Can Mark Richt finally lead Georgia to a national championship?
ATHENS, Ga. -- Classifying Georgia coach Mark Richt is a matter of perspective. There’s Richt the Nice Guy, the coach who treats players like sons and staffers like siblings. There’s Richt the Inadequate, the guy who can’t keep control of his roster or take his program to the next level. Then there’s Richt the Incomparable, the man who will go down as one of the winningest coaches in the Bulldogs’ storied history.
On a sunny May afternoon, Richt sat in a black leather chair in a lounge adjacent to his office, which overlooks Georgia’s indoor and outdoor practice facilities. He is familiar with his varying reputations. That’s the nature of a coach who, entering his 14th season in his current role, has experienced more ups and downs at a single school than many coaches do over the course of their careers. For better or worse, the methodology behind his approach has remained constant.
“When I put my head on the pillow at night, can I have peace to know I did what I think is best, what I think is right?” Richt asked, sporting a gray golf shirt patched with the iconic black-and-white Georgia logo.
If the SEC is a hurricane, Richt has been resting calmly in the eye of the storm for longer than a decade. He is the elder statesman of regional coaches, and under his watch the Bulldogs have been one of the league’s most successful teams. The coach has won at least 10 games on seven different occasions. He has captured six SEC East titles and two conference championships. Of active head coaches with at least 120 career victories (126-45), Richt’s .737 winning percentage ranks fifth in the country. For all intents and purposes, Richt is the longest-tenured coach in the SEC. (Missouri’s Gary Pinkel was hired a month before Richt, but Pinkel spent his first 11 seasons with the Tigers playing in the Big 12.)
The question isn’t whether Richt can win. It’s whether he can win enough. Four SEC schools (Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU) and have claimed at least one national title since he arrived in Athens. In that span, Georgia has yet to play for the sport’s ultimate prize. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are regularly the butt of jokes relating to player discipline. In fact, three potential defensive starters (Tray Matthews, Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins) were dismissed this offseason alone.
Still, Richt has managed to hold on to his first head-coaching job in an industry not conducive to longevity. College football was a different world in December 2000, when Richt came to Georgia after spending 15 seasons as an assistant under Bobby Bowden at Florida State. The BCS was in its infancy. Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier were at LSU and Florida, respectively. The SEC had yet to cement its status as the nation’s most dominant conference.
But as the league and the game have evolved, Richt has stayed consistent.
Like many players or coaches who have come close to reaching the pinnacle of their sports, Richt is often discussed in terms of his shortcomings, not his achievements. But that perspective overlooks all he has accomplished in Athens. He has averaged better than nine victories per year, winning more games with the Bulldogs than everyone but Vince Dooley (201) and Wally Butts (140). He has reached a bowl game in every season. He was named SEC Coach of the Year twice, in 2002 and ‘05, and his teams have been mainstays near the top of the polls.
Of course, Georgia has come tantalizingly close to playing for a national championship under Richt. After starting 8-0 in 2002, the Bulldogs fell to Florida when quarterback Rex Grossman connected with Ben Troupe for a game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. They started 7-0 again in ‘05, but the Gators beat them 14-10 in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. The Dawgs climbed into the top three in the AP Poll after opening 4-0 in ‘08, but Alabama outscored them 31-0 in the first half of an eventual 41-30 result that September.
Most memorably, Georgia came within five yards of upsetting the eventual BCS champion Crimson Tide in the 2012 SEC title game. Trailing 32-28 in the waning moments, Bulldogs wideout Chris Conley caught a deflected pass and was tackled inbounds short of the end zone. The Dawgs wouldn’t get off another play.
So, which one hurt the most? “Every game we’ve lost,” Richt said.
Though the Bulldogs weren’t in the BCS title hunt last fall, the 2013 season was particularly painful. Georgia entered camp as a preseason SEC favorite before injuries decimated the roster. Quarterback Aaron Murray, backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell all went down during an 8-5 campaign. Championship dreams vanished. For many fans, the last decade has been a rinse-and-repeat process.
In some respects, Richt’s failures are a byproduct of his success. Consistency breeds expectations. His teams have been so good for so long that winning a national title would seem inevitable. Thus far, that has yet to happen.
Still, many recognize that Richt’s product is rare. After all, the Bulldogs hadn’t won an SEC championship in the 20 years prior to his arrival.
“If you flipped the script, and coach Richt is at Georgia Tech for 14 years, they’re adding his name to the stadium,” said Adam Drake, an Athens resident whose family owns a chain of Georgia fan shops. “If he’s in Starkville or at Vanderbilt or in Oxford, he’s a legend. But because we have become to accustomed to it, when we don’t win 10 games, it’s up front now. When we win 11 games but still lose to South Carolina or Clemson, you just kind of grin and bear it.”
Richt says the key to longevity is twofold: You have to win often, and you have to make one place your home. The latter has been a defining characteristic of his tenure in Athens. Faith is a major part of Richt’s life, and so is his involvement in the community. Richt received the Stallings Award, which recognizes college football head coaches who are humanitarians, last May. He and his wife, Katharyn, adopted a young boy and a girl from Ukraine in 1999, and they put their second home, a lake house in Lake Hartwell, up for sale in 2011 so the family could be in a better position to give.
The coach also mentors his athletes beyond their playing days. He and a number of ex-players formed the Paul Oliver Network, a group named for a former Bulldogs defensive back who committed suicide in September 2013. The network guides and assists members of the Georgia program in building lives after football.
“I think that’s one of the huge things about Georgia football,” said senior receiver Conley. “When people leave here, they won’t just have a shiny ring. They’ll have the opportunity to have a ring, but they’ll also have the opportunity to be a man, to go out in their lives and do things with character and do them the right way.”
Richt’s mindset permeates throughout his program, too. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who has been with Richt all 13 seasons at the Georgia, says it’s no coincidence that Richt’s loyalty has produced success. After the 2011 campaign, Richt made several out-of-pocket payments to assistants because he felt they were being poorly compensated, a move that resulted in minor NCAA violations. It’s telling that new Bulldogs defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt left a national champion at Florida State largely to work under Richt.
“My dad always told me to surround yourself with good people, and there’s not a better man than Mark Richt,” Bobo said. “The way he allows our kids to come around, it’s a family atmosphere. And he truly loves all his players and his coaches. He is the primary reason I have stayed here, because I don’t think there’s a better man in the country to work for.”
Said Matt Stafford, a former Georgia star quarterback who was selected first overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2009 NFL draft: “[Richt] has brought an unbelievable sense of stability. You know what you’re going to get, not only from him, but from his teams. With so much turnover in college and pro sports in coaching, it’s pretty rare to see that.”
Projections for the 2014 season sound like a broken record. The Dawgs will again garner hype as a top-10 team. They return Gurley, Marshall, Mitchell and linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Ramik Wilson, among several other standouts. Despite Murray’s departure to the pros, Richt and Bobo were high on senior quarterback Hutson Mason’s leadership during spring practice.
There is debate surrounding Richt’s legacy, but one thing is certain: For the last 13 years, Georgia’s program has been shaped in his image. Has the time finally come for Richt to deliver a national championship?
“We’ve been knocking on the door, you know?” he said. “If we keep knocking, it’s going to be good for us.”