Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt is retiring. He began the decline of Tennessee football while leading the Georgia Bulldogs against the Volunteers.
Coming off an 8-4 season in 2000, Tennessee football was poised to return to its late 1990s self. That season, identical to 1994, was one of lots of youth, including a freshman quarterback in Casey Clausen, that made rebuilding inevitable.
But the Vols had the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in 2000 and followed it up with another Top 5 class in 2001. Both seasons, according to 247Sports, they had two of the top 5 players from the state of Georgia. Those guys included Jabari Davis, Derrick Tinsley, Jason Respert and Sean Young.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, had no Top 10 in-state players in 2000. But in early 2001, nobody paid attention to their hire of Mark Richt, the offensive coordinator who had directed the Florida State Seminoles to three straight national championship games and four in five years. That first season, UGA got three top 10 in-state players.
Tennessee football went 11-2 and finished ranked No. 4 in the country in 2001. The most notable loss of the year was the fluke upset in the SEC Championship to Nick Saban’s LSU Tigers, costing the Vols a shot at the national championship. However, the other was the hobnail boot game at home to Georgia, who would go 8-4 under Richt and freshman quarterback David Greene.
The next offseason, Rivals was launched. And although the Vols had another Top 5 class, not one player came from Georgia. Meanwhile, Georgia also had a Top 5 class and picked up half the Top 10 players from the state of Georgia. They have limited UT recruiting in the state ever since.
As Mark Richt now retires, he leaves behind a mixed legacy. There’s no doubt the guy knows football, and he won two SEC Championships with the Bulldogs while having two solid seasons with the Miami Hurricanes before this one came apart. The part of his legacy that nobody talks about, though, is his direct role in the decline of the Vols.
Going into 2002, it seemed as if the SEC would belong to Phillip Fulmer in the future. His arch-nemesis, Steve Spurrier, was leaving the Florida Gators for the NFL. Spurrier cost UT at least four more SEC Championships. Instead, though, the Dawgs went 13-1 and won the SEC. And they became the class of the East.
Richt was not the coach in the SEC Spurrier was. But his existence did way more damage to the Vols. As he began to get more top-notch talent from the state of Georgia to stay home, Rocky Top began to suffer.
During the 1990s, Tennessee football was a national staple with Georgia talent. It was basically a second home state. Guys like Jamal Lewis, Deon Grant, Cosey Coleman and Mercedes Hamilton were integral pieces to the last two SEC Championship teams from Knoxville.
After Richt arrived, those recruits became harder to get. Sure, legacy guys like Eric Berry still committed. But largely, the Vols lost many of those players to UGA. And it showed throughout the following recruiting classes.
Fulmer failed to secure a Top 10 class in 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008. Meanwhile, his last three Top 10 classes in 2002, 2005 and 2007 were considered three bust recruiting classes. Combined they all had only two players from the state of Georgia: Berry and Chris Scott.
What’s clear is that with Richt in Georgia, Fulmer had to go more national and be a bit less specific with the caliber of players he wanted to get if he wanted to maintain his high level of recruiting. And that resulted in numerous busts. In fact, Scott and Berry are two rare players who weren’t busts from those classes.
Kirby Smart has taken Georgia to the next level with his recruiting and success, and the Bulldogs were right to get rid of Richt. But Smart is building on what Richt started, and now the Dawgs are getting players from the state of Tennessee like Cade Mays while walling off their top talent.
There are many reasons for Tennessee football’s decline over the last 20 years. But none of that was evident in 2001, even after the LSU and Georgia losses. The most direct catalyst for the Vols falling apart is Richt coming to Georgia and walling off recruits.
If you want more proof that Georgia’s relevance hurts the Vols, look at their rise. Vince Dooley retired in 1988. Tennessee football won four SEC Championships, a national championship and never missed a bowl game from 1989 through 2004. That ended in 2005, the first year Richt was coaching a team made up entirely of his recruits.