Courtesy of the Montgomery Advertiser
Mark Richt found himself at a professional crossroads last fall.
His Georgia team took a 21-point thrashing at Tennessee in early October, which eliminated all hype from what many believed would be a charmed season for the Bulldogs. His team trailed Vanderbilt at halftime a week later.
The 47-year-old coach looked inward for answers.
“As I looked around, I was seeing that everybody was kind of waiting on someone else to do something — coaches and players,” Richt said. “I was kind of mad at them until I looked in the mirror and realized they were just basically reflecting me. I knew it had to start with me.”
So the most serene coach in the Southeastern Conference became a firecracker in a matter of minutes. His team rallied to beat the Commodores that day. Fueled by Richt’s transformation into an emotional catalyst, Georgia beat No. 11 Florida two weeks later and emerged as a dominant team during the season’s second half.
Things ended with a 41-10 win against No. 10 Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.
You know what that means.
Armed with a slew of returning players — most notably quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno — Georgia has become a darling on the national scene. Several credible magazines have picked Richt’s team to win its first championship since 1980 a few months from now, which has changed the players’ lives.
“We can’t avoid it,” wideout Mohamed Massaquoi said. “Anywhere you go in Athens, anywhere you go in Georgia, that’s what people are talking about.”
It all started with Richt.
The transition wasn’t easy. Richt worked as Florida State’s offensive coordinator 10 seasons beginning in 1990 and found that decisions came more easily while relaxed. So he eschewed emotion along the sidelines.
That placid nature continued after Richt accepted the Georgia job in 2001. He handled play-calling duties until 2007, when he finally conceded control to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
Richt said the decision changed everything.
“It was probably mid-season before I realized I don’t have to continue to stay in that type of calm mode,” he said. “I’m a little bit more free to kind of turn it loose. That’s what you want your team to do — to turn it loose.”
Emotions hit a crescendo during the Florida game. A short touchdown run from Moreno on Georgia’s opening drive touched off a team-wide celebration on the field.
It was the definition of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Richt was behind it all.
He had instructed his team to celebrate together following their first score. Solidarity was in short supply, Richt believed, and a show of unity was exactly what the team needed.
Not everyone found the display an encouraging sign. Many analysts said the move was classless and motivated by a thirst for attention.
Still, Richt doesn’t fully regret the decision.
“When I saw the exuberance, when I saw the energy, when I saw the passion and the fire get unleashed that had been dormant in this football team, I got excited,” he said. “In hindsight, I shouldn’t have done it. I asked the team to do an unsportsmanlike act. It could have easily turned into a big stupid brawl and everything else.”
The players don’t mind.
Massaquoi and teammate Jeff Owens said Richt’s willingness to show fire on the sideline has created a phenomenon inside the locker room.
“He did quite well with the adjustment,” said Owens, a senior defensive tackle. “He’s changed completely since I was a freshman. He’s found his swagger. He’s more encouraging and has a come-get-you (attitude) now.”