ATHENS — Mark Richt took the stage to a standing ovation. He put his fingers to his eyes, wiping away tears, as seniors John Theus and Kolton Houston embraced him.
This is no longer Richt’s Georgia football team. Except for this night, which served as his final goodbye to the team he coached for 15 years.
“I’m 100 percent convinced that the University of Georgia and the University of Miami are on a collision course for a national championship,” Richt said.
On a night that normally serves as a way to honor the seniors, it was the now-former coach who was the center of attention, apparently with the blessing of the seniors.
As his replacement, Kirby Smart, recruited Jacob Eason and other targets a short distance away at Sanford Stadium, a roomful of Georgia players, their families, and others stood and applauded Richt, who was fired nearly two weeks ago and subsequently became the head coach at Miami. He gave up a night of recruiting for Miami to come back to Athens to attend the gala, at the invitation of the seniors.
Richt, wearing a black tie, spoke to the room for about two minutes. He opened by telling everyone that Devon Gales, the paralyzed Southern football player, was also here that night.
Then Richt thanked everyone, told next year’s seniors that “it’s on your watch, you’re in charge.”
Richt was then presented with the Governor’s Cup, in recognition of Georgia’s win over Georgia Tech, which proved to be Richt’s final game as the Bulldogs’ coach. Houston, the sixth-year senior offensive lineman, made Richt promise he would put the trophy in his office in Miami.
“Can you believe that Miami plays Tech at Tech next year?” Richt said. “I’ve gotta go back to Atlanta.”
Richt then remained on the stage for the next hour to pose for photos with his former players as they were given year-end awards. When it ended, after a tribute to Richt from senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell, it still didn’t actually end.
A receiving line formed as Richt remained on stage to take pictures, shake hands and say goodbye. It lasted about an hour, even after the ballroom lights were turned on, as if it was last call at a bar and everyone was being ordered home. Richt remained on stage until no one remained. And even when he came off a couple members of the kitchen staff came out to shake hands too.
The preface to all this was video tribute to Richt, which began with a snippet of his introductory press conference in 2000. It showed highlights in chronological order of games, starting with the Hobnail Boot game.
There were video tributes from Richt’s former players, including A.J. Green, Aaron Murray, D.J. Shockley, Randy McMichael, Drew Butler, George Foster,Jermaine Phillips, Benjamin Boyd and Quentin Banks.
When they showed a postgame interview highlight from the LSU game in 2013, with Richt tearing up and saying: “No one does it better than Georgia,” there was more applause.
It finished with the postgame interview after this year’s Missouri game, when Richt told Marshall Morgan that he would love him whether or not he made the kick.
It finished with a picture of Richt’s back turned, with the words “THANK YOU COACH.”