. The games in November 2015 were the final few games he would coach at Georgia. UGA officials and many boosters had seen enough. It was time to move on from Pruitt - no matter Richt’s fate. 

“We had to have a team meeting about him still being around,” a starter added about that Thursday before the Kentucky game in 2015. 

It was not the first team meeting with Pruitt at the center of attention. Still, by midday Thursday afternoon Richt needed to stop the bleeding. If chaos surrounding the season and Pruitt was reverberating all over the country it would affect recruiting. Richt needed to be clear about what was going on and what was not.

Just after lunch that Thursday, Richt walked into Felton’s office and tweeted out that Pruitt was not only still on the UGA staff, but that he was working hard to get ready for that weekend’s game. 

“Just so everyone knows, Jeremy Pruitt is our defensive coordinator and is in the office working diligently getting ready for Kentucky!”

Athens Banner-Herald reporter Marc Weiszer tried to ask Richt a question as he left Felton’s office on the second floor of UGA’s Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, but Richt was done with messaging for the day. 

“No comment,” he told Weiszer. 

Georgia still had not named a starting quarterback for the Kentucky game. Richt had much to determine in the midst of the mess that was the rumor that was Pruitt being fired.  

The Kentucky game had been preceded by a terminal loss to Florida. The Bulldogs’ humiliation at the hands of the Gators was nothing new necessarily, but this time it was too much for the players in the program. A player-only meeting was called after film from the Florida loss was watched.

The players were done with the staff. 

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JACKSONVILLE - Jeremy Pruitt, Mark Richt and Faton Bauta during No. 11 Florida's 27-3 win over Georgia at EverBank Field on October 31, 2015. (Wes Muilenburg/Dawg Post)

“We had a player meeting that night or the next day,” an offensive starter recalled. “We just said: ‘Fuck the coaches. This is for us and us alone.’ We all thought if we could win out Coach Richt would (be able to) stay.”

The offense, which had moved from a struggling quarterback, Grayson Lambert, to one that tossed four interceptions in one game, Faton Bauta, had been lost and continued to get worse as the year drug on. The efficiency of the Bobo years was gone. The defense, which Pruitt was in charge of, had to hold its own and then some. And that was too much to ask. 

With Bauta under center Georgia stood no shot to beat the Gators. It was another defining moment in the season - UGA benching Lambert after one of the worst QB performances in recent memory after UGA barely scratched out a 9-6 win over Missouri only to go to a QB who had the ability to rally the team as a leader, but not much more. 

The loss to the Gators meant Georgia wouldn't win the SEC East. The season was over. The question was if Richt would be terminated at the end of the season or not. 

Cracks in the staff of the Bulldogs, which featured three new offensive assistants and Mark Hocke as the new strength and conditioning coach, surfaced well before the Bulldogs’ annual trip to Jacksonville. The program’s assistant coaches were split on offensive and defensive sides. Pruitt was the most vocal of the assistants, and seemed to have a hand in the direction of the program in ways that no one else did - some thought even more than Richt. 

Hocke and offensive line coach Rob Sale had been hires Jeremy Pruitt was viewed as responsible for making. Running backs coach Thomas Brown and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer were Richt hires. Brown played during Richt’s successful run from 2004-2007 that involved two Sugar Bowls and an SEC title. Brown’s reputation in Athens was impeccable - he was no nonsense; considered one of the hardest-working players of Richt’s tenure.  

Hocke was loud, boisterous and many in the strength and conditioning world wondered if he knew what he was doing. Perhaps the most memorable moment of Hocke’s time at UGA was him putting high-level recruits through nearly an hour’s worth of conditioning in the summer of 2015 before actual camp activities even started. Georgia’s premiere summer recruiting event was a total failure, but Hocke was really loud. 

“You are going to be a dog today!” Hocke would scream to the recruits over a PA system. It was a nightmare. 

“All of the players were excited because he was high energy,” said one former assistant. "But then no one was actually getting stronger. It was a joke. As the summer ended the guys were like 'Yo, I don't feel better.'"

The patchwork staff, which included longtime Richt assistants Bryan McClendon and John Lilly and Pruitt hires Kevin Sherrer, Mike Ekeler and Tracy Rocker, didn’t take long to clash. The days of Bobo’s influence were out the door. 

Bobo had introduced a fluid and accomplished offensive system that used smaller offensive linemen and skilled quarterbacks and running backs to slice up defenses in the SEC in record book fashion. His replacement, Schottenheimer, was not well received. Schottenheimer was described by more than a few in the program at the time as a train wreck, and that frustrated Pruitt early and often. 

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JACKSONVILLE - Brian Schottenheimer talks with Faton Bauta during No. 11 Florida's 27-3 win over Georgia at EverBank Field on October 31, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

It had been determined that Schottenheimer would use the offensive system already in place in Athens for the 2015 season. Georgia returned four starting offensive linemen, Malcolm Mitchell, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. A new quarterback, presumably Brice Ramsey, and some receivers would have to step up. But the core of the 2014 team that won 10 games returned. It was understood that Schottenheimer would adapt to UGA rather than the Bulldogs adapting to him. 

“We were all told that we were going to use our offense,” said one player. “The week before spring practice Schottenheimer changed everything. We got called in (to our position coach), and he told us that we were going to use Schottenheimer’s playbook. He never learned our playbook.”

Pruitt was unaware of the change on the offensive side of the ball, and but when he found out he didn’t react well. 

“Pruitt never found that out until the day before spring practice. That is, I think, what really started the problem,” they added.

Later that spring, Pruitt lost his composure during a spring practice. Multiple former players and some former insiders there for the practice described that Saturday scrimmage as a “shit show” and that Pruitt “lost it” that day.

“We had a no-fighting policy,” one starting player said recalling the Pruitt meltdown. “Jordan (Jenkins) and John (Theus) got into a fight and the policy was that the fighters had to leave practice. They didn’t end up leaving. I mean, it is kind of difficult to have a scrimmage with your best two linemen out of practice. And the thing is that whenever there is a fight with the defensive line and the offensive line it is never one-on-one… it always turns into a five-on-five fight. So all of the sudden both lines are leaving practice?”

"So coach Richt tried to move forward with (Theus and Jenkins) there,” he said. “Pruitt flipped out that those two weren’t leaving. I think he tried to take a ball away or something. Then there were some choice words between the offense and defense. This really wasn’t a Pruitt-Richt thing at the core. Pruitt yelled at Richt, and then our offensive guys got involved - particularly TB (Brown).”

“He got up and took it and walked off the field with it,” said one former student assistant. “He literally took his ball and went home. Everyone thought he was joking, but he was dead-ass serious.”

“The root of the problem was that Pruitt was running the show,” another player said. “Coach Richt is a non-confrontational guy. He didn’t check Pruitt, and it went from there. I think Pruitt just flat cussed out Coach Richt, and he didn’t do anything back.”

“It was a Saturday, and I am pretty sure there were some boosters there,” another player added. “That was what was so shocking. That it happened in front of people.”

It was a bad scene - the moment many at UGA point to where they simply lost their appetite for Pruitt once and for all. 

“We had a meeting the next day, and we weren’t expecting it, but Pruitt got up the next day and said ‘Coach Richt is in charge. I was out of control and shouldn't have done what I did.’” a starter recalled. 

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KNOXVILLE - Nick Chubb screams in pain after being injured on the first offensive play of the game during Tennessee's 38-31 win over No. 19 Georgia at Neyland Stadium on October 10, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

“That should have never happened,” one starter said about the incident. “Pruitt was wrong about that. That was wrong. You don’t talk to another man like that. Not your head coach.”

Pruitt later reiterated in a press conference the fall of 2015 that Richt was in charge. 

“We lost some respect for Coach Richt in that moment,” a player said of the spring 2015 practice. “Right then it should have been handled.”

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But it wasn’t. The program moved forward with the understanding that Mark Richt was the head coach, but that Jeremy Pruitt mattered a lot. 

“We knew Pruitt was running things in the summer,” said a future NFL player. “We just didn’t know what would happen when adversity hit.”

As with any football season, adversity was right around the corner. 

After Alabama dismantled UGA, Nick Chubb suffered a major knee injury at Tennessee. The Bulldogs lost Chubb and a 24-3 lead to the Vols, who came back to beat Georgia 38-31. The wheels were shaking really hard. A few weeks later they would fall completely off in Jacksonville.

Tuesday: Part Two: No one believes in Brian Schottenheimer... 

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