August 24, 2013

Loran Smith: Unsung coordinator

— University of Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo coaches football with a player’s perspective. He wants the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks to have fun, but he knows that to enjoy such experience, a dedicated emphasis has to be placed on discipline and work ethic.

“All work and no play might make Johnny a dull boy!”

You may believe that old saw, but quarterbacks who don’t want to be dull boys must subscribe to the notion that hard work is the first step toward success. Play comes one day a week. The other six are for preparation, and it must flat-out intensive if you want to succeed.

Quarterbacks have to be smarter than the rest of the team. They have to know their assignments and yours, too. They have to be more disciplined than the rest of the team. Their miscues and their mishaps are more critical to the eye and by nature are of greater consequence, which affects their ability to lead the team.

Of all the coaches I have known at Georgia, Bobo — an unbending overachiever himself, one who passionately identifies with a strong work ethic — is the most underappreciated in Bulldogs history.

That was the way it was for him as a player when he quarterbacked Georgia from 1994 to 1997. He was never flashy, just a yeoman performer who didn’t impress with strong-armed passes, zipping about or dodging linebackers with deft moves that left jock straps on the turf. He simply got the job done.  

Bobo played with pride but not ego.  He coaches the same way. Yet as a player, he made plays.

He found a way to win, the classic example coming in the Georgia-Auburn game in 1996, the Southeastern Conference’s first overtime game. That has to be one of the greatest performances ever by a Georgia quarterback, but Bobo is the first to note that it should not have been. It was a case of an opponent’s faux pas, which favored Bobo’s team.

With the clock ticking away, Bobo committed the unthinkable. He failed to get the ball off and took a sack.

The game should have been over, but an Auburn defender took the ball in a moment of foolish, premature celebration and began running down the field. The official had to stop the clock to get the ball back.

This allowed Georgia to line up, giving Bobo time to spike the ball and get off one final pass, which happened to be a gem of a 31-yarder to receiver Corey Allen just inside the goal line. Every now and then, Bobo will show that final series to his quarterbacks, reminding them that if the other team had not done something stupid, he would have never been the hero.

“I want them to understand what not to do,” Bobo said. “I made a terrible mistake but got away with it.”

The victory came about because Bobo, cool under fire, moved the Bulldogs from his own 18-yard line with 1:07 left in the game to the end zone. With no timeouts remaining, he worked the clock to perfection, throwing sideline passes to Hines Ward to stop the clock in masterly fashion. No Georgia quarterback has ever been more Johnny Unitas–like in moving a team to a critical touchdown.

The Georgia defense held on the home team’s last possession to win the game, 56-49 in four overtimes.

Second-guessing the quarterback and the play caller — Bobo could write a book about each subject — is indelible in football fandom’s unrelenting landscape, but how could anybody not take the time to review and factor in all the data? The cold, hard facts cause his associates to shake their heads in dismay when Bobo is criticized.

Don’t ask the critic next door, ask people like Jon Gruden, the former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and now the analyst for ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

“Mike Bobo is one of the sharpest young coaches I have ever met,” Gruden said.

Georgia’s offensive production in 2012 not only enabled the Bulldogs to win 12 games and the SEC East title, but registered high nationally on the stat sheet. How about long scrimmage plays for starters:

n Plays of 20-plus yards (90 of them), ranked No. 3 in the country.

n 30-plus yards (45), No. 3.

n 40-plus yards (28), No. 2.

n 50-plus yards (15), No. 2.

n 60-plus yards (9), No. 3.

The Bulldogs set 16 offensive team records a season ago, including most points for a season, 529, and highest average points scored per game, 37.8. Georgia also set five Capital One Bowl records, including passing yards (427) and touchown passes (five) against one of the toughest pass defenses in the country, defeating Nebraska — a much better team than advertised — 45-31.

Mark Richt brought the Florida State passing game to Georgia in 2001, and the Bulldogs’ offensive production was a hit from the start. Richt’s first team averaged 32.1 points, and his offenses were above 25 points per game every year thereafter.

Bobo took over as offensive coordinator in 2007 and increased production. His first offense averaged 32.6 and only one year — 2009, when Joe Cox began the season on the sick bed on the road at Oklahoma State — did the Bulldogs’ offense drop below 30 points per game. Even so, that offense wasn’t bad at 28.9 points per game.

The stat that jumps out at an observer from 2012 is that the Bulldogs averaged 7.1 yards per play. Never the self-promoter, Bobo had this to say about last year’s glittering offensive performance,

“It means nothing. We all could get fired in January,” he responded with a laugh.

Bobo could have left Athens lately for other coordinating positions with big raises, but he politely declined to interview. He could have had a head coach’s job in a lower division by now but realizes that being Georgia’s offensive coordinator is better than being a head coach at a lot of schools.

He grew up in the state, played high school football for his father, George, in Thomasville, and quarterbacked his favorite team in college. At Georgia, he had fun, made friends, and learned that there is fulfillment in a career if you can find a place to coach that is similar to where you played.

That it happened to be one and the same with Bobo is something he embraces with the greatest of affection and commitment. He loves Athens, he loves Georgia, and his family — parents and in-laws — are within reach, which means that down time is a grand old time with the family.

Golf and fishing are nice diversions for him, but when his coaching nose is not butting up against the grindstone, he treasures family time. With five kids aged 9 or younger, Bobo goes from one action-packed environment to another, loving every minute of it.

Even so, Bobo tries to stay on top of his game from one season to the next. He spent time in the spring of 2012 with Gruden. In those sessions, the conversation had to do with lead zone concepts, high-percentage pass plays, and no-huddle formations. Gruden gave him a play-action pass off the sprint zone, which Bobo filed away.   Georgia practiced the play during the season but never used it in a game.

It would lead to a fortuitous moment, however.

Nebraska — which was a much better team than many forecasters realized despite losing 70-31 to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game — went toe-to-toe with the Bulldogs.

“We knew we could not make any mistakes on offense to move the ball on them,” Bobo said.

After Nebraska scored on an interception return and was leading 14-9 in the second quarter, Bobo decided that Nebraska, which emphasized quarters coverage, might be vulnerable to the play-action pass he had gotten from Gruden. Aaron Murray proceeded to connect with Tavarres King for a 75-yard touchdown pass.

Life is good, and nobody knows that better than Bobo.

“We live in a great town and community. We have a program which attracts the best players. I work for a great man who happens to be our head coach,” Bobo said. “We are stable in an unstable profession. Coach Richt is so unemotional on the field, which is an asset many do not appreciate. He never panics, and as a result our team never panics.”

Bobo has a similar personality except that he is more of a fiery type, giving to occasional outburst. If things don’t go well, he can lose it, maybe given to shouting epithets in the coaches’ booth in the press box, but he has a relaxed and even style for the most part.

His philosophy is to pressure the players in practice and create a relaxed atmosphere for the games.

“You do you work in practice — that is where you win games,” he said.

On his wall there is framed piece of prose written by author T. Alan Armstrong, which underscores his last point: “Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their character.”

That has become the essence of Mike Bobo’s approach to running Georgia’s offense. That he is running the offense well is not lost on those who count — from coach Mark Richt to Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity to true experts like Jon Gruden.

Don’t forget, too, Bobo is a Georgia boy, with a Georgia degree, which motivates him to do his best for his alma mater.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at