CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Mark Richt, soaked with sweat from a steamy South Florida morning on the practice field, strides through the double-glass doors that have his name and “Head Football Coach” etched on them. He makes a bee line into his office on the second floor of the University of Miami’s Schwartz Center. He has an out-of-town guest in tow and he’s eager to show him something.
From the far left side of his glass-topped, art-deco desk, Richt grabs a large, orange, spiraled brochure thick with glossy, colored pages. On the cover it says, “Building U.” Inside are the detailed plans for Richt’s coveted indoor practice facility.
For the better part of 15 years, Richt lobbied for one at Georgia. Then, after he finally got it, he didn’t get it. He was fired two weeks before the Bulldogs broke ground on their $31 million project. New Georgia coach Kirby Smart will christen that facility instead when it is completed in Athens this December.
For that, Richt insists he has no hard feelings. Besides, he now has a construction project of his own to oversee. In addition to seeing that the Hurricanes’ facility gets built to his liking – he has pledged $1 million of his own money to the $28 million venture – Richt is fully fixated on rebuilding his alma mater into the powerhouse football program it once was.
“It’s going to be one of the best in the country when it’s finished,” Richt says, not distinguishing between the building or the program.
It’s funny. Occasionally, Richt will run into some of the many Georgia folks who still have fond feelings for him and hated his fate in Athens. Cautiously, they approach him.
“Are you doing all right?” they’ll ask sheepishly.
“It’s laughable now,” says Richt, following with an actual laugh. “It really was from the beginning. I can see why people might feel bad for me, but I never felt bad for me, not one day. I mean, I was just thankful for the days that we had (at Georgia) and excited about the future, whatever it was going to be.”
That future is the present now, and the present looks good.
Of course, Richt was always going to be OK financially. After making in the neighborhood of $30 million during his tenure in Athens, he pocketed an extra $4 million as part of his separation agreement with UGA and received an extended contract from Miami at the same rate of pay he was earning with the Bulldogs ($4 million a year). What’s more, he’s coaching at his college alma mater in the same general area of the country in which he was raised.
But even that’s not the main source of Richt’s current joy. In landing back at Miami, Richt has been granted the ultimate do-over. Interestingly, he’s executing his redo the same way he started his head coaching career. That is, by doing an awful lot of actual coaching. Once again, he’s coordinating the offense and coaching the quarterbacks.
That might drive Georgia fans crazy, considering how they watched Richt gradually delegate away more and more of the day-to-day coaching responsibilities to his assistants after winning two conference championships while handling everything himself. But by the end of it, Richt had reduced his own coaching role to being, in his words, “the highest paid cheerleader in the country.”
“That’s what he used to say, and he hated it,” said his oldest son Jon, who is now working for his dad as quarterbacks coach. “He got to control the clock; he got to control different things. But he wasn’t on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour coaching basis with his players, and that’s what he wants to do. That’s what he’s called to do, that’s what he loves to do. So, it’s been fun watching him be able to be in the room again and work with the guys on a daily basis.”
That’s the way Richt started out at Georgia. When he came to Athens after working for FSU for 14 years, he continued to do everything he did before in Tallahassee. That is, Richt was coordinating the offense, coaching the quarterbacks, calling the plays AND being the head coach.
And that’s what he’s doing now, 16 years later. Technically, Jon is coaching the quarterbacks and carries that title. Likewise, former Bulldog Thomas Brown was named offensive coordinator in addition to coaching running backs. But when it comes down to it, Richt is doing all the actual coordination.
“We’re all involved when it comes to input, from an organizational standpoint and how things are structured and how things are being installed,” Brown said. “That falls into my plate. Obviously Coach is going to call the plays and is back to coaching quarterbacks, like he did when I was in school at Georgia.”
When asked to compare it with how he handled things when he first arrived at Georgia. Richt said, “Pretty much just about identical.”
“I’ve been able to delegate a little bit more of the coordinator stuff, as far as handling walk-throughs or some of the scripting or meetings,” he said. “Thomas is talking about offensive team expectations and things like that and runs most of the walk-throughs. Jon’s handling a lot of stuff with the quarterbacks. There are some little subtle differences but, for the most part, I’m right in the middle of every decision being made.”
It’s interesting to look back to the transition for Richt at Georgia. While he started out handling every aspect of the offense, he gradually relinquished control to his right-hand man Mike Bobo. Bobo took over play-calling duties late in the 2006 season and became full-time offensive coordinator in 2007.
The Bulldogs’ offense continued to trend upwardly in terms of yards and points. But Richt is not convinced the move didn’t cost him some credibility points with his players.
“It wasn’t because of Mike not doing a good job and the staff not doing a good job. It could have had a little something to do with the disconnect that there is when the boys don’t see you in there competing,” Richt said. “Right now they know. The offensive guys see me compete, the quarterbacks see me compete and they see me thinking and scheming and game-planning and this and that. They see more hands-on competitive nature from me than was probably being seen over time (at Georgia). … It’s just different when you’re calling the plays and competing. You’re showing emotion when something good or bad happens on offense.”
Emotion, or at least passion, is an area where everybody sees a difference in Richt since he has returned to South Florida. To a man, players and coaches talk about their leader being re-energized. Whether it’s the change in coaching philosophy or just the change in scenery is unclear, but everybody seems to like what they’re seeing.
“When he relinquished the opportunity to be the OC and call the plays and take over the head coaching role only (at Georgia), it took some of the competition out of him,” said Brown, who played for Richt from 2004-07 and coached with him twice at UGA. “Obviously, he wants to be in the heat of it and know exactly what’s going on. It’s definitely revived him to be coaching the quarterbacks and be in every single meeting every day and knowing exactly what’s going on from an offensive standpoint. He’s feeling young again.”
Said Jon Richt: “He is (energized). It’s a start anew. Anytime anybody starts something new, there’s going to be an energy, a little buzz around it.”
Richt said he knows he needs to be energetic because he’s got a lot of work to do. Miami certainly has produced its share of national champions, with five crystal footballs to its credit. But the last one came in 2001 and the Hurricanes have failed to win more than seven games seven times in the last 10 years. They were 8-5 last year, and coach Al Golden was fired in the middle of the season after Miami lost 58-0 at home to Clemson.
Obviously a lot needed to get fixed.
“If you’re brand new, if you’re the new head coach somewhere, you better have energy,” Richt said. “You can call it re-energy or whatever you want to call it, but you better have some juice and get things rolling. It’s like being a train in a station. To get that train started it takes a lot of effort, to get it rolling, and so you’ve got to have energy. You’ve got to have a plan and you’ve got to have accountability, you have to have people you trust.
“But the day-by-day, the moment-by-moment, is a lot better for me now that I’m back coaching the QBs and calling the plays and all that.”
Improving the Hurricanes’ facilities was first on Richt’s check list. Construction on the indoor practice facility will begin next year with an anticipated completion sometime in 2018. Preliminary plans were already being drawn up before Richt arrived, but he has been able to step in and put his touch on it since showing up. It will include a strength and conditioning renovation and new office space for the coaching staff – including the head coach.
Richt also hired a nutritionist, has retooled the recruiting department, expanded the support staff and brought almost the entire strength and conditioning staff with him from Georgia (Gus Felder, John Thomas and Kelin Johnson). There is also a decidedly Georgia flavor to his offensive coaching staff, with his son, Brown, Stacy Searels (offensive line) and Todd Hartley (tight end) all having assisted him at some point in Athens.
Richt has brought a lot of concepts south with him. For instance, he is in the process of organizing the “U Network,” a football letterman’s support group that is patterned after the “Paul Oliver Network” he founded at UGA. And in place of “Dawg Night,” an annual camp Georgia dedicated to hosting only the most elite recruits, Richt has created the “Paradise Camp” at Miami. His coaches at that camp this year included such former Hurricane greats as Ray Lewis, Michael Irvin and Jeremy Shockey.
Richt’s trying to attack the job from a grassroots level as well. Every Thursday afternoon, Richt fans out with assistants into the tri-county area that encompasses Greater Miami and visits with kids and coaches participating in the local recreation and parks leagues. Turning around recruiting in South Florida is a priority of the first order
“I tell them two things,” Richt said of his sessions with the kids. “I say, ‘We’re here because we want to tell you we love you and bless you any way we can. And, two, I plan on being here a while, and when you grow up, I want you to love the Canes.’ There’s a bunch of future all-pros running around down here.”
Richt’s passion and plan has ingratiated him with both the Miami administration and fan base. For now, at least, it sounds like he could get anything he asked for.
“Since last December 4th, when we announced Mark’s hiring, there has been a real wave of energy around the program,” Miami Athletic Director Blake James said Monday. “I think it’s hard to put into words without quantifying, just seeing the increase in ticket sales, seeing the increase in donations, just the positive energy around the program from a fan perspective. I think from a football perspective, it’s just seeing Mark really bring in a vision and instill it into the young men in our program.”
As for life away from football, Richt and his wife Katharyn are now empty nesters. They live in a $2.7 million townhouse in The Cloisters, an exclusive gated community in Coconut Grove, and frequent the shops and restaurants in that area. On any given day, the couple will walk through the considerable gates of The Cloisters and across Main Highway to eat at Greenstreet Café, LoKal or Lulu’s. And usually without much hassle.
“It’s great. We love it,” Richt said. “Coconut Grove is a very lively place. When work is over, there are just lot of people out there enjoying life. It’s chill, man. It’s like everybody’s on vacation. You can relax faster, I guess. It just seems that way anyway.”
Katharyn graduated from nursing school in Athens earlier this summer and now has completed certification to practice in Florida. She’s “honing in” on a job she hopes to start this year, but likely will work only part-time, Richt said.
Jon and his wife Ann live close by, so they get to see their only grandchild, Jadyn, regularly. David, Zach and Anya, the other children, are all off at college. The rest of Richt’s extensive family – his parents, his two sisters and their families — remains in Athens.
As for how long the Richts will remain in Miami, he takes the same tact he did at Georgia when he says, “as long as we can.” He made it 15 years in Athens and would love to do the same here. But he also knows he’s in the honeymoon stage at the moment.
Sooner or later, the Hurricanes are going to have to get it done on the field. Whether they can and how soon remains the big question.
At Georgia, he won his first of two SEC championships in year two and played for three in the first five years. The ACC’s Coastal Division seems ripe for the taking.
“We’re going into every game believing we’re going to win,” Richt said. “We’re going to prepare to win, we’re going to expect to win. But, just like at Georgia and now, I know it’s so important to focus on the process of getting better every day and in every area. … I focus on that. When you do that well, you tend to get the results that you want, or at least you’re right in the heat of the battle.”
It worked once before. Richt believes he can do it again.