Mark Richt returns and looks right at home again

There was Mark Richt again, walking off the field at Georgia Tech with a win. So clearly some things never change. With apologies to the late Mr. Grant and his heirs, they really need to rename this place Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Mark Richt Field because Richt is now 14-0 against the Jackets in Atlanta, 9-0 as a head coach, and 23-2 overall.

This time instead of running past Uga’s doghouse, Richt ran to Miami’s student section, holding up “The U” sign with two hands. This time he’s at a school that would bow at his feet if he wins nine games this year. This time the win didn’t come against the backdrop of a possible firing. But wins always feel the same to Richt.

“I’m always excited. I’m always happy,” he said.

Even the win amid the firing rumors last year?

“Just keeping going until they tell you to stop,” Richt said. “Just keep driving, man.”

He broke into uncontrollable laughable. He almost couldn’t get the last few words out. Because, of course, Georgia told him to stop and get out of the car. It fired Richt last November, the day after the Dogs won at Tech 13-7.

What followed was the most awkward of news conferences, with athletic director Greg McGarity simultaneously tried to both terminate Richt but put his arms around him in a celebration. Many believed Richt would retire, or at least take a year off. But to the surprise of many, and chagrin of some close to him, he allowed himself to be romanced by Miami, his alma mater, and accepted the job.

His first ACC game came Saturday against Georgia Tech. Home again. Miami won 35-21. So there’s the early punctuation on his return.

Richt took on a massive project in Miami. The Hurricanes have finished in the rankings only once in the past 11 years and haven’t won a conference title since 2003. But now Miami is off to a 4-0 start going into next week’s game against Florida State, and that’s the only currently ranked opponent left the team’s schedule.

Imagine the reaction in Athens if Richt win a conference title or finishes with a better record than Georgia.

Richt tried to downplay his return to the Atlanta area. When asked if at any time during the week or Saturday he flashed back to his final game as Georgia’s coach, he said, “My first impression to be honest with you was how good the grass looked. And what a beautiful day it was.”

He wasn’t biting.

But it’s clear this job, while at times overwhelming, has re-energized him. He has taken on more responsibilities than he had at Georgia, in game planning, working with quarterbacks and calling plays.

“It can wear you out. But it’s a good tired for me right now,” he said.

Has he regretted this undertaking at any point?

“Funny you ask that,” he said. “When I went to Georgia, it was my first time being a head coach, with all the responsibility and the weight of that job. Not ever knowing what that felt like, there were many times I had my face in the carpet, praying and crying. The second time around, you kind of know what you’re in for. (Wife) Katharyn and I knew what we were getting into.”

Truth is, Miami didn’t look overwhelming. Two of its touchdowns were gifted in the second quarter by Justin Thomas fumbles and returns.

“Without that, we’re probably still playing — there’s a possibility we’re in overtime right now,” Richt said.

But Miami is getting better, and not nearly the undisciplined hotheads of so many Hurricane teams of the past. They led the nation in penalties and penalty yardage last season but were flagged only four times Saturday. He’s also feeding off his players’ youth.

“In Pat Riley’s book, ‘The Winner Within,’ it talks about the innocent rise,” Richt said. “You’ve got energy. Everything’s new. You build a little momentum as you go. That’s kind of where we’re at right now. It can come to a crashing halt any week.”

Refreshing some of the team’s talkative freshmen, he said, “They’ll get punched really good one time and then we’ll see how they react.”

How Tech responds to this will be interesting. They were better than in last week’s humiliation against Clemson but they’ve now dropped consecutive conference games and can’t afford another ACC defeat going into next week’s game at Pittsburgh.

The Jackets’ offense functioned better than in the Clemson game, when it totaled only 124 yards. But the Jackets had a different kind of meltdown: Thomas fumbled twice within 46 seconds of each other in the second quarter and both were returned for touchdowns, as Miami opened a 28-7 lead. Combined with a 90-yard drive, they scored three touchdowns in a span of 1:38.

To Tech’s credit, players didn’t quit after that, driving to two scores to narrow the lead to 28-21 in the third. But the playcaller Richt responded with a four-play, 75-yard score. That pretty much was it.

When the game was over, Richt chatted with former Georgia running back J.J. Green, who had transferred to Tech, then talked about maintaining relationships with his former players.

“My area code is still 706,” he said. “It’s not because I don’t want 305. It’s because I still want the other players to be able to find me.”

He’s making that connection again.

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