NEW ORLEANS — Obviously, Mark Richt’s family was right.
I’ll always remember the conversations I had with some of the people closest to Richt in the immediate aftermath of his dismissal as Georgia’s football coach. There wasn’t anything wishy-washy about it. His loved ones were advising Richt to take at least a year off to recharge and reassess.
Instead, just days later, Richt was announced as the new head coach at Miami, his alma mater. Not only that, but Richt also said that he’d be handling the offensive coordinator and play-calling duties for the Hurricanes. I remember thinking, “dang, talk about an about-face!”
I wasn’t all that surprised that Richt took another job. Lest we forget, he was still a somewhat hot commodity in coaching circles. He had won about 10 games a year for 15 years with the Bulldogs and also had a significantly better record against Georgia’s rivals, going back to Vince Dooley.
The coordinating and play-calling piece was more of an eye-opener to me. I’d heard a lot of people surmise that some of Georgia’s shortcomings in the second half of Richt’s tenure had to do with him giving up coordinating and play-calling duties and passing them on to Mike Bobo. Then again, Bobo and Georgia’s offense did a pretty good job in Richt’s stead. The Bulldogs were setting school records for offense right up to the day that Bobo left to become head coach at Colorado State.
As for the Miami project, I really thought that would go well for Richt. I mean, he was back home at his alma mater. The Hurricanes’ brain trust immediately set about giving him the indoor practice facility he’d so longed for at Georgia. And nobody knew the South Florida football landscape better than the Boca Raton native.
That’s the thing. I really thought Richt would own recruiting down there. He certainly plucked his share of gems from the area for Georgia. It was Richt who created the pipeline to American Heritage High, where the Bulldogs landed Sony Michel, Isaiah McKenzie and Marshall Morgan. Richt’s South Florida ties also brought Georgia the likes of Max Jean-Gilles, Ray Gant, Geno Atkins, Aaron Murray, Orson Charles and a host of other talented football players.
It bears reminding, the core of the team that led the Bulldogs to National Championship Game last year were signed, sealed and delivered to Athens by Richt. Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and even Javon Wims were Richt finds. Richt also long-championed an indoor practice facility exactly where one was finally built after he left, and it was his plan to move the build the Bulldogs’ a new locker room at Sanford Stadium and move it to the west end.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, it looks like Kirby Smart has taken the baton from Richt and has the ability to move the Bulldogs even farther down the track. But we don’t know for certain just yet, and this is where I have to take a stand against the anti-Richt set.
I fully acknowledge what a terrific job Smart has done with the Bulldogs in his three seasons in Athens. Between recruiting and what they’ve been able to do on the field, there’s no question he has the program poised to contend not only for more SEC championships, but also for the elusive national title that has evaded Georgia now for 38 years.
The fact is, to this point Smart has done nothing to date that Richt didn’t. In fact, their respective starts as Georgia’s head coach are almost identical. Just look at them side-by-side:
- Season 1: Richt 8-4; Smart 8-5
- Season 2: Richt 13-1; Smart 13-2
- Season 3: Richt 11-3; Smart 11-2
- Totals: Richt 32-8; Smart 32-9
In that same span, Richt won the SEC Championship in his second year, as has Smart. Richt’s team played for it and lost in Year 3, as has Smart’s.
And like Georgia’s 2019 team, which everybody in the country expects to be a serious contender for national champion, so was Richt’s 2004 squad. That group opened the year ranked No. 3 only to finish No. 7 at 10-2 and come up short of another SEC Championship appearance. Richt would bank one more SEC title in 2005, play for another in 2011 and 2012 and finish with a No. 2 national ranking in 2007.
All that, of course, came in the BCS era. It could be argued that a few of those Georgia teams would’ve made a College Football Playoff had there been one. Alas, there was not, and that’s that.
But, at the end of it all, Richt left Athens No. 1 by winning percentage (.740) among the 27 men to have coached Georgia football over a 127-year span, and No. 2 only to Dooley (201) in career victories with 145.
As for what happened in Miami, there definitely were missteps. Now 58, it probably wasn’t a great idea to strap himself with the burden of running the offense. It probably also wasn’t a great idea for Richt to tab his 28-year-old son Jon as the coach of quarterbacks, a position at which his teams almost always have thrived. Guys like David Greene and Matt Stafford and Aaron Murray came to Georgia specifically to learn under Richt, who tutored a pair of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks at Florida State.
I always feel bad for the good men who are left out of work when something like this happens, like Thomas Brown and Stacy Searels. But there’s no reason to feel sorry for Richt. He has done quite well for himself. He has made $16 million just in the transition from his UGA dismissal to his Miami retirement. He and wife Katharyn’s children are now grown and the couple lives in the upscale, leafy enclave of Coconut Grove, Fla., just outside of Miami. He’ll be fine.
But regardless of money, that was always the case for Richt. My ultimate admiration of him had nothing do with his recruiting abilities, quarterback-whispering talents or winning percentage. As a fellow Christian, I can say I’ve never witnessed up a close man who carried that lantern as well as Richt in a business that so often strays away from the pillars of that faith.
I’ve seen the Richt-haters grow in number since his departure from UGA and am often the target of social media vitriol whenever I’ve stepped up to defend him, as I’m sure I will be today as well. But looking at his Georgia tenure from the objective perch of a journalist, I can say without reservation that to date there has never been a better coach at UGA. No, he never nailed down the coveted national championship and he certainly didn’t always win the games Georgia should have. But to write off his tenure here as of disappointments and shortcomings is simply not an accurate remembrance of took place.
And as an alum and a person whose livelihood is attached to interest in Georgia’s storied football program, I, too, am excited about the Smart Era. No doubt the Bulldogs and Athletic Director Greg McGarity made the right move at the right time. And based on recruiting, stockpiled talent, future schedules and the SEC landscape, Smart is poised to take Georgia up from here.
Nothing’s guaranteed, though. It looked like the sky was the limit for Georgia coming out of that 2005 championship season, too. Ten years later he was gone having never won another one, and now he’s probably gone from the game for good.
So instead of “I Told You So,” let’s be sure to toast Richt today for all the good things he did to get the Bulldogs where they were when they handed the keys to Smart. At the end of it all, Georgia may have landed its two greatest coaches ever in succession, and certainly will have if Smart can finally get the Bulldogs across that finish line.