Columnist: Farewell to Mark Richt, pt. 1

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 4, 2015

Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

First of two parts.

The problem with the sports world today is that, with the advent of social media, everybody can be heard whether there is a brain in his head or not. Further, football is still played with a ball, which takes funny bounces, and people get very emotional about the game, results and coaches.

Verne Lundquist, CBS announcer, says that, “You can’t win with fans. You can pick any two teams in the league, say Alabama and Auburn. The Auburn fans swear we are biased toward Alabama, and with Alabama fans, there is no doubt that Gary (Danielson) and I are wearing Auburn colors underneath our dress shirts.”

Driving over to Atlanta for the Tech game, I had no idea about Greg McGarity’s decision. However, I had a sense that he might call for a change, but as I always tell my friends — when there is a decision, you will know when I know.

It is not important for subordinates and associates to be aware of your plans and decisions. For an athletic director to confide in staff and friends would be as foolhardy as kissing a rattlesnake. Nonetheless, you often gain a sense about things.

Most of us knew that Mark Richt was swimming upstream and felt comfortable in saying that privately. I knew that the first time I saw him after the decision, I would have a hard time not choking up, which is the way it was.

It would be the most resounding story in sports for Richt to have been a big-time winner. Few have ever represented the University of Georgia more honorably than Mark Richt. I can remember his first weeks on the job — everything was so favorable. The atmosphere turned positive, congenial and upbeat when he arrived.

He made people feel good; he made you laugh and smile. He generously signed autographs. While waiting to do his pre-game show or during commercial breaks, he would sign autographs. He spoke everywhere in the state, many times for free. He gave of himself, which set him apart.

He supported charities, and he gave generously to charity. He loved Athens, and he loved the state.

In my case, he made me feel part of the program. His door was always open unless he was in a meeting. He would always return my call promptly. As busy as he most often was, he would honor the courtesy of returning calls.

I had a friend who had an emotionally troubled son, who eventually took his life. The distraught father asked if I would arrange for Mark to counsel with his son over the phone. Mark did. Even though he did not know the young man, Mark did his best to offer comforting advice, praying with the son over the phone. He made the call during a busy time in his schedule. While it was awkward, not knowing the family and having to offer counsel by phone, he did his best to help. He is a very compassionate man.

I grew up in the fundamental environment which contained all the preachments you have heard from and about Mark Richt during his time in Athens. I think spiritual values are important, but also feel that religion should be private, but the Georgia coach, once a Catholic, joined the missionary Baptists whose modus operandi is to spread the Gospel in everything you do.

When he thanked Jesus on network television following the winning of his first SEC championship at Auburn in 2002, church advocates everywhere swooned and celebrated while those in the control truck, parked by Jordon-Hare Stadium went bonkers. They, for the most part, were Jewish and were just as passionate about not using the CBS network to espouse his religious views as Mark was in taking the opportunity to speak up for his beliefs when he had the opportunity.

When he made testimonial statements as the head coach at the University of Georgia, there were a lot of folks, faculty and public officials, who thought he should refrain from such. I never had a meal with him in which he did not say a blessing. I’ve heard him pray for 15 years in the locker room, a thin line between generic vernacular and asking for victory.

Whatever your personal beliefs are, it should be pointed out here that Richt’s position, when it came to his faith, was honest and consistent. I have known a lot of coaches who have embraced religion but only for show. His sincerity and his consistency kept me from finding fault with his commitment to his beliefs.

The view of many is that God doesn’t take sides in football games. Following the Alabama game at the Georgia Dome in 2012, it appeared that God held his servant in disfavor. It looked as though He might be giving the Bulldog head coach the same treatment He gave Job in the Old Testament.

In retrospect, if you evaluate wins and losses in the latter part of his career to his first six or seven years, something went wrong. His laid back style caused critics to conclude he lacked fire in the belly.

His first half dozen years, I heard him time and time again at the start of spring practice remind his players that his unwavering goal was to win a national championship. He knew what it was like to claim a title, when he coached for Bobby Bowden at Florida State. He passionately wanted to enjoy that experience at Georgia.

— See the Weekend edition for the second half of this column.

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.