ATHENS — Joe Zagacki remembers it like it was yesterday. A University of Miami student, he was sitting in the West end zone bleachers at the Orange Bowl and watched in pure exhilaration as Mark Richt led the Hurricanes in an improbably comeback against the Florida Gators.
Richt, a seldom-used backup quarterback to superstar Jim Kelly, was called on in the second half after Kelly left the game with an injury. Richt found Rocky Belk deep for a 55-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to bring the Hurricanes within two. Then, when they got the ball back, he led them on a drive for the game-winning field goal in a 21-20 thriller.
“You beat the Florida Gators in this town, you’re always held up to sainthood,” Zagacki said.
Zagacki is now the play-by-play voice for Miami. He has been for the last 27 years. And it’s people like him, longtime fans and supporters of the program, who are absolutely thrilled to hear about Richt’s appointment as the Hurricanes’ new head coach.
“We’re very happy to have your coach,” Zagacki said. “The University of Miami landed a coach that represents everything they want to be.”
Zagacki qualified his remarks, however. He pointed out that there has not been an official statement from the University of Miami yet. And there still hasn’t as of Thursday morning.
Of course, there hasn’t been an official statement from Georgia either regarding Kirby Smart. Nevertheless, the Alabama defensive coordinator is expected to succeed Richt as the Bulldogs’ head coach.
Richt was dismissed by UGA on Sunday after winning 9.6 games a season over 15 years, including 9-3 in the one just completed. At his final news conference, Richt surprised a lot of people by saying he was interested in continuing to coach. He had always said Georgia would be the last job he ever had.
By Tuesday morning, he was interviewing with Miami Athletic Director Blake Thomas and President Julio Frenk in an Atlanta hotel room. By Wednesday it was leaked out that Richt would be named the next Hurricanes’ coach.
“It’s just kind of gone from media outlet to media outlet,” Zagacki said. “I think we’re all assuming it’s not going to fall apart. We live in a world where everybody wants to be first and enough people have been burned by people doing things premature. But I think we all see Mark Richt and, with his integrity assuming, he wouldn’t back out after it went this far. And there has been no denial from him.”
Nor a confirmation. And if Richt does in fact accept the offer, as it appears he will, he will be going against the counsel of some family members. Many in Richt’s extensive Athens clan wanted to see him take a year off and recharge after 33 consecutive years of work. And UGA would owe him $4.1 million regardless.
But the call of his alma mater apparently was just too strong.
Said Zagacki: “It was more like him interviewing Miami, not Miami interviewing him. There would be no reason for him to take that meeting if he wasn’t serious about coaching. He knows that Miami is in a fragile state. … He wouldn’t put them in position to look bad. He wasn’t going to open a conversation with them without being willing to go forward, I don’t think. Well, I’d be surprised. That was a pretty quick turnaround, from a press conference on Monday to a meeting on Tuesday morning.”
Miami actually remains on NCAA probation through October of 2016. It’s in the last year of serving out the punishment it suffered from the Nevin Shapiro scandal. The Hurricanes also lost nine scholarships as a result of its relationship with the convicted con artist.
But rumors of Miami’s demise are greatly exaggerated, Zagacki said. The Hurricanes were 8-4 this season, despite Al Golden getting fired midseason.
“Everybody wants to bury Miami,” Zagacki said. “This year they won as many games as USC, UCLA, LSU and Texas A&M. We lost to Cincinnati on a Thursday night; that game hung them. And they probably should’ve beaten Fla. State. People forget two years ago this team won the Coastal.”
Indeed, the Hurricanes appear to be loaded offensively. Sophomore quarterback Brad Caaya has led a high-powered offense while passing for more than 6,000 yards the last two seasons.
Zagacki believes it won’t take Richt long to get Miami back to where it was when he was there, playing in major bowls and contending for national championships
“It’s interesting. (Richt) came to Miami at a time where, all these guys talk about ‘The U’ and everything, well, his class kind of gets forgotten,” Zagacki said. “He’s the one that laid the foundation. He was a highly-recruited player at a time when Miami wasn’t getting those kinds of players. He led them to a great win over the Gators, which has always been remembered. And, then, of course, he went to Florida State.
“So he’s always been remembered around here as the Miami player coaching Florida state. Ther’es always been a soft spot for Mark and a hope he would come back to Miami.”
Thirty-three years later, Richt is headed back home.