During my freshman year at the University of Georgia, the Bulldogs failed to meet very high pre-season expectations and finished the season with a third consecutive loss to Georgia Tech and a 7-4 record. The decision was made by University President Michael Adams to relieve coach Jim Donnan of his coaching duties and the next few weeks (leading up to Georgia's victory in the Oahu Bowl) were filled with rumors of who the new coach would be. Ultimately, the job went to Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt and the rest is history. But there was another candidate for the job and I got a chance this weekend to hear exactly how it all went down.
I attended my step brother's wedding in Norcross on Saturday night. I knew that his fiance's father was a big time booster for the Southern Miss football program and was friends with a number of current and former members of the athletic association. One of those friends who happened to be at the wedding on Saturday was long-time head coach Jeff Bower. My father, knowing my love for college football, insisted on myself and my brother in law in meeting Coach Bower. In talking with him, he gave me an interesting story about the coaching hire by the Dawgs in 2000.
First, a little bit about Coach Bower. Jeff Bower grew up in Roswell and was a star athlete for Roswell High School. As quarterback, he led them to back to back state championships and was named a prep All American. He committed to play college football for Coach Vince Dooley at Georgia and was on the squad in the fall of 1973. He ultimately left Athens for Southern Miss, where he became a three year starter. He began his coaching career at Southern Miss as a graduate assistant in 1975 and after serving as offensive coordinator for Oklahoma State in 1989, he was named Southern Miss's head coach in 1990. During his first years with Southern Miss as head coach, he coached future NFL legend Brett Favre. By the time he was fired after the 2007 season (in what I think was one of the dumbest coaching moves I have seen in college football in recent years) he had compiled a 119-83 record including a 6-5 bowl record.
Back to December 2000. Georgia is just beginning its coaching search and Mark Richt is on the list for many open positions. Having just finished his 11th season at Southern Miss with a win in the Mobile Bowl, contacts the man who recruited him to Georgia back in 1973. Vince Dooley begins conversations with Bower about coming in for an interview for the Georgia job. Coach Bower told me that this was the only time during his 29 years he spent coaching in some capacity at Southern Miss that he ever actively applied for another job. He was excited about the chance to return to his home state and coach at the school where he began his college career. After some initial talks, Coach Dooley set up an interview for Bower in Athens for the day after Christmas. Bower was going to be home for the holidays, so it set up perfectly for him. But a phone call on Christmas Eve would put an end to those dreams.
The phone call came in and it was Vince Dooley on the other side. The long and the short of it was that the University had decided to go ahead and make a decision to hire Mark Richt as the next football coach at Georgia. Dooley stressed to Bower that decision to go ahead and make the offer to Richt was made by the University President (Adams) and he was very sorry to break the bad news. Richt was atop of number of candidate lists, including Missouri, and they did not want to miss out on him. So Jeff Bower never got a chance to interview in person for the University of Georgia job.
History tells us that the decision to hire Mark Richt was the right one. Two SEC championships, an 8-4 bowl record, and multiple 10 finishes speak for themselves. But what if Bower would have at least gotten that interview? For Jeff Bower, this was a dream never realized but an opportunity that he surely will never forget.