When I was younger, I spent some time covering high school sports for local TV stations. The experience taught me something about coaches. Coaches are influencers. When all of the plays are over and the screaming is done, one of the few things that remains is the influence that a coach has on his players. A coach has just as much, if not more, influence over the life of a young man as a pastor does.
Walking up and down sidelines with a camera in one hand and a microphone in the other, I saw that play out in a couple of ways.
Some coaches are scoundrels. They treat their players like slaves who exist for nothing more than that coach’s job security. No racist remark, no amount of verbal or even physical abuse is off limits for these types of coaches on their way to a bigger paycheck or a better job.
Still, the influence of these coaches is powerful. And it’s usually not very pretty. It produces a culture of win at all cost athletes who are coddled into their young adult years and hit their 30s with nothing more than an arrest record and a few boring stories about that touchdown in that one game in a time that has long since been forgotten by everyone else.
But there are other coaches. These are the coaches who have integrity. They pile kids who would otherwise have to walk home after practice into the back of their trucks. They support their players by showing up at events that have nothing to do with football because they know that there is more to life than a game. Sure, they push their players to excel but they also remind them that everyone will play their last game someday and it’s what goes on in those days that far outweighs any touchdown or championship season. In some cases, coaches like this change the culture, not just of their team but of the entire community that they represent.
Mark Richt, the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, is one of those coaches.
Everyone agrees that Richt is a nice guy. For some, it’s that niceness that will keep Georgia from ever winning a national championship.
I say, so what.
I was five years old the last time Georgia won a national title in football. Since that time, there have been many teams who have won multiple championships. Some of them have won with players that Mark Richt kicked off of his team. Georgia has come close a few times in the Richt era. But the ultimate victory was always just out of reach.
In 1982 and 1983, I cried when Georgia lost their bowl games to Pitt and Penn State. For the better part of three decades now, I’ve been saying, “We’ll get ’em next year.” Next year hasn’t come yet.
On Saturday, Georgia will play Alabama. Even though Georgia looks stronger, most people are saying that Alabama will win. And if they do, people will blame it on Mark Richt having too much character for his own good. Some will call for his job.
I still remember the last time Georgia played Alabama. It was in the SEC Championship Game in 2012. The victor was a lock for winning the national championship against a very overrated Notre Dame team. Georgia had no business winning that game. But they almost did.
When the final whistle had blown, my six-year-old son cried. I thought about watching Georgia lose when I was his age. And then I almost cried too.
I want my sons to be around winners. I want them to be shaped as men, husbands, fathers, leaders and athletes in a culture of winning. But that’s kind of hard to do when their dad cheers for the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Falcons. So I give them some breathing room. In the NFL, they cheer for whoever won the Super Bowl the previous year. In the NBA, they like LeBron’s team. I’m okay with that.
But Georgia is different.
I want them to cheer for Georgia.
Mark Richt is the reason why.
He may not have any national championship rings from his time at Georgia but he’s still a winner. He’s a winner because, imperfect as he is, integrity means something to him. He’s a winner because he sees the guys on his team, and even the ones on other teams, as men in training rather than mere athletes fighting for his job security. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see Georgia win it all but there’s something more important than that.
Positive, godly influence.
Mark Richt has that and it makes me proud of the Georgia Bulldogs.
But that’s all pie in the sky, right? Who cares what happens to these kids after they leave school? That’s the mentality of the typical college football fan. They get all worked up every year in February when an 18-year-old, they otherwise would not care about, decides where he wants to play college football. But when he is gone or if he doesn’t quite measure up like they wanted him to, he’s nothing more than sports memorabilia. Use him while you can and then forget about him. It seems as though many college football fans are a lot like some of those scoundrel coaches I met over the years, minus the influence.
But Mark Richt is different.
I’m thankful that he’s at Georgia and I’m honored to watch him with my sons. No matter what the scoreboard or a drunken fan on the Internet says after the game, we are all watching more than just a coach.
We are watching an influencer.
We are watching a winner.