Mark Richt’s intention was to take a year off. He’d just been fired by Georgia after 15 years, and in Year 15 it was clear he’d run out of ideas. When your idea of a brainstorm is to start your third-string quarterback against Florida, you need to sit back and have another think. Then Miami came calling, and this was one temptation even the saintly Richt couldn’t resist.
It was his alma mater, and this was his chance to feel wanted again. Had he taken that year to reassess, Miami wouldn’t have been there. If he wanted to keep coaching at a level where winning championships was a possibility, this was the best he was apt to do. Over the wishes of family and friends, he took the job, and – at least for a while – looked energized in a way he hadn’t for years in Athens.
His first bunch of Hurricanes started 4-0. That soon became 4-4. Three of those four losses were near-misses, which we know was a Richt specialty. But that year ended 9-4 with a bowl victory over West Virginia, and suddenly The U seemed on the rise. The next year began with 10 consecutive victories – consecutive wins over Florida State and Georgia Tech were hairbreadth things – and saw the Hurricanes rise to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. Then they lost at Pittsburgh, then to Clemson in the ACC championship, then to Wisconsin in the Orange Bowl.
And just like that, the New Richt was the Old Richt. Miami was the heavy choice to win the ACC Coastal this year, but the Hurricanes were overwhelmed by LSU in their opener and got to 5-1 without beating anybody of consequence. Then everything came undone. They lost to Virginia, Boston College, Duke and Georgia Tech. They beat Virginia Tech, which had itself fallen to pieces. They beat Pitt after the Panthers had clinched the division. The team ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press preseason poll finished its regular season 7-5, having changed quarterbacks midway.
They re-changed quarterbacks for the Pinstripe Bowl against Wisconsin. They lost 35-3 and looked just awful. Miami athletic director Blake James, who’d hired Richt, took to Twitter to say, “Our football team’s performance tonight – and at other times this season – is simply unacceptable to all of us who love The U.” James then mentioned competing for championships and added, “I know coach Richt is alongside me in that commitment to excellence.”
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Three days later, Richt was alongside no longer. He announced his retirement at lunchtime Sunday. He’s 58. There was a time when the world seemed his oyster, but apart from one close call in 2012, his teams over the second half of his 18 years as head ball coach were never as good as they coulda/shoulda been.
In a time when the gimlet-eyed precision of Nick Saban and his disciples holds sway, Richt became a man out of time. He was a Bobby Bowden acolyte, and Bowden was never about precision. His teams won because they had the best players. Saban’s teams win every single year because they have the best players and they execute to the great man’s exalted standards. (Well, most of the time. The second half of their Oklahoma semifinal was sloppy.) To suggest that Richt’s less-than-rigid attention to detail could be traced to his live-and-let-live attitude toward life has always seemed too pat – but it happened to be true.
Miami finished the season tied for 91st in total offense. Richt, who made his bones as Bowden’s offensive coordinator, had returned to calling plays in South Florida. Jon Richt, who has spent one season working for someone other than his dad, was the quarterbacks coach. The Hurricanes finished last in the 14-team ACC in yards per pass, next-to-last in passer rating. We ask yet again: Does nepotism ever have a happy ending?
And if Mark Richt – who tutored Charlie Ward, Chris Weinke, David Greene, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray – can’t coach up quarterbacks, what’s left for him? The best thing about these Hurricanes was their defense, and coordinator Manny Diaz just took the Temple job that Geoff Collins vacated to come to Georgia Tech. (Update: Miami announced late Sunday it had hired Diaz as head coach.) Recruits were reported to de-committing left and right. In three years at Miami, Richt had gone from solution to problem. Your AD saying your product is unacceptable says it all, does it not?
As someone who has always believed Greg McGarity was right to part with Richt, I still have to say I’m surprised at how fast it unraveled for him in Coral Gables. I thought he would indeed be rejuvenated. I thought he might learn from his mistakes. I also thought he’d never lack for talent at Miami, but the misuse of talent became Richt’s undoing in Athens, and the same has happened again. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a Georgia fan point to a Miami score the past three years and say, “He hasn’t changed,”… well, I’d have a pocketful of nickels.
Mark Richt changed locations, but he remained Mark Richt. He’s not a terrible coach, but he’s no longer a championship coach. The two programs he has served as head coach are in business to win championships. He won two SEC titles at Georgia, the most recent coming in 2005. Once among the very best, he’s now yesterday’s man.