“Basically my wife said, ‘God doesn’t give you the spirit of fear. This is not coming from the Lord, so don’t listen to it,’’’ Richt said. “Then my brother was like, ‘What are you crazy?’”
This happened on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2000, and, depending on whose memory is more accurate, Richt either had just turned down Georgia’s head coaching job or was on the verge of doing it.
“He said he appreciated (the offer), but he wasn’t coming,” said Vince Dooley, Georgia’s athletic director at the time. “I was thinking to myself, ‘Isn’t that a heck of a thing.’ He really wanted the job and now he’s turning it down.”
As Mark Richt remembers the night, and he admits his memory isn’t the best, he said only that he wasn’t sure and needed more time to think about his decision. Dooley, though, got off the phone thinking he had been flatly rejected and needed to find a new coach, he said.
“I told him, ‘If you want to sleep on it, you can call me back in the morning if you change your mind, but I have to go ahead and move on and continue my search,’” Dooley said.
It turned out Richt couldn’t wait until the morning. He called Dooley’s home phone at 2:30 a.m. the next day to say he would love to become the Bulldogs’ 24th head coach. It’s a decision that has worked out for both parties.
The No. 8 Bulldogs (10-2), who will play in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, are 52-12 and two-time SEC champions under Richt, who is on the verge of adding to his $1.5 million annual contract. And if not for a who-the-heck-is-calling-us-at-this-hour conversation, it might never have happened.
“(Richt) joked that he was afraid that if he waited until in the morning, I might have gone on and gotten somebody else,” Dooley said. “I said, ‘Are you sure of that?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m absolutely sure.’”
Richt had been sure all along, he said this week. After turning down the Pittsburgh job in 1996, he was so certain that he wanted to be Georgia’s coach that he had Grant Taeff, the executive director of American Football Coaches Association, and Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden call Dooley on his behalf. However, when the job offer came, “I really pretty much got cold feet,” he said.
The timing of the job offer was the main reason for the confusion, Richt said. He had met with Dooley and Georgia president Michael Adams the day before and hadn’t anticipated being contacted again before that Friday. He thought Georgia would be interviewing more candidates in the meantime, he said.
“It seemed quicker than I thought the timetable was,” he said. “That in itself caught me off guard a little bit. My wife and I knew we wanted the job, but when it came down to it, the reality of it just didn’t sink in. I got a little nervous about what I was leaving because I was very happy in Tallahassee, and I knew it was a huge responsibility. We had kind of thought it all through, but more than anything else I wasn’t quite ready for him to say, ‘You’ve got the job.’ So I just said, ‘Well, Coach, I’m not sure.’”
That set off hours of “soul-searching” in the Richt household, the coach said, and he sought the advice of his wife Katharyn and brother Craig.
“Craig kind of helped me see the light,” Richt said. “It was a wild night.”
The Richts didn’t go to bed that night until after he had made his final phone call to Dooley. Richt wasn’t concerned Dooley would find a new coach in the middle of the night but that he would decide Richt was flighty because he had campaigned so hard for the job and then backed off, Richt said.
“He’s probably like, ‘What is this guy nuts?’” Richt said. “I was thinking he might be thinking, ‘You know what? I’m going to get me somebody else.’ I said, ‘Honey, if I wait until in the morning, he might wake up and decide he doesn’t want me anymore.’ He did say call him first thing in the morning, and it was the morning.”
“I wasn’t exactly asleep,” Dooley said, “because my mind was going, ‘What am I going to do next?’”
Dooley speculated Richt may have been torn between the Georgia job and promises made to him at Florida State, but Richt said the Seminoles already had made their pitch and he still wanted to be at Georgia. A guaranteed succession of Bowden was never part of the package he was offered to stay, he said.
“No promises anyway,” Richt said.
Then-Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey and then-Green Bay Packers receivers coach Ray Sherman were the other finalists for the job, but Dooley had made no move to talk to anyone after his first conversation with Richt, he said. Neither Dooley nor Richt would speculate on what might have been if Richt’s feet had remained cold that night.
It’s clear, though, that the decision had far-reaching effects. Brian VanGorder wouldn’t have been hired as defensive coordinator, moved onto the NFL and then become Georgia Southern’s head coach for one thing. Dozens of other lives would have been affected as well.
“I’d still be coaching up north and freezing my you-know-what off,” said defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, who was hired from Central Michigan.
All-SEC quarterback D.J. Shockley and All-American offensive lineman Max Jean-Gilles said they never would have played at Georgia if Richt weren’t the team’s coach.
“I was leaning more to Coach Richt at Florida State,” Shockley said, “so I probably would have gone to Florida State if he had stayed there.”
Neither Dooley nor Richt mentioned the incident at the press conference announcing Richt’s hiring. Both men have only recently begun discussing it publicly. Dooley even asked Richt’s permission before including the anecdote in an updated version of Dooley’s Dawgs, a book he wrote along with Loran Smith.
“He said he didn’t mind,” Dooley said. “He said that’s an example of how sometimes you can make a mistake on a quick decision.”