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How the Georgia Bulldogs Let Brian Schottenheimer Blow it with Trevor Lawrence in 2015

April 26, 2021
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Originally published in the summer of 2018, this is Dawg Post’s look back at the final year of Mark Richt’s coaching tenure at Georgia, which included future Tennessee coach as Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator, and future top NFL Pick Trevor Lawrence standing in line forever at a recruiting camp. The article breaks down insiders' accounts of what really happened in the most turbulent season of Georgia football this century. 

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

This time, Mark Richt wrote his notes on a pad as he prepared for a year-end meeting with Greg McGarity the Sunday after another win over Georgia Tech

Richt, who had been hired to be Georgia’s football coach the day after Christmas in 2000, often wrote notes to himself on his hands in ink. In the mid-2000s he joked that it was his Palm Pilot. There was nothing funny about this meeting - it would be his final one as head coach at UGA. 

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For 15 years, Richt took Georgia to heights fans of the program had not seen since Herschel Walker was on scholarship. Before the devout Christian arrived in Athens, the Bulldogs struggled to compete for SEC championships and had never appeared in the SEC Championship Game. The Bulldogs went 19 years between appearing in a major bowl game. 

It had gotten so bad in Athens that in-state rival Georgia Tech had beaten the Bulldogs three times in a row for the first time since the early 1960s. Richt’s change on the program was swift. Georgia’s first win in Knoxville over the No. 6 Vols, better known as the Hobnail Boot, was followed by a whipping of No. 21 Georgia Tech in Atlanta

UGA, under Richt, was on its way. 

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KNOXVILLE - Mark Richt celebrates Reggie Davis' 70-yard punt return during Tennessee's 38-31 win over No. 19 Georgia at Neyland Stadium on October 10, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

Richt punished the Yellow Jackets by winning 13 of 15 games, never losing in Atlanta in the process. Richt left UGA with a winning record against Auburn (10-5), Tennessee (11-4), South Carolina (9-6), Clemson (3-1) and many other name-brand college football programs. 

But he struggled mightily against Florida. The Gators turned Richt-led Georgia teams away 10 times in 15 years. And they did so often in painful ways. 

Still, Richt was more than a good leader. In the pantheon of Georgia coaches, he left as arguably the second-best in program history. 

But by 2015 things had changed. Richt was on his third athletic director and second school president. As he looked around the UGA staff meeting room, the only familiar faces in 2015 were two former players would had become coaches - Byran McClendon and Thomas Brown - and John Lilly, who coached with Richt at Florida State at the turn of the century. The rest of the coaching staff was entering its first or second season under Richt. 

The SEC’s transition from competing for national titles to expecting to win them was a sea change in the league as well. Long-time coaches in the league were getting chopped one by one. 

Phillip Fulmer had been run off by a Tennessee program that is still struggling to find its footing ten years later. LSU fired Les Miles in the middle of the 2016 season. Tommy Tuberville was no longer the coach at Auburn after guiding the Tigers to an undefeated season in 2004 and relative dominance over Alabama. The Tigers then fired Gene Chizik only 25 games after he won it all in 2010.

The SEC had changed. Richt seemed to struggle to adapt to the way the league was winning when it mattered most. UGA seemed to struggle to understand why winning really mattered. 

Recruiting had changed in very, very serious ways. Accusations of SEC West schools going hard by violating NCAA bylaws was common chatter in the recruiting world. Georgia felt that up close when offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil picked Ole Miss, an unlikely destination, over UGA on signing day in 2013. He later admitted the Rebels paid him to play in Oxford.

Still, had Georgia won the national title in 2012 when Aaron Murray’s sprint down the field came up only yards shy of toppling mighty Alabama, Richt’s fate after the 2015 season might have been different. 

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ATHENS - Mark Richt during No. 13 Alabama's 38-10 win over No. 8 Georgia at Sanford Stadium on October 3, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

But there he sat talking with McGarity, Georgia athletic director, the morning after another win over Tech. What didn’t happen in the past didn’t matter now - it was over. 

“Coach Richt and I met Sunday morning to discuss the status of our football program,” McGarity said in a statement released by UGA. “And we mutually agreed that he would step down as head coach and would have the opportunity to accept other duties and responsibilities at UGA following the bowl game.”

The last part would never happen. Richt used air quotes to describe the term “mutually agreed” in his introductory press conference at Miami. Those close to Richt say he didn’t intend to take another job after Georgia, but that Miami’s second call to him (the Canes had reached out after firing Al Golden midseason) was enough to get Richt interested in life after Athens. 

But what led to 2015?

The departure of long-time offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was at least one major catalyst. Inconsistency on the defensive side of the ball was another. 

“Mike cared,” said a prominent former player. “He went to UGA. There is something special about that. When he talked to us it felt like he was one of us.”

After an up-and-down 2013 season, Todd Grantham, who had been the defensive coordinator since 2010, took the same position at Louisville. 

Richt knew that his next defensive coordinator hire was important. The hire needed to be big, and needed to firm up a young defense that made too many mistakes. Grantham and the coaching staff at UGA said their goodbyes soon after he took the Louisville job. 

Moments after Grantham went out the doors in a meeting room at UGA, Richt turned to the staff in the room and said: “I am going to get you the best defensive coordinator in the country.”

That turned out to be Jeremy Pruitt, who had just won the national title with Florida State. The move united Pruitt with his college roommate, UGA offensive line coach Will Friend. Georgia’s 2014 practices were full of passion between those two at times.

“They would trade barbs at practice,” one player remembered. “You know it wasn’t anything crazy. Something would happen on the line, holding or an extra shove or something, and Pruitt would be like: ‘Fuck that, Will.” Friend would say it right back: ‘No, fuck you Pruitt.’”

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ATHENS - Lake Stevens (WA) QB Jacob Eason, Cartersville QB Trevor Lawrence and McEachern QB Bailey Hockman during the 2015 Dawg Night at Woodruff Practice Fields on July 18, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

Shit, for lack of a better term, was talked, but not taken. Bobo would get into things, too, with a cackling giggle when his offense would one-up Pruitt’s defense… screaming at his unit when it didn’t perform. Bobo could be hard on star UGA RB Todd Gurley, too. 

It was football and things were relatively smooth that season until Gurley was deemed ineligible for an autograph scandal that kept him out of four important games. Georgia went 3-1, but the loss to a mediocre Florida team cost the Bulldogs the SEC East. The Gators threw the ball only six times, but ran the ball down Georgia’s throat for 418 yards. UGA had come into the game as a 10-point favorite (the biggest point spread in UGA’s favor versus the Gators since point spreads have been tracked) and lost by 18. 

It was a bad loss.

But things broke down later in the year even further - perhaps in a terminal way. Once more, the Bulldogs were 10-point favorites, this time to beat Georgia Tech in the final game of the year, the day before Missouri punched its ticket to the SEC Championship Game by defeating Arkansas 21-14 at home. Playing against option-based Tech at noon the day after Missouri killed all hopes of UGA winning the SEC was a recipe for disaster. 

And a disaster it was. 

Georgia took the opening kickoff 10 plays and 75 yards to take a 7-0 lead. The game was back and forth from there. It was also wild. It featured a 99-yard fumble return for a TD, a blocked extra point, two blocked field goal attempts, a fake FG and two game-altering drives in the final moments of the game and overtime. 

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ATHENS - Hutson Mason and the Bulldogs line up during No. 16 Georgia Tech's 30-24 win over No. 9 Georgia Tech at the Sanford Stadium on November 29, 2014. (Ethan Burch/Dawg Post)

It was a season of wild plays in five quarters of football. It was also the start of a rocky 12 months for Richt. Some insiders suggest that day was the beginning of the end. 

Richt’s decision to squib the final kickoff of the game, after the Dawgs converted what appeared to be the game-winning score on a fourth-and-goal from the Tech three-yard line will go down as one of his worst decisions in Athens. 

Tech then started its final drive of regulation with only 13 seconds left in the game at its own 43. Tech quarterback Justin Thomas scrambled 21 yards after the play broke down and ran out of bounds at the UGA 36. 

Hustling, Tech’s Harrison Butker was barely in position to attempt the game-tying field goal with only 6 seconds remaining on the play clock. The Jackets were out of timeouts, but UGA had one left and used it, making certain Tech wouldn’t run out of time and get a penalty that would have forced a 53-yard FG into a 58-yard attempt. UGA didn’t appear to have more than 11 men on the field. It is unclear why UGA called timeout. 

After the timeout, Butker snuck through the 53-yard attempt with not much room to spare to send the game to overtime. 

Pruitt was angry. 

“Folks could hear him on the sideline. ‘Kick it deep.’ He was so upset,” said one former player. “He was stewing.”

Even though Georgia blocked Butker’s PAT in overtime the Bulldogs turned it over on their offensive possession, and No. 16 Tech beat No. 9 Georgia 30-24 in a wild overtime thriller.

Georgia, Richt admitted, gave the game away in the final 18 seconds. 

“(I’m) probably as sick as I’ve ever been after a loss - as sick about any call I’ve made when it came to deciding to squib kick at the end,” Richt said. “Basically gave them enough field position, enough opportunity to get enough position to get the kick. Not a good decision there.”

“I do remember (Pruitt) shaking our hands saying: ‘That wasn’t your fault,’” one player remembered recalling getting into the locker room after the game. “At the end of the day - was it a bad play call? I believe so. At the same time Pruitt’s defense didn’t stop Tech. It is on everyone.”

In a matter of 24 hours, Georgia had gone from possibly playing in the SEC Championship Game to possibly playing in the Peach Bowl to playing in the Belk Bowl.

In the post-game press conference, McGarity watched from the back of the room. 

“He looked absolutely furious,” one observer said of the UGA AD following the game. 

When McGarity was asked a few weeks later about the squib kick, the AJC’s Mark Bradley quoted him as saying: “I know I was not in a very good mood the next day, and days.”

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Athens - Mark Richt and Brian Schottenheimer during practice at Georgia's Fall Camp at Woodruff Practice Fields on August 4, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

McGarity was hearing it from some major boosters who were ready for a change. The loss to Tech - the way Georgia lost to Tech - was too much. That last 18 seconds of the game was enough for that crowd. 

Things seemed to settle down before Christmas. And the trip to the Belk Bowl seemed totally normal, until the game drew closer. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, but certainly with much wind behind its sales, was the notion that Mark Richt needed to beat Louisville to keep his job.

The day of the game saw rampant rumors that Richt would be canned if the Dawgs didn’t win in Charlotte. 

The drum beat got so loud that one assistant jokingly asked the head coach: “Dang, Coach Richt, are we going to get fired if we don’t win (the Belk Bowl)?”

True or not, it was becoming a distraction. But Georgia was nowhere close to losing as Nick Chubb hammered Louisville and Grantham 37-14. 

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CHARLOTTE - Mark Richt holds up the 2014 Belk Bowl trophy during No. 13 Georgia's 37-14 win over No. 20 Louisville during the 2014 Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium on December 30, 2014. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

It seemed the worst had passed. Richt wouldn’t be fired after all. Instead, a few days later UGA announced major commitments to the football program. It was early January, and more than $40 million in football projects and coaching salaries were announced. 

But after the announcement some UGA insiders revisited Pruitt’s comments about the lack of an indoor facility six weeks earlier. At the time, Georgia was ranked very high in recruiting rankings. And a former UGA staffer found Pruitt’s remarks hard to interpret. 

“That indoor practice facility thing,” a former assistant at Georgia said following the 2014 season. “That’s not why they got beat in Jacksonville or couldn’t get the ball back against Tech. I’ll say this: It does look kind of silly for a program with the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country to have its top recruiter acting like he’s having issues with recruiting because of something you don’t have when you’ve got the No. 1 class in the country.”

“The issue over the last few years at Georgia has been missing on about 4-5 kids per recruiting class,” he went on to say. “That’s not the indoor thing. Has nothing to do with that. No class is going to have everyone contribute, but when you lose starters that you signed due to suspension, and you do a bad job analyzing which kids to go after … that really, really adds up.”

“You add that with the just straight misses that they had, that’s a problem,” he said. “They don’t have a talent evaluation problem on defense right now. You look at the guys they’ve got committed - they are studs. I think you see Pruitt’s influence there in a really big way.”

And that influence grew as 2014 went into 2015. 

“Towards the end of it, it was pretty obvious that he was running things,” said one starter from that era. “I didn’t mind Pruitt because he got things done for us.”

An offensive starter added his take on Pruitt: “He did do some crazy shit. I always thought he was cool. The defense loved him. But I never had to deal with him.”

UGA had spent the money. 

Now it wanted to see results. 

One UGA staffer said in the run up to the recruiting season of 2015 that Georgia “has given us pretty much everything we have asked for. We want camp shirts. We get camp shirts. We want better travel. We get better travel. But I am worried that they are going to say: ‘Ok, we gave you all of that, and you didn’t win in a big way, so you are gone.’”

Spending was a far cry from what one staffer jokingly called the “sock audit”. That term was used to describe the way penny pinching went on at Georgia while Damon Evans was athletics director. While likely exaggerated, those in football would complain about spending at UGA, and claim that there was a sock audit - meaning each pair of socks in the football program was accounted for so that overspending didn't take place. 

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ATHENS - Houston County QB Jake Fromm during the Mark Richt 7v7 Camp at Woodruff Practice Fields on June 4, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

Brian Schottenheimer was hired in January over John Lilly, who called plays for the Belk Bowl win. Schottenheimer was given a three-year contract worth $950,000 a year - drastically higher than the $575,000 Bobo earned. The bet on Schottenheimer didn’t pay off. Georgia averaged 63 offensive touchdowns in the three seasons prior to the new offensive coordinator’s arrival. It would manage only 33 in 2015.

Recruiting wasn’t ideal, either, for Schottenheimer. But the new offensive coordinator’s addition to the staff meant that UGA needed to start figuring out which quarterback they would take in the 2017 class. Georgia already had future five-star QB Jacob Eason committed. But who would come after him? That was left to Schottenheimer. 

And, in hindsight, that led to a mistake. 

McEachern QB Bailey Hockman and Houston County QB Jake Fromm were both on Georgia's radar. Hockman was a left-handed coach’s son from a suburban powerhouse. Fromm was from middle Georgia, and got Houston County 10 wins for only the second time in school history. 

Schottenheimer decided to pursue Hockman, and offered him on January 12, 2015. 

“Coach Schottenheimer told me I was a good player,” Hockman told Dawg Post that day. “I fit their style.”

According to reporting from ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, Schottenheimer’s first question to Fromm, a sort of getting-to-know-you opener, fell flat. 

"Do you have any other offers?” Schottenheimer asked. 

Bad question. 

“When Schottenheimer asked him that, it just really turned him off. Jake was just disinterested after that,” Emerson Fromm, Jake’s dad, told Schlabach. 

If Schottenheimer offered Fromm is wasn’t publicly reported. Insiders say Fromm didn’t get an offer from UGA until Schottenheimer was fired. Fromm committed to Alabama in October 2015, four months after Hockman committed to the Bulldogs. 

Eason and Hockman travelled to Athens for Dawg Night in July. That was UGA’s most important recruiting event of the summer. 

Cartersville’s Trevor Lawrence, entering his sophomore year after leading the Hurricanes to a 12-2 season in 2014, was also set to attend. But while Eason and Hockman easily got through the lines at Sanford Stadium for the initial set up of the day, Lawrence stood in line for over an hour with other recruits. 

By the time Lawrence got to field level - literally Between the Hedges - Schottenheimer said that he had been looking for him. 

“We’ve been in line,” one of Lawrence’s coaches said in response. 

Schottenheimer had been a college coach for two years in his career. Recruiting wasn’t something he was required to do in the NFL. After Lawrence impressed at the camp - performing better than Hockman at Dawg Night and hanging in there with Eason - Schottenheimer let the Cartersville native leave campus without an offer to play at Georgia. 

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ATHENS - Brian Schottenheimer talks with Cartersville QB Trevor Lawrence during the 2015 Dawg Night at Sanford Stadium on July 18, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

The move was clumsy at best, a dereliction of duty at worst. Schottenheimer inherited Eason from Bobo’s and Richt’s efforts the summer before. Meanwhile the decision was made (or not made and no action was taken) to let another future five-star QB, Lawrence, leave Athens without him knowing he could play for his in-state school. 

“That was it for Trevor,” said someone close to the future Clemson Tiger. “He was not going to go to Georgia after that. UGA made it real tough on him after Kirby got there, but all of that at Dawg Night that summer … that was it.”

That Dawg Night was indicative of the fall to come. Too many prospects were in attendance. It was more of a carnival atmosphere than a targeted recruiting event. Coaches, like Schottenheimer, should have been “recruiting” Lawrence, not let him come to them. A prospect of that caliber - no matter if he was as young as Lawrence was at that time - can’t be left to chance. Nothing can be left to chance. Five-star prospects can’t be left to stand in line. He was special and needed to be treated as such. 

That didn’t happen. 

Lawrence was hardly the reason Richt was let go after the 2015 season. But perhaps that Dawg Night was a peek into the reason(s) why things didn’t work out as many folks hoped they would for Richt in the end. 

Too much confusion coupled with an explosive, in-fighting staff finally boiled over into the fall of 2015. It was a sad way for a career as accomplished as Richt’s was at Georgia to end. UGA’s send-off of Richt, too, was painful to watch. It was not handled well.

Soon after Richt was informed he would not return as coach, a group of players - mainly defensive players - went to talk with McGarity about Pruitt taking over as the head coach. 

“There was a group of juniors who met with McGarity and tried to get him to get hired,” a starter said. “But that would have never happened.”

McGarity explained to the players that Pruitt had eliminated himself from the possibility of being the head coach.

“They said McGarity said, ‘Look guys, he has made it to where I could not hire him. He comes up here cussing and screaming.’”

Richt confided with those close with him that he “lost control” at Georgia. It wasn’t a mistake he would make twice. Days after Richt left UGA for his new life at the University of Miami, he said he was no longer interested in doing things that led to his departure at UGA. 

“You need a united staff as far as the mission, and how we are going to go about our business,” he said during his introductory press conference. “Hiring a staff is huge. And I am going to be deliberate. I am going to take my time. I am going to be careful that I do the right thing. I am going to hire men that I believe are very competent. I want to hire men who are men of character. I want them to be the right example for our young men. I want them to truly care about our players and treat them as if they were their own son.”

During an interview with ESPN In the spring of 2016, Richt added these important lessons learned during his final years at Georgia: 

“I was like, ‘If I’m doing it again, I’m going back to coaching the quarterbacks, putting in the offense, calling the plays, doing the whole thing, even if it kills me,’” he said. “I think the players see me in a different light here than the last six or seven years at Georgia. When there’s a scrimmage now or even a practice, they can see more of my competitive spirit because I’m competing with them, offense versus defense. I’ll still see something great happen with the defense and be excited about it, but the bottom line is we’re trying to win the day, and I’m part of the offensive staff trying to win every day. That’s been different.”

Richt’s went 19-7 in his first two years at Miami - the best two-year record at The U in over a decade. The Canes’ appearance in the 2018 Orange Bowl was Miami’s first appearance in a major bowl since Larry Coker was head coach. But he stepped down after a 7-6 season in 2018. Georgia went on to hire Mark Richt’s 2005 running backs coach Kirby Smart. As of 2020, Smart has guided UGA to 52-14 record with an SEC championship, Rose Bowl Game, Sugar Bowl and Peach Bowl win and appearance in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. UGA finished in the top ten four years in a row from 2017 to 2020. 

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ATHENS - Nick Chubb, Mark Richt and Todd Hartley watch Lake Stevens (WA) QB Jacob Eason during the 2015 Dawg Night at Woodruff Practice Fields on July 18, 2015. (Dean Legge/Dawg Post)

 

 

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