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Another sign of the mercenary times in the SEC: One of the byproducts of Georgia's sudden swoon, and the accompanying realization after Saturday's debacle at Tennessee that the Bulldogs are probably en route to their worst season in more than a decade, has been a rapid reassessment of Mark Richt, heretofore on track to become the most successful coach in school history. That was two weeks ago, when UGA was still in the polls at 3-1; a pair of hard-to-swallow losses later, Dawg partisans are beginning to hear the ghosts of a couple recently departed, championship coaches dragging their chains through the foyer.

And frankly, they don't have much choice: Everyone recognizes that Richt's glittering resumé to date is great, and dutifully rejects any premature "hot seat" talk. But the fact in the modern SEC, as proven by the rapid descents of Philip Fulmer at Tennessee and Tommy Tuberville last year -- both summarily dismissed for hitting bottom after periods of relative stagnation, at the same time that cold, calculating counterparts Urban Meyer and Nick Saban executed nearly instant turnarounds at rivals Florida and Alabama -- is that the ax can come down with the slightest provocation, for which allowing 300-plus yards and four touchdowns to Jonathan Crompton clearly qualifies.

With Georgia now destined for also-ran status in the East for the fourth year in a row, the parallels are becoming a little too obvious to ignore for UGA blogger (and Doc Sat regular) Doug Gillett, who cast Richt as the next Tuberville on Tuesday, just ahead of columnist Mark Wiedmer's vision of Richt as Fulmer-in-waiting for the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

In Phillip Fulmer’s first full seven seasons as Tennessee’s head football coach, the Volunteers won 72 games and a national championship and posted five years with 10 or more wins. In Mark Richt’s first seven seasons at Georgia, the Bulldogs won 72 games, finished second nationally one year, wound up third nationally another and won 10 or more games five times. We all know how Fulmer’s career ended. Is Richt headed for the same sad fate with Georgia somewhere down the road?
None of this will cost him his job this season, nor should it. But to coach beyond 2010, Richt needs to end his comparisons with Fulmer’s tenure now, when such numbers are still cause for congrats rather than concern.

Of course it won't cost Richt his job this season; that would be ridiculous. The coordinators come first, beginning with much-maligned defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, and possibly continuing with offensive coordinator (and former UGA quarterback) Mike Bobo if necessary. But if those changes don't produce an immediate turnaround, the implication is clear: Those three division titles (and two SEC titles, off a 20-year championship drought) in four years from 2002-05 aren't going to carry much goodwill when the disappointments of 2006, 2008 and now, apparently, 2009 are much fresher in everyone's mind. Stockholders in the program (emotional and otherwise) demand consistent returns, and evidence that the very well-compensated CEO is stopping at nothing to ensure them.

For now, the head of a coordinator or two will give them that; we'll see where the stock goes from there. But make no mistake: On the heels of Fulmer and Tuberville, the fact that this discussion even exists for a coach as wildly successful as Richt is as good an indicator as any that we'll be having it at some point about every coach at one of the league's heavier hitters for many, many years into the future, without exception. With the kind of money departments are throwing at them and thus expecting in return via BCS bids, ticket sales and ever-richer TV contracts, they can't afford not to have it when things start looking a little stale. If it's a cutthroat, mercenary environment the SEC wanted, brother, they've got it.

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