The paradox of UGA football coach Mark Richt

Richt is a profoundly virtuous and god-fearing man. Is that why he can’t win a national championship? A lifelong Dawgs fan contemplates.
Mark Richt
Illustration by Josue Evilla, Photograph courtesy of UGA Sports Communications

I still remember the day Mark Richt lost control of the Bulldogs. It happened eight years ago, during one of his best games as a coach, in an incident we like to call the Gator Stomp.

The Dawgs had lost 15 of their last 17 games against Florida, and most people thought they would go down to Jacksonville and lose again. The 2007 Gators had the best coach in college football (Urban Meyer), the best quarterback (Tim Tebow), and the kind of swagger that comes from turning a century-old rivalry into a yearly beatdown. The Bulldogs had plenty of their own talent, as always, but they needed a jolt of confidence. Nine minutes into a scoreless game, they got it.

After recovering a Florida fumble, Georgia put together a long drive. On third-and-goal from the two, running back Knowshon Moreno catapulted himself over a scrum of linemen and put the tip of the football past the goal line. Then all hell broke loose.

Nearly 70 Georgia players rushed the field, joining their teammates near the end zone in a wild celebration. They were ahead by a touchdown with 51 minutes to go, but they acted as if they were going to Disney World. Not surprisingly, this bizarre display earned 30 yards of penalties. Was the coach upset? No. He was almost smirking.

“Coach Richt never specifically told us to run out there,” Rennie Curran, then a freshman linebacker, recently told me. “What he did say is, ‘I want you guys so excited that they’re going to have to penalize you.’”

It was, arguably, a classless gesture, perhaps the only one of Richt’s career—and it emboldened the Dawgs to a 42–30 victory.

Still, Richt made a show of penitence.

“I was expecting the 11 players on the field to be doing the celebrating, not for the bench to clear as it did,” he wrote in a letter of apology to the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. “My only intention was to create enthusiasm . . . You can be assured I will not ask our team to do this type of thing again.”

The Gators won the next matchup, 49–10. Meyer, their coach, called two time­outs in the final minute, a cheap and obvi­ous ploy to extend Georgia’s misery. He did not apologize. Nor did he ever lose to Mark Richt again.

There’s no connection between winning and virtue. If there were, Tom Brady would not have won this year’s Super Bowl. Floyd Mayweather would have been knocked out at least once. And Florida State would not have gone undefeated with a quarterback named Jameis Winston.

When Mark Richt came to Georgia in 2001, 18 years had passed since the team’s last SEC championship. He won two in his first five years. Since then, he’s gone nine years without winning another. In each of the past two seasons, the Bulldogs were picked to win a relatively weak SEC East. They did not. Last November, against a toothless Florida team, the 11th-ranked Bulldogs gave up 418 rushing yards in an inexplicable 38–20 defeat. Then, adding insult to injury, they lost to Georgia Tech.

Still, when the season ended, univer­sity administrators gave Richt an $800,000 raise to $4 million per year, a two-year contract extension, and an agreement to build an estimated $26 million indoor practice facility. The vote of confidence also included big salary bumps for Richt’s top coordinators, placing Jeremy Pruitt and Brian Schottenheimer among the top 10 highest-paid assistant coaches in the country. All that investment should mean more pressure on Richt to bring home a trophy.

“It’s the most high-profile position in the state,” says Mark Schlabach, a UGA graduate and senior college football writer at ESPN. “He’s a bigger figure in Atlanta and the state of Georgia than the coach of the Falcons, the coach of the Hawks, and the manager of the Braves.”

The university declined to make Richt available for this story. Even so, it would be hard to see him as anything but a gentle shepherd, a molder of men. He’s devoted not only to Christ but to what he calls “the Georgia Way,” a philosophy based on winning with integrity and turning out players who can excel in life.

Who could quibble with such an honorable mission? But in the ruthless game of college football, I wonder, can’t we have it both ways? Can’t Richt serve his players (and God) while also destroying the Gators, the Tigers, and the Crimson Tide?

Mike Bobo, Richt’s former offensive coordinator, told me he couldn’t think of a better man to represent the University of Georgia. Neither can I. But sometimes I find myself agreeing with people like Tom in Augusta, a guy who called The Paul Finebaum Show in December to offer his assessment of the Dawgs’ 2014 season.

“Mark Richt’s a great person,” Tom said. “He represents the University of Georgia with class. But it’s about winning football games, guys!”

As I surveyed family members and former players in researching this story, my first question was this: Is Mark Richt too decent to win a national championship?

But anyone who asks that question must acknowledge an uncomfortable fact: With all we know in 2015, watching football is a kind of charade—a collective pretense in the moral defensibility of paying to watch young men suffer often life-wrecking injuries. Thus, maybe the more honest question to ask is: In a game as nasty as football, does a coach’s character matter at all?

Nikhil Swaminathan
The author as a young Dawgs fan

Photograph courtesy of Nikhil Swaminathan

I grew up on Georgia football. My parents met as graduate students in Athens, were married at the Baptist Student Center (even though they’re Hindu), and raised me to love the Bulldogs. Although I never attended the university, I give it credit for my existence.

My family spent most fall Saturdays watching games on TV or listening to Larry Munson on the radio as he urged the Dawgs to hunker down. Georgia football even united us during my angsty teenage years in Atlanta, when being the only child of immigrants created expectations (primarily academic) that sometimes strained my relationship with my well-meaning but occasionally overbearing parents.

In October 1998, my freshman year at Cornell, my mother came up for a visit. I had tickets to the home football game that Saturday, but I misplaced them in the frenzy of cleaning my room. No big loss: My mom suggested we go to her hotel, order calzones, and watch the Georgia–Florida game. Even though the Dawgs lost, 38–7, it’s still one of our most cherished memories of watching the team. Now that I live in California, my mom and dad text me during Georgia games. We talk on the phone at halftime.

I was born six months before Herschel Walker, Buck Belue, and Vince Dooley beat Notre Dame for the national championship. Now, like many Georgia fans, I’d like to see them win another. Thirty-five years seems like long enough to wait.

For a moment in December 2012, I thought Georgia’s time had come. I was visiting my future wife in Berkeley, and we were hanging out with friends who’d been informed they had to put on the game or lose me to a sports bar. (Football can bring us together—and ruin our social graces.) The Dawgs were beating Alabama 21–10 with about six minutes left in the third quarter of the SEC Championship Game. Junior linebacker Alec Ogletree had just returned a blocked field goal 55 yards for a touchdown. Georgia was a few defensive stops from a rematch with Notre Dame for the national championship.

But when the Bulldogs play a team that’s really good, the most you can reasonably hope for is that they keep it close. This defeatist mindset comes from years of watching Georgia get blown out in big games. Richt is part of that tradition: He is 12–15 all-time against higher-ranked teams. Contrast that to Alabama coach Nick Saban. He’s made a career of pulling off upsets, including the time his Crimson Tide defeated the third-ranked Bulldogs, 41–30, in 2008.

“Just look at who’s won the last four national championships: Jimbo Fisher, Nick Saban twice, Urban Meyer—absolute mercenaries, man!” says Kevin “Chappy” Hynes, Richt’s brother-in-law and one of the football team’s former chaplains, who now directs the Fellowship of Christian Athletes campus ministry at UGA.

Meyer, who served as Richt’s nemesis from 2005 to 2010 while steering Florida to two national championships, miraculously led Ohio State to the 2014 title despite losing two starting quarterbacks to injury. Florida State’s Fisher has taken criticism over his handling of Jameis Winston. But it’s Saban who stands in closest contrast to Richt. He’s a workaholic who swears by “the Process,” an unrelenting grind that demands that players perfect minuscule details of their on-field assignments without worrying about the score of the game they’re playing. And it’s hard to argue with his success. He’s won five SEC titles and four national championships at two different schools (LSU and Alabama) in the time Richt has been at Georgia.

Against Alabama in 2012, Georgia gave up the lead, got it back, and gave it up again. Down 32–28 with time running out, they marched to Alabama’s eight-yard line. And then, instead of spiking the ball to stop the clock, the Bulldogs ran a play. Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley tipped Aaron Murray’s pass. Sophomore receiver Chris Conley made an instinctive but ill-advised catch and fell to the ground with five seconds left. Four, three, two, one. Game over. Once again, Richt and the Bulldogs fell short.

At least they kept it close.

Mark Richt
Richt in the 2012 SEC Championships, where the Dawgs fell to Alabama 32-28.

Photograph by David Tulis/UPI/Landov

Richt expected to start at quarterback for the University of Miami as a freshman in 1978, but he lost out to Jim Kelly. Four years later, at training camp with the Denver Broncos, he was overshadowed by John Elway. He went back to Miami for a tryout with the Dolphins, but he couldn’t keep up with Dan Marino. He took a job as a graduate assistant under Bobby Bowden at Florida State.

On September 13, 1986, after a dispute outside a fraternity dance, Seminoles offensive lineman Pablo Lopez was killed by a man with a shotgun. Bowden assembled the team the next day. As Richt would later recall:

Coach Bowden addressed the incident, and towards the end of his message, he began to talk about spiritual matters. He pointed to the empty chair that was assigned to the fallen player and talked about death and his faith. He asked every one of us in the room to look at the chair, and then he asked, “If that was you, do you know where you would spend eternity?”

. . . At the end of that meeting, he told the players that if they had any questions or anything on their hearts, to please come and speak to him. I was a broken young coach, so the next day I went to see him. He took me through the GOSPEL and explained what it meant to be a Christian. I remembered back to my college days, sitting with my roommate and hearing of GOD’S love for me. It was time. My life had not turned out like I planned. I understood how self-centered and prideful I was. I saw my sin revealed and the reality of GOD’S love for me.

Richt wrote that he left Bowden’s office that day “a new man,” and he took on his boss’s priorities: faith, family, and football, in that order. Today that hierarchy is often held against him, blamed for the lack of a killer instinct like the one Saban displays. After a brutal loss in September to a down-trending South Carolina team, Rolling Stone contrasted Richt’s devout Christianity and adoption of two kids from a Ukrainian orphanage in 1999 with his history of choking on a national stage—concluding he was the “Charlie Brown” of the SEC.

But to his former players, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“People get this impression that you’re out there playing for a pastor,” says David Greene, Richt’s former quarterback at Georgia, who won an SEC Championship in 2002. “It just gets overplayed. Coach is a believer in Christ, but he’s also a head football coach. There are other coaches who are believers. That always seems to be the card that comes out when things go wrong.”

Faith is not a prerequisite for winning football games. But there’s not much evidence that it prevents winning, either. In 15 years as coaching colleagues and brothers in Christ at Florida State, Bobby Bowden and Mark Richt won nine conference titles and two national championships.

The 2013 chapter of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry will always have a special place in my heart. It was the first time my wife ever watched more than a few seconds of a football game with me. It might also have been the most excruciating Bulldogs loss I’ve ever seen.

We were watching from the couch in our Oakland apartment. The Dawgs were down 27–10 at halftime to seventh-ranked Auburn. I wanted a miracle comeback; my wife wanted another glimpse of Aaron Murray with his helmet off. He was magnificent in the second half, throwing two touchdowns and rushing for two, one with less than two minutes left in the game. Georgia led 38–37.

With less than a minute left, Auburn had 4th-and-18 from its own 26. Nick Marshall dropped back to pass. The ball traveled nearly 60 yards in the air toward Georgia safety Tray Matthews. Just as it arrived, his teammate Josh Harvey-Clemons collided with Matthews and tipped the ball away. It fell into the hands of an Auburn receiver. Touchdown Auburn. Bulldogs lose again.

The play, now known in Auburn lore as the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare,” is nearly impossible for this Georgia fan to watch again. And it’s tinged with a cruel irony: Marshall began his college career as a cornerback for the Bulldogs, but Richt kicked him off the team in 2012 after he allegedly stole money from a fellow student’s dorm room.

When a player leaves a program, voluntarily or otherwise, he must be released from his scholarship contract. Many coaches take that opportunity to place transfer restrictions that prevent former players from suiting up at rival schools, but Richt does not—one reason why some believe he’s too generous for his own good.

The Georgia Way is also not necessarily the expedient way. For instance, the drug policy enforced by Richt and athletics director Greg McGarity is relatively draconian. Most universities don’t suspend players for a first-time drug violation, but Georgia gives a one-game suspension. It’s four games for a second offense, and you can bet a third violation will get you booted off the team. By contrast, two positive tests at Alabama usually lead to no more than a two-game suspension. Some football writers, including Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated, have asked if this policy is costing Georgia wins. But Richt’s wife, Katharyn, told me there are other considerations.

“He wants his players to learn how to grow into young men, and sometimes that means disciplining them,” she says. “They’re in the best interest of the young man, for him and his future. And I do believe that’s a good thing for Georgia.”

The Nick Marshall situation nearly repeated itself this year. Jonathan Taylor, a 335-pound defensive lineman, was dismissed from the Bulldogs last July after an arrest on charges of choking and punching his girlfriend. It was Taylor’s second arrest in four months. The following January, Ala­bama officials let him enroll and join the football team. Less than three months later, Taylor was arrested in another domestic dispute. Saban let him go. His accuser later recanted, but Alabama’s experiment in leniency was already deemed a failure. The SEC passed a rule in May preventing its schools from accepting transfers with histories of serious misconduct. The rule was proposed by Georgia. In effect, it will do for Richt what Richt was unwilling to do for himself.

In 2001, Richt’s first season at Georgia, defensive lineman David Jacobs suffered a stroke at practice. Jacobs thought he was suffering from extreme dehydration until he saw Richt in tears, praying at his bedside. Even though the coach inherited Jacobs from the previous staff, they forged a strong bond during the lineman’s recovery. Richt took pains to keep him connected with the team and preserve his scholarship so he could finish the eight classes he needed to graduate.

Jacobs now works as a mortgage loan officer in Atlanta. The two still get together for lunch every other month, and Richt is god­father to one of Jacobs’s two young sons.

Richt knows firsthand how hard it is to adjust to life when you can’t make it in the NFL, and he’s doing his best to prepare his players for that reality. He set up the Paul Oliver Network—named after the Georgia defensive back who killed himself after his professional career ended—to connect former players with his contacts in the business community. He honored scholarships for players who got injured before they could matriculate at UGA. He supported sixth-year senior offensive lineman Kolton Houston, who waited more than three years for reinstatement by the NCAA after an administrative nightmare resulting from prescribed steroids he received for a shoulder injury in high school.

And so on. When other coaches were surveyed about who they’d like their own sons to play for, Mark Richt came in tied for first.

It took Vince Dooley 17 years to win Georgia’s last national championship, in 1980. Bobby Bowden needed 18 at Florida State. With Richt’s new extension, he’ll have at least as long as his former bosses to get a ring.

Dooley, who as athletic director hired Richt in 2001, still believes he’s the right man for the job.

“He’s knocked on the door so much that I think, percentage-wise, it’s going to happen for him,” Dooley says. “And I think it should.”

For his part, Chappy Hynes assures me that I shouldn’t doubt his brother-in-law’s competitive streak. “I don’t even like playing cards with the guy anymore,” Hynes says.

Like me, though, Hynes has wondered about the depths of Richt’s desire, and a couple of years ago, he asked the coach about it: Would you feel like a failure if you didn’t win a national championship?

“He looked at me like I’m an idiot,” Hynes recalls. “He said, ‘Come on, Chap, my identity is not in being a national championship football coach. My identity is in Christ. Do I want to win one? Yes. Is that going to define me as a person? No.’”

I don’t share Richt’s faith, but I’ve been brought up to value the same things he does: family, loyalty, the importance of education. These are not the things that rabid fans are accustomed to barking about on Saturday afternoons in Athens. You heard Tom on the radio: It’s about winning football games.

Still, I like to believe there’s a right way to win—a way to trounce your opponents on the scoreboard and ensure all your players graduate, too. And if one day Richt does bring home that championship trophy, you’ll hear me barking louder than ever.

This article originally appeared in our August 2015 issue under the headline “Hail Mark.”