Kirby Smart, Mark Richt proving fresh starts can be best for all

Georgia head coach Mark Richt celebrates with Michael Johnson (25) after he was doused with water as the Bulldogs beat Arkansas 30-3 in the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Saturday, Dec. 7, 2002. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Georgia head coach Mark Richt celebrates with Michael Johnson (25) after he was doused with water as the Bulldogs beat Arkansas 30-3 in the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Saturday, Dec. 7, 2002. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)



This season is the story of how a 31-minute news conference vaulted two high-profile college football programs mired in mediocrity to basking in superiority. And they’re just getting started.

An emotional Mark Richt and UGA athletic director Greg McGarity sat at a podium Nov. 30, 2015, explaining Richt’s resignation as Bulldogs coach.

After 15 years, Richt and Georgia simply needed to part ways. While the atmosphere was a bit chilly and uncomfortable, there were no harsh words, just appreciation and respect. Richt was offered an opportunity to stay in Athens, which while appealing, was one of several options he weighed and decided against.

Almost two years later, Richt and the Bulldogs are still bonded. In a bit of a twist, they’re also linked in the rankings.

Richt and his Miami Hurricanes moved to 5-0 and are ranked No. 8 after Richt collected his near-annual win over Georgia Tech on Saturday. Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs are 7-0 for the first time since Richt’s team reached that mark in 2005. They are ranked No. 3.

It’s fair to say that somber moment in November propelled UGA and Richt to better futures. He and Smart would agree on that.

“I think Mark has done a tremendous job,” Smart said. “I actually got to see some of the Miami-Georgia Tech game because we watched Tech some this week. … They’ve beaten Tech two years in a row now, so I think coach Richt has a rejuvenated energy, and he’s done a good job down there. They’re playing really hard and recruiting well (No. 3 nationally). He’s always done a tremendous job.”

In a sit-down with Saturday Down South a couple of weeks ago, Richt mirrored the admiration toward Smart.

“I’m happy for Georgia,” he said. “I’m happy for all the kids I recruited and I’m happy for all the guys I didn’t recruit. Georgia is a great place. It has a special place in the hearts of myself and my wife, and I’m all for them having a lot of success.

The expected response. Richt tweeted good luck to UGA before the season, and Smart thanked a fellow “damn good dog.” Even as Richt watches the Bulldogs win with players he recruited, the program he built, he has no jealousy or resentment. The nature that made him so beloved at Georgia hasn’t withered.

“When you see the scores and the point differential and what looks like really lights out defensive play, that’s what champions are built of,” Richt said of his former team.

Not building a champion is ultimately why Georgia moved on after the 2015 season. The era saw the Bulldogs win 74 percent of their games – but Richt’s tenure was defined (and ended) by the other 26 percent.

While popular, even the best coaches can grow stale after 15 years. That’s the reality of sports. Richt needed a fresh start and he found one in a familiar place. To him, it might’ve been the only other place.

The success that Bulldogs fans considered “not good enough” would be plenty for a floundering Hurricane base. Miami’s inability to find stability made bringing Richt home the perfect fit.

As Richt said, his alma mater was the one job he couldn’t decline. It’s a sellable narrative: A former Canes quarterback returning to Coral Gables to save what once was one of college football’s most proud, revered programs.

A season and a half later, the narrative is unfolding quicker than even Miami optimists could’ve hoped. The ‘cardiac Canes,’ as they’re called, have back-to-back final-minute wins, including one that ceased a seven-game skid to arch-rival Florida State. Those were the games that costed Richt at UGA. Similar to how the Gators tormented his Bulldogs, the Seminoles appeared to have a mental advantage over the Hurricanes. But he overcame that in just his second try.

Despite Hurricane Irma muddying the early season, the Hurricanes are one of eight undefeated teams remaining. Their 10-game winning streak is the second-longest in the country, and the team’s best since 2003-04, the end of its glory days.

Meanwhile in Athens, things aren’t so bad either. In a decision McGarity admitted will define his legacy, UGA made a move for an alum of its own in Smart. After a criticism-ridden 8-5 debut season, Smart has the Bulldogs on a collision course with perennial powerhouse Alabama in the SEC Championship game.

Georgia has won six of its seven games by at least three scores. Smart, a former Alabama defensive coordinator, appears to be building a similar beast between the hedges. While Richt’s time produced fond memories, it never demonstrated the weekly opponent demolition occurring this fall.

Some bowl projections suggest the revived programs could clash on New Year’s Day. If the current pace continues, it could unfold in the four-team college football playoff. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, as both fan bases would aptly remind you.

“He’s a great coach, and I respect everything he’s done for me,” UGA linebacker Davin Bellamy said of Richt, who brought him to Athens. “He knows how to get guys going and he teaches discipline and technique. It’s the same thing that they’ve been teaching here, and he brought it to Miami. He has those guys playing great football and I can’t say anything bad about him.”

Bellamy isn’t alone in praising his former coach. Bulldogs players are aware of the magic in Miami, and for many who represent the red and black inside and outside the program, the Hurricanes support base has extended into Georgia.

“I’m definitely proud of him, and I see that’s a good team going on right now,” senior tight end Jackson Harris said. “I’m not surprised at all. I’m excited for him and hope he has continued success.”

UGA receiver Javon Wims almost swayed from his commitment after Richt’s exit. A Miami native, Wims stayed with UGA after speaking with Smart.

“I don’t check the rankings or anything, so I didn’t know they were undefeated,” Wims said. “Absolutely, I’m glad that he’s having success down there.”

The dynamic between the two schools and their coaches is rare in sports, especially football. In such a competitive, adrenaline-pumping, violent atmosphere, such support and rapport is refreshing.

Of course, it’s much easier to be friendly and excited when you’re not direct competition. If both teams continue winning, we could see one of the best storylines college football has written in quite a while. Both schools would eagerly embrace that reunion.

But they’ll have to get there first.

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