Georgia's Mark Richt only interested in national title bids on terms that won't compromise his faith

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

ATHENS, Ga. – Mark Richt was an assistant coach under Bobby Bowden at Florida State in the 1980s and early 1990s, when season after season the Seminoles fell short of the national title. If it wasn't one thing, it was wide right.

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Mark Richt doesn't want his life to be defined by his coaching career. (AP)

Finally in the 1993 season, FSU broke through and was crowned champion. Soon after, Bowden held a staff meeting. Richt, now head coach at Georgia, remembers it well.

"Coach Bowden looked around the room, 'They said we could never win the big one. And now we won it. Now that we finally won it, do you feel any different now?' " Richt recalled on Monday. "He went around the room and everybody said, no not really. We all answered no.

"And Coach Bowden said, 'You know why you don't feel any different? Because that's not really winning the big one. Winning the big one is when you accept Christ as your Lord and savior.'"

There isn't any way to separate Mark Richt the football coach and Mark Richt the Christian. They are one in the same. Always.

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His faith is the driving influence in his life, even as he coaches in the SEC where football is often cited as its own religion. Even as his Bulldogs sit at No. 5 in the BCS standings, still with a real shot at playing for the national title. Even after 12 years in Athens – a period when four other SEC schools have won it all – there remains a question of when a program with such resources and recruiting advantages will lift the crystal football as well.

Richt's bleary, sleep-deprived eyes on this Monday morning in his office overlooking the UGa campus will tell you he remains a tireless worker in the pursuit. Yet there is a calm about the man also.

Georgia is 8-1 and should it win out against a favorable slate (at Auburn, Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech) and get a loss from two of the three teams ahead of it (Oregon, Kansas State, Notre Dame) it could play a showdown game against No. 1 Alabama for the SEC championship with a spot in the BCS title game on the line.

The Bulldogs may be the only one-loss team with a viable (if moderately long) route to the title. Yet Richt isn't focused on that, isn't obsessed with the results of others and won't talk at all about Alabama right now.

It's not just because he's been watching tape of Auburn, marveling at the raw talent which belies the Tigers' 2-7 record and is thus wary of an upset Saturday. It's because winning a national title isn't some over-the-top, define-his-life pursuit.

Everything with Richt runs through his faith. And through his faith comes perspective and patience.

"Do I want to win a national championship?" Richt said. "Sure I do. I want to win. Everybody who has ever won a national championship wanted to win the national championship. Everybody wants to win it.

"But it is about a process. Doing things right, fundamentally, schematically and football-wise. But hopefully [it's also about doing it] morally, within the rules of the game, educating young men, educating them academically, educating them about life, helping them understand right and wrong, how to be a good husband, how to be a good father, how to function in this society properly.

"I'm in the business of doing that. And you do that well for long enough maybe you have a chance to win a national championship.

"I want to win," he reiterated, "but it's all important to me."

Does that balance help him when Georgia has fallen short?

"Fallen short of what?" Richt asked. "If we're doing the best we can every day and we're doing it in a first-class manner so that when I go home at night I can lay my head on the pillow and God would be pleased with the decisions I made, how I treated players and the coaches, the media, my wife and kids, I'm OK with that."

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College football is a cut-throat, winner-take-all business. The BCS allows just two teams to play for the title, which means even perfection in some cases isn't enough. Richt coaches in a league with the most rabid fans and sharpest focus. Two schools are already looking for new coaches (Arkansas, Kentucky) and it's likely two more (Auburn, Tennessee) will be soon.

At Auburn Gene Chizik won the national title just two seasons ago. Now he's about to be canned.

You can certainly have the same priorities and world view of Richt without a commitment to his, or any, faith. And you can certainly run a program as well, if not better, by taking a more secular path of operation. This isn't to endorse or not endorse any style.

What's clear is this is his style – The Passion of Mark Richt. Considering his run in Athens through great seasons – two SEC titles, four divisional crowns – and bad – 8-5 and 6-7 campaigns in the 2009 and '10 seasons – it's a style that's allowed him to thrive.

He speaks of an overarching mentality that has allowed him to stay the course no matter the setback. When the Bulldogs started 0-2 a year ago, they kept plugging and wound up in Atlanta before losing to LSU. When they were blown out 35-7 by South Carolina last month, they again never wavered.

"There wasn't any panic," Richt said.

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Richt's Bulldogs haven't wavered during tough losses. (AP)

Georgia had a bye week and by the time they kicked off against Kentucky, South Carolina had lost twice.

"We were already in control of our own destiny," Richt said.

They went on to beat Florida and now it's about seizing an opportunity, getting back to the SEC title game and this time beating the super power from the West.

"Getting to Atlanta is a big deal," Richt said. "Once you get there and you don't have the success you don't have I think it will make you just a little bit more hungry to get back and play better than you did before."

That hunger won't ever upset his principles. If there is one negative that Georgia is known for, it is player suspensions and high-profile disciplinary cases. Richt says it is a sign of priorities in place, not out of sorts.

"If you're making your decisions for the short term … then it might work in the short term, for that game or a season, but in the long run you're going to have problems," Richt said. "They are going to quit on you. They are going to think you are a fraud. If you are as fair as you can possibly be and you try to stay as consistent as you can be, at least everybody knows what to expect and they can trust you. They may not like everything you do, but they can trust you.

"But what happens in the short term is people might say, 'Well, they've got a bunch of these guys, a bunch of bad guys.' And some of our dirty laundry is going to become public because I'm going to take playing time away from a guy because I think that is a more severe punishment than running up and down the stadium steps a few times.

"So some people might say, ‘He's losing control of the program because all these guys are suspended.' And I'm saying, 'No, it's 100 percent the opposite.' We maintain control of the program by disciplining our players.

"Our drug testing policy is tougher than anybody in the league and most people in the country. Well, we don't want our guys to smoke pot. So I might have a guy suspended for something that someone else might have had to have it happen four times to lose any playing time. It's the first time here.

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Track Facts

Syracuse vs. Cincinnati

One of the key plays in Cincinnati's 35-24 win over Syracuse was pulled off by tailback George Winn, who accounted for four touchdowns – three on runs and another on a wild play.

The Bearcats were down 10-7 at the end of the first quarter and staring at a fourth-and-2 from the Orange 37-yard line. Winn took a handoff from quarterback Munchie Legaux and abruptly stopped behind the line, jumped in the air and delivered a left-handed toss to tight end Travis Kelce, who was wide open about eight yards down the field.

To say Syracuse's defense bit on the running play would be an understatement. All 11 Orange defenders crashed the line of scrimmage, and Kelce could have backpedaled the final 29 yards untouched to the end zone.

– Phil Watson

"I could say, well, I don't want to be criticized anymore so I'm not going to suspend my players anymore. But I want to try to do what I think is right and what's in the best interest of the players."

Other than that criticism, which Richt says he finds more curious than bothersome, he lives a charmed life. Georgia has been accepting of his philosophy, encouraging of the disciplinary measures. The majority of the fan base remains supportive. The 52-year-old, his wife, Katharyn, and their four children, including two adopted from the Ukraine, are at home in Athens. His father, mother and siblings have all moved to the area. He's rebuffed offers by other schools to take a fresh start elsewhere.

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It's been seven years since an SEC title. There's never been a BCS title, let alone a spot in the title game. The list of legendary victories isn't particularly long.

Yet he's happy, 114-39 overall and right there this year still with a chance at everything.

Mostly though, the perspective hasn't changed. He's won what Bobby Bowden called the big one and if college football's version is ever to come, it'll be on Mark Richt's terms, via Mark Richt's faith. He just won't obsess over what's not worth obsessing over.

"You've got to be careful," Richt said. "You can't become what you do. What I do is not who I am. If I become what I do and I become just a football coach, then you're asking for disaster.

"My identity is in Christ. I am a born-again believer in Jesus Christ. I know that he died for my sin and I am going to heaven when this is all said and done, forever. That gives me peace, no matter what happens here.

"So what am I willing to do? Do my work heartily, unto the Lord. There is no higher accountability in life than to do something for God. So that's kind of how I operate."

Even here, potentially chasing down a title, nothing has changed.

"Maybe that's the peace of God," he smiled.

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