Georgia coach Mark Richt's mission

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Mark Richt doesn’t squander tears on a football game.

What is there in a game to make a man cry? Lose to Central Florida on the last day of 2010, come back and try to make it right next September. That’s a challenge, not a tragedy.

Wednesday, far away from the fields of the SEC, Richt cried.

The Georgia football coach stood holding hands with his wife, Katharyn, in a small, crumbling schoolroom off a cratered dirt road that ran up the face of an unnamed Honduran hillside. A man whose language they did not understand was shouting a prayer as if trying to rattle the floorboards of heaven.

So this is what it takes to break down one of college football’s most stoic coaches.

Carlos Cantarero, the rare Baptist preacher in a Catholic land, was very much on his game that day. Dressed in white from neck to pants cuffs, one hand cradling a frayed Bible open to the book of Matthew, the other punching a fist toward the tin roof, Cantarero filled the space with his spirit.

There was so much for which to pray. Life is hard in San Antonio, Honduras. Farmers scratch a living from whatever plot of land they can find that’s not too tilted to plow. They drink untreated water that is the color of chalk, fetched from a half-mile away. Sometimes, in drought, the water barely trickles out, and those who don’t get there early go home empty.

Cantarero had the Richts at amen. Neither sat before first rubbing the mist from their eyes.

He may have little grasp of Spanish, but this much Mark Richt said he understood: “Here was a man crying out to God.”

And the Richts cried along with him. It wouldn’t be the only time they were so moved on a five-day visit last week to this poor Central American nation, a trip undertaken at the invitation of mega international charity World Vision.

How could he have known that day in 1986 as he prayed in Bobby Bowden’s office and gave himself to Christ that he would be led to this distant land? As a grad assistant at Florida State, Richt was in the back of the room as Bowden spoke to his team after the shooting death of Seminoles lineman Pablo Lopez.

“If that had been you, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” Bowden asked.

Those words drilled into Richt’s soul. The next day, he met with the head coach and the direction of his life was forever changed.

Richt has been continually upping the ante on his beliefs ever since — maturing as a Christian, he says — to reach this stage, his most ambitious trek yet into the frontiers of righteousness.

Beyond this tiring fact-finding trip, Richt put a lake vacation home up for sale in order to help finance a whole new level of giving. And it’s not like he doesn’t have other concerns on his mind.

This may be a swing season for Richt at Georgia. Much, including his very foothold on a job he has had since 2001, may depend upon improving on a 14-12 record over the past two seasons.

Some have seized on the argument that Richt has let his Christianity and his desire to apply it outside the locker room distract him from a single-minded pursuit of another SEC championship.

Earlier this year, former Georgia quarterback Fran Tarkenton, an NFL Hall of Famer, laid into Richt on several fronts in a radio interview. Not all his complaints were temporal.

“[Richt] is a wonderful guy,” Tarkenton told Atlanta’s 680 The Fan. “He is a good Christian guy. He wants to be a missionary. He goes on missions. That is a wonderful thing. But do you know the religion of [Alabama’s] Nick Saban? Or [Auburn assistant] Gus Malzahn? Or [Oregon’s] Chip Kelly? I don’t think we care what their religion [is]. We hire them to be football coaches. If we are hiring religious instructors, let’s go to the Candler School of Theology over here in Decatur and get some of their people to come and coach our football team.”

With so much riding on this season, would Richt burrow into his Athens office this summer, if only to give the appearance of a man fully giving himself over to this season?

Quite the contrary. He went to Honduras, for the third time in his life. He left the comforts of a Bulldogs athletic facility just renovated for $33 million and went to places where a small fraction of that money would save lives by the score. That kind of thing tends to broaden a man’s perspective beyond a 120-yard-by-53 1/3-yard field.

This trip was not about a football coach, nor about his wife, Richt constantly reminded the newspaperman and the Fox Sports South tandem that accompanied him. The story was out there, he said, among the poor of Honduras and the World Vision workers who are trying to give them a boost to simple self-sufficiency.

But, of course, it must inevitably get back to him. World Vision can use his notoriety as much as his money: “The coach is basically giving us his Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” said World Vision’s national director of philanthropy, Zack Aspegren.

And, while they decide whether or not to answer Richt’s call to sponsor a child through World Vision, Georgia fans can debate how this all may affect the SEC opener against South Carolina.

Richt rejects any notion that his heightened interest in serving a humanity outside the school’s athletic association mailing list conflicts with the demands of college football’s toughest conference. Success does not require its servants to wear blinders, he argues.

“Ask Tony Dungy if he was that way,” said Richt, beginning to list former big-time professional or college coaches who shared an active spiritual side. “Ask Bobby Bowden. Ask Tom Landry. Ask Tom Osborne. Those guys had success. We’ve had success, tremendous success. Lately, though, it hasn’t been much to write about.

“I think [the idea that winning requires complete tunnel vision] has been proven untrue and it’s still untrue.”

There is a long list of reasons to stay motivated in his profession, Richt points out. Your family, your players, your staff, the fans.

“Being on this trip has certainly added to that list of reasons why we want to succeed,” he added.

It’s a straight-line equation: More winning = longer job life = more money to donate to World Vision.

Higher calling

“The Hole in Our Gospel” is the story of Richard Stearns, a former CEO of the china maker, Lenox, who left that lofty corporate position to lead World Vision.

The bulk of the book is a challenge to the reader to recognize all the blessings he has and the higher calling to share them with the sick and starving world around him.

Some of it Stearns wrote as his personal account of a high-powered executive who came to realize that making fancy dishware and being a good country club Christian was not enough. Scripture demands more. That part spoke loudly to Richt.

Soon after finishing the book, Richt put a call in to the author. They spoke for a while, and shortly thereafter World Vision dispatched Aspegren, the man in charge of courting the charity’s largest donors, to visit the Richts in Athens.

Another transformational chapter in the story of the concerned Christian coach was being written.

When it came out in May that the Richts intended to sell their nearly $2 million second home on Lake Hartwell, bloggers kicked into high gear. Many surmised that Richt was selling in anticipation of losing his job. No, no, Richt was compelled to explain. He was simplifying his life, reordering his priorities in order to give back more.

He and Katharyn decided that sacrificing their cherished getaway place was necessary in order to put their beliefs into action.

The entire family will be affected by the decision to support World Vision. As the Richts went through U.S. Customs on their return from Honduras on Friday, they discussed a future sit-down with their four children to weigh the difference between wants and needs in order to budget more money for the poor.

The Richts are going to give a significant amount to World Vision — Aspegren’s visit and his presence on the Honduras trip signifies that. Asked if it could be as much as the final sale price of the lake home, Richt replied, “I’m not saying that.”

“[Selling] is to put us in a better position to be more generous,” said Richt, who is paid around $3 million per year.

“You got the upkeep; you got taxes, all those expenses that go along with the house. No matter what kind of income you have, if all your money is going toward paying off a mortgage and upkeep, that becomes more your focus.”

Before the full extent of Richt’s giving will be determined, before he will launch any effort to rally support from Georgia fans and his team, World Vision suggested the coach take a four-hour plane ride to witness its work.

The scope of the charity is vast. Last year, worldwide, it raised nearly $3 billion in contributions. “We’re the No. 1 distributor of food around the world — including McDonald’s,” Aspegren said.

Its primary mission is to establish a basic foundation — clean water, nutrition, health, education — from which the people in poor areas around the world can build decent lives. All in the name of doing Christ’s work. (For more information, go to worldvision.org).

Unlike his other visits to Honduras — once with his entire family on a work mission, once with a few Bulldogs players — this trip was not about picking up a hammer and helping to build a house. This was about learning ways to change the prospects of entire communities.

Emotion pours out

In his life as a major college coach, Richt is famously guarded with his words and his emotions. Nothing seems to shake him from a state of outward calm. His faith insulates him from the chaos of the game or the carping of his critics.

Those who find peace in the material world can have it taken away in the blink of an eye. Hadn’t the economic downturn proven that, Richt asked as he sat in the Tegucigalpa airport, ready to board for home.

“The peace I have is eternal. No matter what happens [on Earth], it is not the same as compared to eternal life,” he said.

Far away from football, Richt showed just a little more of himself.

At a carnival-like event in Gracias, where the children were being taught about the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases through games and contests, Richt smiled uncomfortably as he participated. Asked to name three methods of birth control, he fidgeted and stammered and finally just checked out from answering the question. After mentioning abstinence, he wanted no part of that one.

On a dirt soccer field near Yamaranguila, he couldn’t help himself as he watched kids play with a new soccer ball. He put himself in goal, challenged them to get a shot by him, and was a kid again for a few minutes.

In a quiet moment that same day, outside a school, with no interpreter near, he tousled the hair of an 11-year-old boy who had given a rousing talk and demonstration of World Vision’s impact on his town. “You are going to be a special young man, with God’s help,” he told young Selvin Garcia. Despite the language barrier, they still both noticeably brightened during the exchange.

It was in the village of San Antonio, a particularly deprived pocket in the western part of the country, where the Richts’ hearts were practically plucked from their chests.

A half-mile uphill hike from the schoolhouse where Cantarero offered his impassioned prayer, the Richts came upon the most stunning example of need they would find on this trip.

There, a little girl stuck her hand in a concrete basin filled with murky water, absentmindedly splashing it about. An American would scarcely allow his or her dog to drink from such a dirty pool. Delivered in a stream from somewhere higher on the hill, that was the community’s drinking water. Two women washed clothes in a second basin below that.

Overwhelmed for a moment, off to one side, out of view, Katharyn buried her head on her husband’s shoulder and wept.

Later she explained, “We are so abundantly blessed, and then to see children who have nothing, not even clean water, it’s wrenching.”

“We see a lot of that emotion from people who come here and see it firsthand,” Aspegren said.

There was an overwhelming supply of images to pack for the trip home.

On the final stop of their tour of World Vision projects, before the five-hour drive back to the Honduran capital Thursday, the Richts were taken to one last little church with one more gathering of people, these from the village of Portillo.

Speaking for them was Jose Quintanilla Miranda, who sought a reliable water source for the village so the crops may grow better and the children stay healthier. He told this stranger from America, “This is a beautiful place with still so many challenges. Do not forget about Honduras.”

That would now be impossible for Richt, regardless of how this or any football season tries to consume him.