Georgia head coach Mark Richt has led his team to eight straight victories after opening the season with back-to-back losses against Boise State and South Carolina. No. 15 Georgia crushed No. 20 Auburn 45-7 on Saturday. Mark’s story was featured in Sports Spectrum’s 25-year anniversary book. To order the book, click here.
Before taking the reigns at the University of Georgia, Mark Richt (born Feb. 18, 1960) was a graduate assistant at Florida State (1985-1989), offensive coordinator at East Carolina (1989) and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Florida State (1990-2000).
He was married to Katharyn Francis and they have four children: Jonathan (born March 11, 1990), David (born December 1, 1994), and two adopted from Ukraine, Zach (born May 15, 1996), and Anya (born February 13, 1997).
In 2002, while serving in just his second year as Georgia’s head football coach, Richt led the Bulldogs to victories in both the SEC title game and the Nokia Sugar Bowl. In routing Arkansas 30-3 for the conference championship, Georgia won its first SEC title in 20 years.
Superior defense, special teams, and a solid running game carried the Bulldogs to their first bowl victory under Richt as they beat Florida State 26-13 in New Orleans. After 14 years of coaching under Bobby Bowden at Florida State, Richt successfully battled his mentor from the opposite sidelines.
In May and June of 2003, however, Richt found himself navigating his team through a Florida State-like controversy and potential NCAA reprimand when nine of his players sold their SEC championship rings to an Internet salesman. Eventually, the NCAA decided to take no action against those athletes.
Nine seasons later, his totals read: Nine postseason appearances, two SEC titles (2002 and 2005), four SEC East Division titles (2002, 2003, 2005, 2007), three more runner-up finishes (2004, 2008, 2009) and a 90-27 overall record, including 50-22 in the SEC, considered by most analysts to be the best conference in college football.
Through it all, the Bulldog faithful have discovered that they have a coach who guides their team through both victory and controversy with character and poise.
Brett Cohrs sat down with Richt to talk with him about faith, leadership, and family.
Sports Spectrum: After your time as backup quarterback to Jim Kelly at the University of Miami, your playing career came to a close after brief stints at the Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins training camps – the same time that the careers of John Elway and Dan Marino started. What transpired between your playing days and your coaching days?
Mark Richt: In general, I think I was getting my act together as a person, not that I wasn’t faulty in some of the things I was doing. I was growing up, I guess. I was realizing that it was time to take on more responsibility. Mentally, I was trying to become a better person. But there really wasn’t much thought of my relationship with God, my relationship with Jesus.
I tried some other jobs, things like selling life insurance, selling memberships at a club, becoming a bartender and then at the very end, scrubbing down the bars at night when I failed at being a bartender. I just wasn’t too good at anything I tried.
Sports Spectrum: How did you go from wiping down bars to being a graduate assistant at FSU?
Mark Richt: As far as getting a graduate assistant’s job at FSU, Coach Bowden recruited me out of high school, and I knew who he was. When an opportunity became available, he gave me a call.
Sports Spectrum: What are a couple of intangibles you learned from Bowden about being a coach and dealing with controversy?
Mark Richt: The main thing is that if you have your priorities in line you realize that there will be controversy. In the grand scheme of things, it is a relationship with the Lord that makes the biggest difference. There will always be problems in life; that is just to be expected.
Sports Spectrum: As a coach, leadership seems to be one of your top priorities. How do you develop leaders out of your players?
Mark Richt: I think it all starts with basic core values. It’s very difficult to be a leader unless you have some type of credibility as a person. Are you honest? Are you loyal? Do you have integrity? Do you have work ethic? Do you have all these things? The more positive characteristics you have, the more credible you will be as a leader. It starts with that.
These guys have to realize that having influence over people makes them leaders whether they want to be or not. Then you have to decide how you want to lead. What does the team want as far as goals and concerns, and how can the guys in leadership positions move the team in that direction? I think you have to realize that you are a leader whether you want to admit it or not. After that, leadership can be developed. It can be nurtured. It can be thoughtfully enhanced.
(In 2003, I took) the seniors through a John Maxwell book: The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader. (We did) it throughout the season. Prior to that, we had our freshmen, sophomores, and juniors going through some core value and character education curriculum that will prepare them, hopefully, for a leadership role down the road. But there are already leaders within the freshmen class too. There are guys leading who are sophomores. The curriculum is designed to try to build to the point where players are ready to take on a leadership role.
Sports Spectrum: How have the difficulties with some of the players (in 2003) affected the team – the selling of the championship rings?
Mark Richt: I believe crises or difficult times tend either to separate or drive a wedge between teammates or family members, or they draw people together. It’s going to be one or the other. It’s not going to remain status quo. People are going to have opinions one way or another on something bad that has happened and how it affects everybody on the team, not just the people who were directly involved in the situation.
We decided it was very important to get the team together and have an open forum to be able to say, “This bothered me . . . . This hurt me . . . . I’m sorry.” When this thing happened, though, everybody was kind of dispersed. It was final exams. Everybody was going home. You just couldn’t get the team together. It just wasn’t really feasible to do that. At that point, we didn’t have the answers anyway because we had to wait for the NCAA to decide on some things. There was about a four-week period of waiting to know what the NCAA’s ruling would be.
With everybody being out of town, it was kind of a helpless feeling for a while. But it gave me time to really be prayerful about the decisions I was going to make. I think if I had to make a decision immediately, I don’t know if I would have made the same one. In a way, I felt it was a blessing to have time to reflect on how to handle the situation.
We had that meeting and we laid everything out on the table. I was able to say how I felt about the whole situation in front of everybody. If somebody had an issue they could say it, and if someone had an issue and didn’t want to say it, then it was like a “speak now or forever hold your peace” kind of thing. But we were going to make sure that once we left that room, regardless of how long it took, we were going to be unified. We were going to be focused on what is important for the team.
I think it helped us get focused. I think it helped us have a great summer. I think it helped our seniors and our leaders realize how important their roles are.
Sports Spectrum: A well-known hallmark of your life is your faith in Jesus Christ. Could you describe your journey to faith?
Mark Richt: I grew up going to church until about age 13, so I knew who God was and I had heard of who Jesus Christ was. Did I have a personal relationship at that time? No. I really didn’t understand much about it other than I believed that God existed, and I believed that Jesus was who He said He was. But I never got into the part of understanding the decision that I had to make in regard to that.
From age 13 on, the thing that really meant the most to me was my sports, in particular football. It was where I got most of the positive strokes in my life. It was what I was living for and what my world revolved around: me and my sports – ahead of family, ahead of God, ahead of friends. Once I got into college, this world that I had built for myself began to crumble, mainly because Jim Kelly was a lot better than I was. That’s when I began to realize that maybe my sense of what’s important was kind of warped and faulty. I began to realize that my family was more important than I thought – along with friends and even my faith.
But I was beginning to party, beginning to do things that were harmful. I guess it was my way of dealing with the pain of not being the star I expected to be. So as I was trying to cover up the pain with all of these other things that I shouldn’t have been doing, I ran into John Peasley as a roommate. He was one of my teammates who had become a Christian over the summer. Before that summer, John had been doing some of the things I was doing, but he was pretty radically changed from what he was. Knowing him as a teammate, I could see the drastic change in his life.
He began to witness to me about what had happened to him. I quite frankly believed it was something I ought to do and felt the Lord was definitely leading me to become a Christian, but I didn’t do it for a lot of reasons. I was worried about what my friends would think. I didn’t understand Christianity. I really believed I had to be this perfect person before I became a Christian. I didn’t want to be known as a hypocrite: “He says he’s a Christian, but then he’s doing this or that.” There were things going through my mind: “What could I give up?” Another reason was that I was afraid God might have me do something that I didn’t want to do. Maybe he’d keep me from being this superstar football player that I wanted to be. Or he might send me off on a mission trip somewhere for life and I’d never come back. Those are some of the reasons I didn’t become a Christian at that time. But the seeds had been planted.
It was in 1986 when I became a Christian after the death of a player at Florida State, Pablo Lopez. I was a graduate assistant coach at Florida State at that time and became a Christian after Bobby Bowden talked to the team about what happened to Pablo and then shared about Christ.
Sports Spectrum: You are an outspoken Christian in a visible role. Have you faced any kind of difficulties because of your openness about your faith?
Mark Richt: I get some letters now and then from people who may not be pleased by some of the things I’ve done or said, but not an awful lot. No matter what you do, when you’re in a leadership position, there are going to be people who don’t agree with what you do or what you say. It’s just a part of life.
Sports Spectrum: In 1999, you and your wife Katharyn adopted two children, Zack and Anya, from the Ukraine. Describe the process for you and your family. Were there any special challenges?
Mark Richt: We had enough time to be thinking about the fact that we were going to be getting these children. Our oldest children, John and David, had been praying for those children for awhile. They knew they had a brother and sister for quite some time before Zack and Anya came home. They were excited about it. There was a lot of positive momentum going into the adoption.
But when it comes to discipline, it took time for the children to learn the ropes, to learn the language. There were a lot of barriers that had to be established and lots of trust and love that had to be developed. There are a lot of times that parents have instilled differences between right and wrong, do or don’t do, by the time their children are age 3.
We had to give Zack and Anya (who were 3 and 2 years old at the time) a little bit of a crash course on that, and, at the same time, develop a relationship with them. It wasn’t instantaneous. They knew we were mom and dad, but it was very new to them so it took time for them to really trust us. I think it took longer for them to trust me than Katharyn because Katharyn was always with them. She was always the caretaker. I wasn’t there as much. They were like, “Who is this guy?”
Sports Spectrum: Your wife Katharyn must have a pretty big task taking care of things – given your schedule. How does she do it?
Mark Richt: Very well. She’s a strong, independent woman, but she’s a
Spirit-filled woman. She allows God to work in her life and control her attitudes if she has an attitude about something. She’s very submissive to God to allow Him to shape her in the way that she should be. She’s one of those people who’s fun to be around because she has a wonderful spirit. You can see she’s a Spirit-filled woman. You can watch her sing in the choir and know that she’s enjoying praising the Lord. She has a beautiful smile. She’s very contagious with her attitude.
Sports Spectrum: What are some things you do to keep family and faith your first priorities with all the stresses and time constraints of running a major college football program?
Mark Richt: A lot of things. We have staff meetings that are at 8:30 a.m. – late enough to allow me and the other coaches to help get our kids up, get them dressed, and get them ready for school. I actually take mine to school. A lot of the coaches take their kids to school. We are able to have a good morning together and get started together.
The team has a family night once a week where the kids and wives will come to have dinner with the coaches and the players. It’s a chance for the players to see the coaches as fathers and husbands – somebody besides this guy who’s coaching them hard.
There are some things our family does in-season. Katharyn always finds time to come by for either a lunch or a dinner. Like when practice is over, we might scamper over and have dinner together somewhere. Sometimes, I’ll sneak out for lunch. The school is only five minutes away, so I’ll go by and sit and have lunch with one of the kids one day. Or some days, I’ll just show up at one of their classes and give them a hug and leave. It might take five minutes, but it makes a big impression.
Hopefully, the team will go to a bowl game, so the family gets to go on a bowl trip. The kids get to do a lot of things most kids can’t do. In the summer time, I have a little more time than a lot of men do. We just try to make the time we do have special.
I think Katharyn understands my job and the time it takes to do my job. I think she’s most concerned with what I do with the time I do have away from the job. Am I spending it with her and the children? I think that’s what’s most important to wives of men who are busy. What are you doing with the free time you do have? Do you decide to go golfing for six or seven hours with the guys? After a long hard season, I can understand where that might create hard feelings. But if the time you have, you spend with your family, then that’s good.
Sports Spectrum: The idea that you go to your family to find personal refreshment says a lot.
Mark Richt: Right now, at this stage in our life, that’s it. I’m not saying that we will never go out there on the golf course, but I like to do those things with them.
By Brett Cohrs