ATHENS – For the first time in 33 years, Mark Richt had no high school player to chase this week, no staff changes to contemplate, no fires to put out. For the first time after 33 straight years of coaching, he sat in front of a room of media members looking so comfortable and serene, you could almost hear wind chimes and feel a warm breeze blowing in from the beach.
“You can tell the pressure is off of him,” Vince Dooley said Monday after Richt, the soon to be former Georgia coach, walked off stage.
Georgia held the most unusual of exit news conferences Monday. School officials handed out a three-page release encapsulating Richt’s career accomplishments, and athletic director Greg McGarity declined to utter a single negative word or respond to questions about why he felt a change was necessary. In short, Georgia chose to celebrate a man it just fired.
“This is about Mark today,” McGarity said.
Fair enough. Richt deserves that. Actually, he deserves more than that.
If Georgia truly wants to pay homage to the man, who will coach his final game in whatever bowl the Bulldogs land, it will name a field or a student-athlete academic center or the planned practice facility after him. Richt lifted the football program out of post-Ray Goff, post-Jim Donnan depression, gave the school two SEC championships in his first five seasons and made Georgia football relevant again on a national scale. He also exemplified what the mission of college athletics should be, even if often lost, caring as much about molding and raising young people as converting on third down.
That could not have been an easy decision for McGarity to make. Nor will it be an easy decision for Richt on what he chooses to do next.
“The weight of a lot of the responsibility I’ve had for a long time is gone,” he said Monday.
Just a guess: The bowl game will be the last time we’ll see Richt on any sideline, not just in Athens.
Richt said he misses coaching quarterbacks. He misses being hands-on with an offense. He misses calling plays. That’s only natural. CEOs of computer companies similarly hate board meetings and miss sitting in their garage, tinkering with gadgets. Coaches love to coach. They don’t love the administrative aspects of their job, or going on the burnt-brisket booster circuit, or getting 2 a.m. phone calls about a player in handcuffs.
Richt had planned for Monday to be the first of 14 straight days on the road recruiting. Instead, he’ll use the next two weeks to weigh outside coaching offers and an opportunity at Georgia to hang around, counsel young people and, basically, just be Mark Richt.
Then he’ll make a decision. Or he won’t.
“Now that I’m not recruiting, there’s really nothing on my calendar,” he said. “That will allow me time to decompress a little bit and see what’s next. … Since 1986 I’ve always tried to walk daily with the Lord and see what He wants me to do.”
Georgia’s last three coaches — Dooley, Goff and Donnan – never coached another game. All still live in Athens. Richt would make it four. He obviously doesn’t like the way his tenure ended. The day before McGarity delivered his decision, Richt was celebrating a season-ending win over Georgia Tech and expressing excitement over building for next season.
But he’s at peace. He loves living in Athens. For the first time in more than three decades, he will have free time to spend with his wife Katharyn. His ego also is not such that he feels the need to go elsewhere to prove the world wrong about something.
Just guessing, again: He’ll enjoy this down time, the relative absence of noise in his head. He can get the coaching out of his system by holding quarterback camps or making himself available as a consultant. But this is foreign territory, so even he doesn’t know what to expect.
Richt called the 33 years in his profession, “a long grind.”
He called his 15 years at Georgia, “a long time.”
He wasn’t overly surprised when McGarity phoned him Saturday night to set up a Sunday morning meeting because he realized that despite the Dogs’ relatively glossy 19-6 record in the last two seasons, perceptions were that Georgia had underachieved. After those two early SEC titles, Richt had gone 10 years without one.
“You become a victim of your own success,” said Dooley, the former long-time coach and athletic director.
Richt, echoed the sentiment, though devoid of bitterness: “The expectations are to the point if you don’t win a championship it’s kind of miserable around here.”
McGarity sat quietly next to him. He didn’t have to say a word.
Expectations for the next coach will be astronomically high. That’s a statement on both the college football landscape and what Richt accomplished. McGarity will want a coach who can punch through the ceiling that seems to cover this program, ideally without sacrificing integrity.
Dooley was asked what qualities Georgia should seek in the new coach.
“Mark Richt would be a good start,” he said.