CORAL GABLES, FLA. — Mark Richt, you most definitely are not in Athens anymore.
In the relative blink of an eye — four days from termination press conference at Georgia to Friday’s introductory press conference at Miami — Richt has crossed a very long bridge between two very different college football cultures.
He has traded in a position on the quarterdeck of a flagship university for one aboard a tidy private institution that can be swallowed up by the wake of programs in Gainesville and Tallahassee.
Gone are the fall Saturdays playing on campus within an overstuffed Sanford Stadium. Miami’s home games take place 21 miles from the university, in an often half-occupied pro playpen, Sun Life Stadium. A ‘Cane Walk from campus to the field would leave players blistered and exhausted, some perhaps curled up on the side of I-95.
One almost requires a passport for the trip from SEC East to this corner of the ACC Coastal. Richt will be trading his English-to-Southern dictionary for one with more Spanish phrasing.
At least this much Georgia and Miami have in common: Neither has a full indoor practice facility, a source of some irritation to those who insist their college athletes enjoy all the amenities of an around-the-world cruise.
For all the adjustments awaiting Richt, there is one gravelly voice from Miami’s — and his own — past that speaks to how glorious it all will be.
Howard Schnellenberger was Richt’s coach when he was a backup quarterback at Miami from 1978-82. The coach who suspended Richt for a game his senior season after he missed a morning practice. And the coach who won the first of five national championships for the Hurricanes between 1983-2001. When Schnellenberger heard that Miami had brought Richt back to where his college experience all began, he heard the angels sing.
“This was a contract made in heaven, an angelic match,” said the 81-year-old Schnellenberger, whose gift for hyperbole has not diminished through the years.
“He is just what we’ve been waiting for,” the old coach said.
What meets Richt is the Roman Empire of college programs, one shackled to a past as golden as they come and one that almost mocks its followers now as all efforts to relive those days fall short.
The present for the Hurricanes has lacked relevance. When they joined the ACC in 2004, it was foreseen that they and Florida State would be locked in an eternal struggle for dominance. Yet, while even Duke and Wake Forest have had their moments in the ACC Championship Game, Miami has yet to attend.
The Hurricanes haven’t won 10 or more games in a season since joining the conference, and haven’t beaten their sworn rival FSU in the last six attempts.
The coaching has been equally forgettable. Larry Coker won Miami’s last national title in 2001 (with Butch Davis’ players) and then shrank from sight. Miami tried the ex-player thing then, only Randy Shannon went 28-23 in four seasons. Al Golden, hampered by NCAA entanglements that dated back to before he arrived, got fired at the mid-point of this season. He had a losing record (17-18) in the ACC and oversaw the worst loss – 58-0 to Clemson – in Miami history.
So, Richt does not exactly have giant turf shoes to fill when considering his immediate predecessors.
And the new guy was careful not to inflame the expectations of a fan base that manages to alternate between flighty and fierce when he was announced as the program’s 24th head coach. There were no awake-the-echoes messages Friday.
“I do understand what’s expected,” Richt said. “And really, I don’t want to make a lot of promises, other than I want to promise that we’re going to get to work and we’re going to earn the right for victory.”
Listening to the sports talk and reading the reaction to this hiring is to believe that Miami landed a most prized catch this week. A restless following had been mollified.
“If this was a political office and Richt was running for office, he’d win with 80 percent of the vote,” Schnellenberger said. “This is such a solidifying thing. Everything ties together. His record, his connection to the university, the fact that there is no NCAA blemish on his record. They bought two or three years of fan support.”
But eventually, Richt will have to answer to the same expectations that followed him out the door at Georgia. Miami, after all, has won five national championships since the Bulldogs last one in 1980.
It was put to the Hurricanes athletic director, Blake James: What if Richt does here what he did at Georgia — win three-quarters of his games, a couple conference championships, no national titles? Would that be palatable at Miami?
James waltzed around the query. “It’s hard to say, OK, what do the next 15 years look like and what are the numbers you have to put on them? I don’t think you ever put numbers on things. You evaluate where you are as a program, the progress you are making as a program and are you meeting the expectations for the program?”
Lest anyone think the game has been de-emphasized down here, new Miami president Julio Frenk issued the reminder: “Football is not part of what we do here. It is part of who we are.”
Miami’s chief advantage had always rested in its location, hard by some of the best high school recruiting grounds in the nation. Schnellenberger seized upon that in his day, declaring everything south of Orlando as “The State of Miami,” his to harvest as he pleased. “Mark knows the lay of the land, he has done a lot of his recruiting in Florida,” Schnellenberger said.
The perceived disadvantages often center on facilities, from the relatively modest practice complex on campus to the distant stadium.
Hurricanes are well practiced at disputing those alleged downsides.
“We don’t have a waterfall in the locker room or marble countertops,” the AD said, “but if guys want to come here and be their best there’s no doubt those facilities are in place.”
“Honestly, I don’t think the facilities are that big an issue,” former UM linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “If you want to come, you’re going to come.”
And about those empty seats at the off-off-campus stadium? “We won 32 games in a row and we didn’t sell out every time. We (just) sell out for the big games, it was always that way,” Vilma said.
For all the discontent accompanying the last decade or so of Miami football, there is the local notion that the Hurricanes really aren’t that far away from a memorable season. As the team’s longtime radio play-by-play man Joe Zagacki put it, “People want to say we’re dead in the water. We’re not dead in the water.”
Most notably, Richt inherits a quarterback, sophomore Brad Kaaya, who led the ACC in passing yardage and threw for nearly 1,200 more yards this season than did Georgia’s Greyson Lambert. And Richt has said he will be more involved in the coaching of his quarterback and the plays that are called for him.
If all players eligible to return do so — a large if — then Richt will have back those who accounted for 90 percent of the Hurricanes points this 8-4 season.
“What needs fixing is the defense,” Zagacki said. “We don’t have a championship defense. We haven’t had a championship defensive line in 10 years.”
When asked what was needed of Richt to bring Miami back near the level of the 1980s and ‘90s, Vilma unhaltingly said, “Surprisingly, not much. It’s more the execution, it’s more the detail. Those things aren’t hard — it’s just a matter of executing detail and cultivating what we have.”
Richt will tackle that deceptively simple-sounding challenge while adapting to a wholly different species of football program. How big a difference? No less than that between two mascots — UGA the self-assured bulldog and Miami’s Sebastian, the attention-seeking ibis.