So Long, Coach Richt

Screen Shot 2015-11-29 at 9.46.16 PM

Mark Richt isn’t the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs anymore. I figured that I would say that someday. I hoped that I would say it after he announced his retirement while hoisting a national championship trophy. It didn’t work out that way.

Mark Richt inherited a very below average Georgia team. For years, the recruiting classes were great. But, for years, the teams were not. So the powers that be decided that it was time for a change. And that change came in the person of the young assistant coach from Florida State.

Richt’s impact was almost immediate. The words hobnailed boot are etched into the ears of Georgia fans because of Georgia’s win over Tennessee. The inexplicable string of losses to Georgia Tech came to an end. And eventually, there were SEC championships and a few national championship near misses. But, for all of his accomplishments, Coach Richt couldn’t win the game that mattered most. And that, in the eyes of many Georgia fans, meant that 15 years was long enough.

Richt was done in by the same thing that ruins almost every other coaching tenure. Unmet expectations. If you’re unfamiliar with the expectations that Georgia fans have for their head football coach before every season, here they are.

  1. Win the SEC Championship game.
  2. Win the National Championship game.
  3. Find some kid who looks just like Herschel Walker. Only faster. And bigger. And who shoots lasers out of his eyes at Auburn fans while galloping to the end zone for the seventh time in one game.
  4. Cure cancer.

Mark Richt failed miserably at meeting those expectations.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to say that Richt exceeded expectations when it came to caring for and developing young men during some of the most important years of their lives. Sadly, most people don’t care about that sort of thing. They say that Richt would make a better chaplain than he does a coach. They say that supporting the man who brought the Dawgs to new levels is the equivalent of settling for mediocrity. In short, they say, “We want to be Alabama.”

And we probably will.

Sure, there’s a chance that our next coach could be the second coming of Nick Saban and have Georgia competing for a national title every year. But it’s more likely that we’ll become the Alabama of the late 90s. You know, the Alabama teams that only real Alabama fans cheered for. The teams that went through coach after coach in an effort to replace the Bear, even if it meant breaking rules. So yeah, we could end up being a lot like Alabama.

Roll Tide roll!

I was content with us just being Georgia. Maybe that makes me a mediocre kind of guy. Fine. I can live with that. Sure, I’d love to see Georgia win it all a few times a decade. But I don’t want Georgia to win so that I can find personal validation through a team.

Coach Mark Richt is the only Georgia coach that my kids have ever known. When I told them Sunday afternoon that he had been fired, they were confused.

“Why? He only lost three games!”

I didn’t know what to say to that so I just told them that some people expect you to win it all every year and are quick to get rid of you when you don’t. Welcome to the world of sports business/politics/organized crime, my sons.

Most of the experts are saying that Kirby Smart will be the Bulldog’s new coach. No matter who it is, I’ll still be cheering for the Dawgs. But it won’t be the same.

It won’t be the same because Mark Richt was more than just some loud mouth trying to convince injured young men that they weren’t really hurt just so they could add another win to his resume. He was a coach who cared an awful lot about winning. But he cared even more about the young men he was coaching.

Men like all-world running backs named Todd Gurley who called Richt, “The greatest coach of all time” when he found out about the firing.

Men like kicker Marshall Morgan who were reminded by Richt that one kick doesn’t make a life right before one of the biggest kicks of his life.

Men like walk on Chad Gloer who, when on the verge of being kicked out of school for missing too many classes, got a call from the head coach himself every morning at 8 just to make sure that there would be no sleeping in.

And even for the men who he didn’t coach. Men like Devon Gales who was seriously injured while playing against Georgia this season and was treated like he was part of the Georgia Bulldog family. Here’s what he had to say about Coach Richt being fired. “I am saddened to hear about Coach Richt’s firing. He is a wonderful coach, mentor, and man of God. He and the staff understand that football is about more than just winning, it’s about shaping, molding and influencing the lives of young men.”

There are an awful lot of folks in our state who have yet to learn that lesson.

Early on in Mark Richt’s time at Georgia, several players were starting to fight on the field. Bulldog safety Sean Jones saw it from the sidelines and headed onto the field to help his teammates. But Mark Richt cut him off. Standing in front of the NFL-bound defensive star, Richt simply held up his hand like a traffic cop. There was no screaming, cussing, hopping around or any of the other things that out of control coaches do to try to control their players. I’m not sure if he even spoke a word. But Sean Jones turned around and went back to the sidelines.

Sean Jones now helps Coach Richt with placing former Bulldog players with employers.

Losing a few more games isn’t what worries me the most about Mark Richt not being the coach of the Bulldogs anymore. The thing that really gets me is that maybe there won’t be an extended hand like the one that Sean Jones saw that one night. Maybe there won’t be a caring voice on the other end of the phone like there was when a suicidal former player called Richt for help.

A lot of coaches have won national titles.

But not a lot of coaches have done the really hard work that Coach Richt has done of molding young athletes into men of character and integrity.

And there is absolutely nothing mediocre about that.