Mark Richt was thinking back to a time in his career when nobody asked, “What if?” It was 1999. Florida State had just won a national championship with a Richt-directed offense. His career was taking off. And suddenly, he had the strangest of urges.
“I just felt like going to the mall.”
“I’ll never forget. We had won the championship, and it was the first time coach (Bobby) Bowden had coached an undefeated team. When it was over, I remember going back to the hotel room, lying in bed, just reflecting on everything and thinking, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ Then the next day when we got back home, I remember the first day saying to Katharyn, ‘Honey, why don’t we go to the mall today?’ And she’s like, ‘Why do you want to go to the mall?’ I didn’t know why. Maybe just to feel the love.”
Richt believes it was the last time he felt like going to a mall to feel the love — perhaps because he would soon become Georgia’s head coach and, well, unless a team goes undefeated and wins a national championship, there’s not universal love in large public gatherings. Beware of flying Cinnabons.
Richt is going into his 15th season at Georgia. It’s rare for a head coach to be at one school for that long, particularly in the SEC. But he has been successful enough to keep his job — as Twitter erupts like Mt. Vesuvius — and he is wired differently from most high profile college football coaches in that he has never had his eye on the next best thing.
From Day 1, Richt wanted a career job, like his mentor, Bowden. More than likely, that will happen. Regardless of when and how his tenure at Georgia ends, he is financially secure at 55. He and his wife are empty-nesters, with their youngest of four children, Anya, having graduated high school.
“Dog-less and childless for the first time,” he said, and he acknowledges a sense of relief in that. (More on that shortly.)
Richt’s ego doesn’t tell him, “I need another job to prove myself.” His heart and soul tell him to do mission work, and that almost certainly will be his next full-time endeavor.
But there’s a need to do more in Athens. Richt won two SEC championships (2002, 2005) in his first five seasons at a school that hadn’t won any in 20 years. But this would be the 10-year, ring-less anniversary if Georgia falls short again this season. Richt’s critics have a perpetual sense of doom, and for them last season was an I-told-you-so that could be heard across the Southeast: An impressive opening win over Clemson followed by stumble at South Carolina; five consecutive wins and a seemingly clear road to the SEC East title until an abomination in Jacksonville, losing 38-20 to the most mediocre of Florida teams.
Georgia had a window, again, but it closed on their hands. Richt’s face looked ashen after the Florida loss, as if shocked by what he had just witnessed. “It wasn’t so much shock as disappointment, and you’re always thinking about how you’re going to manage it, so one loss doesn’t turn into two,” he said.
But he conceded of the window, “It was there. It was frustrating to not win the East and play for the championship.”
After the season, the recruiting calendar mandated that he immediately move on. But emotionally, that cloud above Athens hovered for months. Maybe it’s still there.
“It’s when things slow down and you have a little time to reflect that the good, the bad and the ugly creeps in,” he said. “I’ve tried to learn from things but just don’t dwell on them.”
There’s a large trophy case in Richt’s office and a case with rings in the adjacent sitting area that overlooks what will be Georgia’s indoor practice facility. I asked Richt what was missing from those cases. He knew the answer immediately but paused for answering, careful to word it correctly.
“Everybody wants the ultimate prize, winning the national championship,” he said. “I’ve coached on national-championship teams, but not at Georgia and not as head coach. But I’m more wired to control the things I can control on a daily basis. Don’t let my brain go there.”
The brain gets a break this season. A childless home means no mandate to have breakfast with the family and drive the kids to school. It means not leaving his office to have lunch with a son or daughter or knocking on a classroom door just to talk for a few minutes.
That was Richt for his first 14 seasons in Athens.
“It will be easier to manage,” he said. “It’s easier to be away from the house when you don’t have that same responsibility with four kids.”
Was that a distraction?
“If something’s going on in somebody’s family, you leave. That’s the way it is. In the past, you tried to steal time. I can’t tell you how many lunch times I’d drive over to Prince Avenue (Christian School) just to sit down and have a little meal with one of them, and then come back.”
So family breakfasts and kids lunches are off Richt’s plate now. He has a little more time to devote to winning football games and attempting to quiet the masses. If it works out, he can exhale again. If not, he might want to avoid the mall.