Unintentional Lessons On Grace From Coach Roach

I can only remember two sentences that Coach Roach ever spoke to me.

Coach Roach was his real, given name. Well, Roach was. Coach was just a title. I guess when you have a last name like Roach, you just have to go all in and find a career that gives you a rhyming title. That way, thirty years later, people will still remember you and at least two sentences you said to them.

Coach Roach was my seventh grade football coach. I played for the Adamson Indians. We were terrible. More specifically, I was terrible. But we had nice uniforms. Mine was especially nice.

One day, on our way down to the field from the locker room, I asked Coach Roach how my uniform looked. I have no idea why I did this. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the first and only time I ever asked a grown man to evaluate my looks. On top of that, Coach Roach was legally blind. No, I’m not making that up.

I still remember what he told me in his thick accent that I thought sounded like something straight out of Brooklyn.

“Ya look like a million bucks, son.”

Man, I was so proud. Coach Roach thought I looked like a million bucks! But my pride faded by the time the game was over and I was walking back up to our locker room. I still looked like a million bucks. There were no blood or grass stains on my pants. My jersey had no rips in it. The other team’s helmet paint wasn’t smattered across my helmet.

I looked like a million bucks.

It’s just too bad that I didn’t play that way. Come to think of it, I barely played at all.

I think that I still remember those words because they give a perfect assessment of today’s church. Many people who claim to be Christians look the part. They listen to radio stations with words like Fish and Love in the title. They live by a strong moral code. They are good boys and girls.

They look like a million bucks.

But they aren’t in the game. In many cases, they aren’t even on the team.

The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable from Luke 18 was this way. He was good. And in case God forgot, he was willing to let him know.

“I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Luke 18:12 (ESV)

But there was another man in Jesus’ story. He barely felt worthy to put on the uniform, much less to ask Coach Roach how he looked. When he prayed, rather than running through his stellar spiritual résumé, he asked God for his mercy.

And Jesus gave a stunning assessment of the two men.

The sinner who asked for mercy was made right with God, not the man who looked like a million bucks.

For all of his shortcomings, the sinner in Jesus’ story understood something that the Pharisee and many of us do not. Being right with God has nothing to do with our performance or how well we look while performing.

That brings me to the second sentence I remember Coach Roach saying to me.

“Sandaz, ya gonna get crooooooooo-suh-fied!”

That’s what Coach Roach would say to me during tackling drills. I was too small and too scared to do well at those drills so usually I ended up looking more like a frightened ballerina than an actual football player. But hey, at least I made my coach think about Jesus. That’s got to count for something.

No matter how good you think you are, your sin was so great that it took the death of Jesus to make you right with God. Only through faith and repentance, not fasting and tithing, can you be made right with God.

My football career came to an end after that season with Coach Roach. But I’m thankful for him, if for nothing else, because of those two sentences that he spoke to me. I didn’t know it at the time but I was learning something about grace.

I wasn’t able to fake my way into a right relationship with God.

God did not accept me because I looked the part.

I am right with God because the crucified and risen Lord had mercy on me.

A sinner.

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So Long, Coach Richt

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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.

 

More Than Just A Coach

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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.

Almost.

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.

Almost.

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.

Influence.

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.

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