Commentary: My farewell to Mark Richt
Brad Stephens brings his own Southern flavored sports perspective and humor to Bartow Sports Zone. He is a Bartow County native and has his own law office in Cartersville, but he's mostly a Georgia Bulldogs' football fan.
One of my favorite songs from the late 1960’s is B.J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
Not only did this song reach the coveted “#1” on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it won an Academy Award for Best Original Song as part of the soundtrack for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” It has been covered by many artists and incorporated on the soundtrack of several other movies, including “Forrest Gump.” It is one of the seminal songs of a turbulent era in American history.
When I was watching Mark Richt’s face during the press conference where it was announced he was not returning to coach the Georgia Bulldogs, I could not help but hear these lines from “Raindrops” in my head:
Cryin’s not for me
Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complainin’
There it was, on Richt’s face….relief.
The weight of the Dawgnation’s expectations shifted from his capable, weathered shoulders to those of Greg McGarity, whose capability and wherewithal have been called into question in recent days. Regardless of the circumstances of Richt’s departure, whether he was fired or agreed to walk away, it will be strange to see the sideline without him.
He came to us in 2001, a highly-touted offensive coordinator from Florida State with the blessing of Bobby Bowden and a heaping helping of promise. He always wanted the Georgia job. Once Jim Donnan was carried off the field for the last time in Oahu, the team belonged to Richt. A busload of talent in need of a driver to take them to the promised land. Oh, what a ride it would be.
Dominoes started falling that year. The coaching staff implemented mat drills, changing the team into a well-conditioned machine ready for SEC battle. Recruiting, the lifeblood of a program, got a transfusion so to speak. The top talent in the state stopped heading to elsewheres of the college football world. Richt made Athens into a final destination, rather than another free visit on a tour of Southeastern schools. The borders closed and our enemies grew weaker.
The three-year skid against Georgia Tech ended in Atlanta. The futility of going to Knoxville was washed away by the immortal “P44 Haynes” play that resulted in Larry Munson’s most famous call outside of “There Goes Herschel!” and “Run Lindsay!” When David Greene dumped that pass over the Tennessee defense to Verron Haynes, years of demons were exorcised. The sideline and small contingent of Dawg fans came unglued. 300 pounders danced as if they were weightless. Skill players with their high verticals leapt for joy. Walk-ons spun towels in the air as 100,000 orange-clad enemies quietly exited the stadium.
In the midst of the bedlam, there it was, on Richt’s face….relief.
The blues they send to meet me wont defeat me
It won’t be long til happiness steps up to greet me
The following year was the most magical. 20 years of SEC silence ended with a deafening roar as Decory Bryant broke free to block Arkansas’s first punt in the Georgia Dome. The entire season was a blur that went from “maybe” to “yes sir” after the Dawgs closed out opponent after opponent in dramatic fashion.
I was there when the East was clinched at Auburn. The feeling of seeing Michael Johnson elevate and steal victory from the jaws of defeat is surreal, even to this day.
My ticket that day was free, courtesy of my good friend, Josh Brock. Once the referee signaled touchdown, I hugged the entire Brock family. I high-fived Boss Bailey’s mother. Tim Jennings’ father, who imbibed for the majority of the game, jumped on my back and said “how bout them Dawgs?!?” Some tears flowed. Everyone should watch a game in the player’s family section, it will change your approach to fandom forever.
Meeting Florida State in the Sugar Bowl and taking them down was monumental. Georgia’s last two trips to New Orleans had been ill-fated. The Dawgs faced their boss’s old team, a school that knew only success in the last decade. Echoes of Seminole warchants from the 1990’s can still be heard today. The chips were stacked high and the Dawgs went all in. Bowden and Richt shook hands in the end, the mentor vanquished by his protégé.
Covered in the contents of the water cooler and the arms of his senior players, there it was, on Richt’s face….relief.
A coach’s life is under a microscope. Every facial expression analyzed. Every play call questioned. I remember the first grumble in 2004. A heavily favored Georgia team, fresh off the epic destruction of LSU in Athens, fell to an undermanned, Erik Ainge-led Tennessee squad the next week. Walking out of the stadium, a man remarked, “boy, it looked like Richt didn’t even care we lost.” That team could have won it all, but fell short, as 116 other teams did that season.
Coach led us to another SEC crown in 2005. The fairy tale of D.J. Shockley was salve for the hurt souls of 2004. A promise was made and kept, as a man of Richt’s character is wont to do. Enduring seasons on the bench, probably staring at the back of the coach’s head with disdain at times, Shockley’s moment came and it was seized by pummeling LSU in the Georgia Dome. After all the “what ifs” and “whens,” there they stood on the turf together as champions.
Arm in arm with Shockley, staring at the pro-Georgia crowd as they cheered in approval, there it was, on Richt’s face….relief.
Who knew that would be the last time? That this feeling would not come over Richt again in his career? There were successes, but always with an asterisk. 2007 may have been his best team, but it did not make it to Atlanta. 2008 started with a bang and ended with the whimpiest of whimpers in the rain against Georgia Tech. 2012 is simply known as “five yards short.” There were losses to Colorado, Central Florida and Boise State. Offseason arrests as sure as the sunrise. Struggles with Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Blowout losses to Florida and Alabama.
The grumbling became louder as the chips started falling in the wrong direction. Coordinators were hired and fired. Gimmicks became commonplace. The all-knowing Internet message boards were aflame with coarse diatribes, R-rated armchair quarterbacks with axes to grind and Miller Lite to drink. Even his faith was blamed.
“Mark Richt is too nice.”
“Mark Richt don’t (sic) care about football.”
“Mark Richt should have them (sic) boys lifting weights, not on mission trips.”
He became a common denominator to those who favored unrest. The good vibes of 2001-05 dissolved in a petri dish full of misguided expectations and border-sharing rival schools bringing home hardware at our expense. Double digit wins are not enough. Owning Auburn, Georgia Tech and Tennessee is not enough. It became too much. Coach aged – mentally and physically. His pace slowed and his mind worried about his ailing wife and tenuous position, one did not have to look hard to find his discontent.
Those raindrops keep fallin’ on my head
They keep fallin’
All in all, a good man walked our sideline for 15 years. One that brought us out of the doldrums of the 1990’s and made us relevant again. Our games mattered again. Great players wanted to play for the Dawgs again. The fervor in the ranks of the Dawgnation was as high as it was during Dooley’s glory days. We won plenty of big games, appeared on the national scene as a force to be reckoned with and had the admiration of other programs who were less fortunate. Coach did not bring home enough hardware, plain and simple.
So, I will remember the good times. The excitement he brought us. His love for his players and the University. His undying commitment to making those who wear the Red and Black respectable citizens, husbands and fathers. Mostly, I will remember his face. It was a face often criticized for being expressionless and void of emotion. I just think the man took the good with the bad and expressed himself on his own terms. On November 30, 2015, he did just that.
Because I’m free
Nothin’s worryin’ me
Thanks, Coach, for everything.
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