Mark Richt won big at Georgia, but failed to meet massive expectations
ATHENS, Ga. — Mark Richt donned a dark suit, grey dress shirt and blood-red tie as he entered a packed room for his farewell press conference on Monday. He laid a strip of paper next to his microphone, flashing a red bracelet on his wrist emblazoned with the Georgia "G” as he took his seat. “I wrote some notes,” Richt said. “I don’t think I’ll need them, but I’ll take a peek if I need to.”
Indeed, the notes were likely unnecessary for Richt, a man well-versed in the job he’d held for the last decade and a half. On Monday Richt said goodbye to Georgia after 15 seasons as its head football coach, less than 24 hours after the school announced the two parties would part ways. Athletic director Greg McGarity, the man who had decided to fire Richt, sat alongside the head coach as he faced reporters in the Richard B. Taylor Room of Stegeman Coliseum.
The vibe on Monday had more in common with a funeral than a celebration. Still, a levelheaded Richt opened by thanking the school that’d just fired him. “All the memories have been just phenomenal for myself and my family,” Richt said. “Georgia has been my home, and Athens has been a true blessing to me and my family.”
Richt leaves on the heels of a remarkably successful tenure that included a 145–51 record, two SEC titles and an average of 9.6 wins per season. He finished the 2015 regular season as the fifth-winningest active head coach (.750 win percentage) in college football. Plus, Richt constantly kept Georgia out of trouble and stayed loyal to his school, a unique trait in an industry not conducive to longevity.
As McGarity sat alongside Richt on Monday, the coach’s success served as the elephant in the room. Why fire a coach with Richt’s proven credentials? McGarity admitted he’d received emails from fans on both sides of the Richt debate in the last 24 hours. The school’s announcement of Richt’s dismissal on Sunday included a five-paragraph statement from McGarity lauding his coach’s accomplishments, both on and off the field. Asked to elaborate on the particulars of his decision, McGarity offered an awkward no-comment. “That remains to be between Mark and myself,” McGarity said.
Richt, who plans to coach Georgia in its bowl game, was more blunt. “I think 15 years is a long time,” he said. “I think expectations have been built to the point where, if you don’t win a championship, it’s kind of miserable around here.”
In the end, Richt accurately spelled out his own undoing: He failed to push Georgia over the hump. The most recent of Richt’s two SEC titles came 10 seasons ago. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs never played for a national championship, let alone win one. It didn’t help that four other SEC programs won national titles during Richt’s time at Georgia. Soon Richt’s consistent ability to win 10 games was viewed as a defining and underwhelming quality, not a prelude to future greatness.
According to McGarity, the decision to part ways with Richt didn’t crystallize until after Georgia’s 13-7 win at Georgia Tech on Saturday. McGarity said he and Richt agreed to meet Sunday morning before the AD started the hour drive back to Athens. On Monday McGarity described the decision as “very difficult.”
But as well-wishers lined the room to witness Richt’s final address on Monday, Georgia’s decision served as the latest reminder that winning is the ultimate barometer in college football. Character counts, of course, just as long as it accompanies winning. Richt was universally admired by Georgia’s administration and was a mainstay in the Athens community. But at a school like Georgia, coaches can’t afford getting lapped by SEC competition. Richt had his shot at proving he could win big.
Legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who had hired Richt while serving as the school’s athletic director in 2000, sat in on Richt’s address on Monday. Afterward he reflected on the pressures that college football coaches face today, expectations that likely worked against against Richt in the end. “You become a victim of your own success,” Dooley said. “But that’s the nature of the game today.”
Asked what qualities Georgia should covet in its next coach, Dooley laughed. “I think Mark Richt would be a good start,” he said.
But Richt’s time in Athens is now over. Now Georgia will seek a new leader, and its former coach will find a new calling. McGarity offered Richt a chance to remain with the school in another capacity, something the coach says he’ll consider. But Richt also wouldn’t rule out coaching elsewhere. His alma mater, Miami, has a vacancy, as do a number of other high-profile jobs across the sport. Richt admitted to missing the simpler aspects of football: Play-calling, position-coaching and other factors that first sparked his love of the game. If opportunities present themselves over the next few weeks, Richt said, he’ll listen.
But for now Richt plans to decompress. Prior to Sunday’s announcement, the coach had planned to hit the road recruiting for the next 14 days. Now his priorities are more focused on the short term. Richt met with Georgia players on Sunday night and reminded them that he’s still in charge for another few weeks. That means more coaching on the horizon.
“It’s a lot like how I manage things in the middle of a game,” Richt said. “Things don’t always go the way you want. You can spend a lot of time figuring out what happened, or who did what. Or you can figure out where you’re at, in terms of, what do you do next?”
Richt handled his farewell press conference much like he did his entire tenure at Georgia: The highs weren’t too high and the lows weren’t too low. Before he departed on Monday, a reporter asked Richt about his legacy in Athens. How should fans remember his Georgia career? Richt paused before answering. “That he loved Georgia,” Richt said, “and he did it the right way.”