Then came the sneeze.
It was late August, a few days before the start of this season. Richt, the Georgia head football coach, sat down in front of the media, ready to lay into tailback Washaun Ealey, who had been arrested on a traffic charge.
“I know you all wanna talk about Washaun, so let’s get to it,” Richt said, sitting stiff, doing his best to look stern. “I’m not happy with it. It’s foolish. … Bless you … He knew better.”
Yes, with the camera rolling, and with Richt trying to show he meant business, a media member had sneezed, and Richt stopped to acknowledge it.
As this season has worn on, the stress has only increased, with more arrests, and the worst win-loss record in Richt’s 10 years at Georgia. At one point, he admitted it was the toughest time in his tenure in Athens.
Richt did make some small changes, and a few more may be coming after Saturday’s regular season finale against Georgia Tech.
But for the most part he has remained his even-keel self. He can’t help but be the person who will pause in the middle of a tough statement to acknowledge a sneeze.
“I’ve just known him for a little over two months now, but he is such a consistent person, in what I’ve been able to tell,” said Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity, who was hired in August. “There’s some situations where he really could become agitated, but he manages to deal with it in a totally professional manner. I think that’s the one thing you can always depend on with Mark: He’s always gonna take the high road, he’s going to do things the right way, he’s not gonna take shortcuts. And he’s always gonna represent the institution the right way.”
There was plenty of speculation this season about Richt’s future, but McGarity has publicly said Richt will return in 2011, barring anything unforeseen.
McGarity said he never privately had that conversation with Richt. He didn’t want Richt to have to turn his attention away from the coming game.
Richt’s contract runs through 2013. McGarity said he hasn’t discussed an extension yet, and pointed to his days as an administrator at Florida, where Urban Meyer and Billy Donovan had more of a “level of trust” with their bosses. McGarity also shrugged off the idea of a coach needing four years on his contract for recruiting purposes.
“Those are things that we’ll all talk about in the offseason,” he said.
When McGarity was asked when he became convinced Richt should return, he knows his answer is an odd one: Two days after the loss at woeful Colorado, when the Bulldogs fell to 1-4 and the swirl around Richt’s future reached its peak.
The coach and athletics director met that morning, and Richt admitted that mistakes had been made and that changes would have to be made. The one that could be acted on immediately was the physical play of the team: Richt had scaled back preseason two-a-days, but now he was going to hold a full-pads practice on a Monday.
“Right then I felt good,” McGarity said. “I had a really good feeling that someone would have the ability or the leadership traits, the leadership characteristics, that would say I’ve got to change, I’ve got to do things differently, because this is not working.”
On his radio show Monday, Richt admitted the struggles on the field have made it tough, but put it in context. He pointed to the tragic death of Nick Bell at Mississippi State, and the everyday struggles of normal people.
“I definitely don’t want to minimize how important it is to win football games at Georgia,” he said. “We certainly did not enjoy going through some of the things we went through. But the adversity made us stronger. And I think just the memories of what we went through will make us stronger for the future.”
Richt, who turned 50 earlier this year, has shown a bit of change in subtle ways.
This season he has declined to comment on seemingly simple matters, such as the minor injury to quarterback Aaron Murray. Richt has also started to put limits – minor ones, but still limits – on access to players and assistants.
He still generally remains as affable and unassuming as a millionaire SEC head coach can be. For instance in August, when McGarity was announced as A.D., Richt stood in line with other athletics department personnel, waiting to meet his new boss. When told he should try to move up, Richt replied, “But I don’t want to lose my place!”
Sure enough, he waited the next 10 minutes or so before shaking McGarity’s hand for the first time.
Richt also remains candid, sometimes to his own detriment. A few weeks ago he recalled that Georgia projected in-state product Cameron Newton as more of a tight end. With Newton leading the Heisman race as a quarterback, how many other coaches would have admitted that?
Senior fullback Shaun Chapas, who has played for Richt for five years, said Richt remains as calm and “steadfast” as he’s always been.
“He gets angry now. But I don’t know the angriest I’ve seen him,” Chapas said. “I don’t recall off the top of my head. … He can get (his voice) up there, don’t let him fool you. He can yell. Yeah, if he sees something he doesn’t like, or off-the-field stuff gets him fired up too.”
But for the most part, Chapas said, nothing has really fazed the coach.
“We’ve just followed him,” Chapas said. “We did not have the success that we wanted, but it could have been a lot worse.”
Richt is now 95-33 at Georgia. The first five years saw two SEC championships and three East Division titles. The last five years have seen a dip, and Georgia will have to win Saturday to assure itself of not missing a bowl for the first time in 14 years.
The off-field problems only added to it: Eleven players arrested this year, in addition to the four-game suspension of star receiver A.J. Green for selling a game jersey.
But behind the scenes, Richt retains an enormous amount of goodwill at the school and athletics department. Even opponents feel warmly about Richt, according to McGarity, citing conversations before and after games.
“People want him to win as much as they want the team to win,” McGarity said of his head football coach. “I think when you can say that about the coach, I think that speaks volumes.”