ATHENS — There was no contest being conducted in the Richard B. Taylor Room at the Stegeman Coliseum Training Facility on Monday morning. But if it was, Mark Richt would have won it in a rout.
Technically, the joint news conference with Richt and UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity was arranged by McGarity. But from the very opening, when Richt addressed the gathering media throng without waiting for any prompting from his boss of the last five years, Georgia’s ousted head coach owned the room.
Richt’s message was this: No hard feelings, it’s been a blast these last 15 years and I can’t wait to take advantage of all these attractive opportunities that are already coming my way.
“I’m really looking forward to coaching these boys one more time,” said Richt, who accepted UGA’s offer to coach the team in the as-yet-undetermined bowl game. “But in the meantime, since I’m not on the road recruiting, I’ll have an opportunity to look at a lot of options. … There are going to be a lot of options to weigh and I’m blessed and thankful about that.”
McGarity’s message essentially was this: No doubt this guy was awesome but I’m not going to tell you why he was fired.
“That remains between Mark and myself,” said McGarity, when asked on what his decision to dismiss Richt was based. “We had a good, mature, adult conversation on Sunday morning for an hour, hour-and-a-half or so. (But) those things will really remain between Mark and myself.”
Richt’s dismissal represented a rarity in that he was let go less than 24 hours after completing a 9-3 season. It also came after winning 49 games in the last five years (9.8 per season), after winning a higher percentage of games (.740) than any coach in modern school history, while sitting fifth in the nation among winningest active coaches and while being one of only four men in NCAA Division I history to record 135 or more wins in his first 14 seasons.
Nevertheless, Richt has not won an SEC championship in 10 years. The Bulldogs failed to win the league’s Eastern Division the last three years after entering each season as the favorite. Florida will represent the East in this year’s SEC title game, and Missouri did in the previous two.
“I just think 15 years is a long time,” Richt said when asked why he thought he was out. “I think the expectations had been built to the point where, if you don’t win a championship, it’s miserable around here. When we don’t make it to Atlanta, I’m miserable, too. …
“I think it got to the point where there wasn’t enough confidence that my leadership could get it done. That’s the prerogative of the people in charge, and I understand that.”
McGarity said the process to identify and hire the next Georgia football coach is already under way and that he would enlist the assistance of a search firm to help. He canceled several long-standing appointments on his calendar Tuesday because he will be out of town, according to his administrative assistant.
As for speculation of viable candidates and if the position would be limited to sitting head coaches, McGarity would say only “the job is wide open.”
Richt’s announcement that he would consider other coaching opportunities represented a new attitude. In the past, he’d always said he and wife Katharyn came to Athens with the intention of retiring there and coaching at Georgia “as long as they’ll have me.”
On Monday, he talked excitedly about the opportunity to possibly coach somewhere else. If he does, he said he’d do so while rededicating himself to the “hands-on” business of coaching football, such as coaching quarterbacks and calling plays. Richt served as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach the first half of his Georgia career, gradually relinquishing those duties to Mike Bobo.
“I really missed hands-on coaching,” Richt said. “The coaching quarterbacks, the calling of the games, the play, I miss that. When I turned it over to Mike Bobo he was more than ready to do it and did an unbelievably good job. But at the time the combination of the weight of the job and … well, there just wasn’t as much time.”
Richt’s agent, Lonnie Cooper, attended the 40-minute news conference and the two were planning to meet immediately afterward to discuss Richt’s future. There are currently openings at Miami, Virginia, Missouri and Southern Cal, among others.
Not long after the news conference concluded, McGarity’s name was trending nationally on Twitter. Most of the commentary was critical of his handling of the matter.
“I expected it,” McGarity said. “Decisions of this nature are very difficult. Our fans are passionate. Mark has tremendous support. Obviously with the way Mark connects with people, sure, I’ve been the recipient of e-mails on both sides. It goes with the territory. I understand it.”
Conversely, the outpouring of affection toward Richt was considerable, from fellow head coaches to national media personalities to fans.
Asked what he hoped would be his legacy, Richt grinned and shrugged his shoulders.
“That he loved Georgia and he did it the right way and he did it hopefully in such a way that it was well-pleasing to the Lord,” he said.