The former FSU offensive coordinator is in charge of a program that has not won an SEC title since 1982.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 1, 2001
HOOVER, Ala. -- In 1986, Mark Richt was a first-year graduate assistant coach at Florida State who, by his admission, thought the world revolved around him.
That was before the death of Florida State offensive lineman Pablo Lopez, who was shot at a party in Tallahassee during the fall of 1986.
Lopez's death completely changed Richt's life.
"It made me think about my mortality," said Richt, the new coach at Georgia. "It made me realize that I'm not going to live forever. It made me think to myself, if I was going to die tomorrow, where would I spend eternity? I wanted to have peace about that."
Richt became a Christian and went from thinking only about himself to having the ultimate concern for the athletes he coached. The incident made him the man he is today, the one Georgia fans hope can return the program to championship form.
As he prepares to embark on his first season as a coach at a place that hasn't tasted real success in nearly a decade, the humble 40-year-old Richt stood before hundreds of writers at the SEC media kickoff Tuesday afternoon and promised only this: He'll work hard and do his best to bring glory back to Georgia.
"I'm not going to sit here and predict a championship," Richt said. "We will take it, like the cliche goes, one game at a time. We expect to win any time we go into a game situation. If I felt like the team didn't believe they were going to win in any given situation, I'd be very disappointed."
It's going to take more than believing. It'll take winning. Particularly, winning against Florida and Tennessee.
Neither Jim Donnan nor Ray Goff managed to get their teams to consistently beat those rivals. Donnan had a winning record, but the coaches combined for a 3-19 record against the Gators and Vols.
Which is why they are no longer in Athens.
Richt said he's responsible for the overall season, not just two games. But it's obvious to most everyone, including his players, that Richt's tenure must include wins against the Gators and Vols -- or it could be short.
"I'm sure it's a tremendous weight on his shoulders," center Curt McGill said. "I'd hate to take the job at the University of Georgia. It helps (that Richt came from FSU) because Florida is one of our biggest rivals and once we get past them, it's a stepping stone for our program. I'm sure once we go out and play his system, the fans will relax. I'm sure he's going to be a great coach for Georgia fans."
Georgia is 2-10 against Florida and 1-9 against Tennessee since 1988, when then-coach Vince Dooley stepped down. Its last SEC title was in 1982.
"This group of players is very hungry for a championship and they haven't backed off from anything we've tried to do," said Richt, who said there's a certain advantage to his familiarity with Florida.
If his resume and experience are any indication, Richt can help teams win games.
He spent 15 years as an assistant at Florida State, the past seven as offensive coordinator, during which the Seminoles finished in the nation's top five in scoring offense on five occasions and in the top 12 in total offense and passing offense five times.
He has coached two Heisman Trophy winners -- Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke -- and five others who have gone on to make NFL rosters.
During that time, coaching opportunities came and went, but Richt said he was waiting for the "right situation."
It came in December in the form of an invitation to move to Athens.
"It's the only job I've gone after, Richt said.
And it was the right move his former mentor believes.
"I think it was time," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "It was time for him to get out on his own and coach. To me, he got a pretty high pressure job, that's the only thing. Georgia is high-pressure."
What Bulldogs fans shouldn't expect to see is Florida State's high-powered offense being executed by the guys in black and red. At least not yet.
The Bulldogs have two inexperienced quarterbacks battling for the starting position, lack of depth on the offensive and defensive lines, and the return of four running backs, three of whom have spent more time injured than on the field.
But from what he has seen so far, Richt said he believes Georgia could be a team to reckon with this season.
"It starts with talent," Richt said. "It also starts with a group of talented guys that can play together. You've got to believe you can win these big games."