No, Virginia, There Isn't a Mark Richt at Georgia

Jack Patterson's picture

I NEVER BELIEVED IN SANTA CLAUS. Perhaps it was the idea that a man soaring around the sky behind flying reindeer and delivering presents to every house in the world seemed like a whopper of a story. Or perhaps it was because my parents never perpetrated the myth. Why? Maybe they just never wanted to eventually break the truth to me and watch my heart break.

So while I’ve never had the experience of being told Santa Claus wasn’t true, Sunday came about as close to that experience as I could ever imagine when I learned that the University of Georgia head football coach Mark Richt had been fired after 15 seasons.

Coach Richt never soared around the sky in a red sleigh with the iconic ‘G’ emblazoned on the side, showering the team’s fans with crystal footballs. If he did, he’d undoubtedly still be employed today.

No, what he did was something far weightier. He carried himself with class as each season he molded about a hundred 18- to 22-year-old college football players into men with integrity and character. All the while surpassing the legendary Vince Dooley as the school’s coach with the highest winning percentage.

When players stepped over the line, Richt doled out consequences, sometimes to the detriment of the team. When he or one of his staff committed a recruiting violation from the NCAA’s dictionary-sized rulebook, Georgia self-reported it. He didn’t snipe at other coaches or their programs through the media. And even when his team did something deemed as classless (like the end zone celebration against Florida in 2007), he apologized right away.

And he coached that way while surrounded by programs that pushed the bounds of the rules (some that got caught and some that didn’t), and by coaches who “exacted revenge” by calling timeouts to rub in a victory or belittled other programs through petty comments or thumbed their noses at the essence of class and integrity.

More than anything, he created a culture of family at Georgia—not with talk but with action. He showed athletes from broken homes what it means to have someone in your life who believes in you—and unlike many coaches, even showing tough love when warranted. He showed a couple of kids from the other side of the world a new future when he adopted them. He exposed the nation to the idea that being a football coach in a “win-or-go-home” era doesn’t have to be at odds with your values as a person.

And it was those values that made me proud that Coach Richt was a Georgia Bulldog, values that were reinforced while I attended there, values I work hard every day to instill in my own kids. I want them to know that in life winning isn’t everything—nor, with apologies to Red Sanders and Vince Lombardi, is it the only thing. Being the best on the scoreboard doesn’t mean you’re the best person. It’s not an excuse for failing but a reminder that our identity should be more about heart and effort and less about results—because you won’t always win no matter how great you truly are. And like it or not, Georgia fans had plenty of character-building moments under Richt, but far more from his two predecessors.

I had the privilege of getting to conduct several lengthy interviews with Coach Richt in one-on-one situations during his tenure at Georgia. I found him to be forthright and focused in our conversations, honest to a fault. Never did I feel like he was parsing his words or posturing to give me a pat answer. I once sent him a book that I thought he’d appreciate and he wrote me a note back thanking me for it—and I wasn’t writing for some major recognized sports publication either. He didn’t do it because he felt obligated or even really had the time—but that’s the kind of man he is.

Coach Richt epitomized grace under fire as a group of powerbrokers started the drumbeat for his ouster—and it’s a drumbeat that’s been pounding for several years now. But he never turned nasty or salty toward his detractors, at least not publicly. And I’d be fine if I found out he threw things and smashed stuff when he got home. Like he told some of his players when the gallows seemed nigh, “You all know how you feel right now. I don’t know how everybody feels but everybody knows how they feel individually. So what we’re going to do today is talk about how we need to act because you may feel a certain way but you need to act another way. You may feel a certain way about how the season was going but we need to act a certain way to keep things going straight and handle adversity the right way.”

How I feel right now is heartbroken. But I don’t feel sorry for Richt. In fact, I feel happy for him in some ways that he’s no longer beholden to tasks masters whose expectations have exploded beyond reason (and ironically, all due to Richt’s success at Georgia). But I’m lamenting the loss of my Santa Claus, the myth that college football is different than professional sports, the myth that collegiate sports are a fun part of the university experience but ultimately are an extension of the academic, another teaching ground for us to learn about the harsh realities of life as we develop the character to handle winning and losing—for both students and casual fans alike. I’m lamenting the myth that my school is different than the other schools clamoring to win at all costs.

No, all those myths were shattered on Sunday when I read a text a friend sent me telling me Richt had been fired.

And just like millions of people still celebrate Christmas after learning the truth, I’ll still root for the Bulldogs through thick and thin. I’ll be full of optimism in August, dreams dashed in late October, and chanting “wait till next year” in December. And I don’t doubt that I’ll still enjoy it.

But it’ll never be the same.

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Photo by Gregor Smith (c)