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Richt's road to redemption comes to a head in Atlanta


ATLANTA -- Mark Richt would not be blamed for calmly walking to the 50 before Saturday's SEC Championship Game, facing Georgia fans and lobbing them the double bird.

Middle fingers up.

"No, no. I mean, I'm thankful," Georgia's coach said Friday when presented with a similar visual. "I've always tried to have a thankful attitude anyway, but this year in particular I'm very thankful for what has happened."

Or what has not happened. For starters, he is employed. With presidents and ADs in a mad rush nationally to clean house lately, Richt long ago took himself off the endangered Bulldog list with an SEC East title.

That would be the other team in the league's other division in what figures to be an LSU coronation Saturday night. A Tigers win makes it nice and tidy -- an LSU-Alabama rematch. A Georgia victory makes it possible for three SEC teams to go BCS bowling -- two of them playing for a national championship without winning the SEC.

Either way, the Bulldogs won't be the story. Remember them well because they might be the most overlooked 10-2 squad in the grand and glorious history of this game. They have a top-12 ranking, third-longest winning streak nationally.

If you predicted that on Sept. 10 when the Bulldogs dropped to 0-2, you were either UGA or nuts. Enduring typical SEC histrionics for hot-seat coaches, Richt and Georgia have emerged out the other end with program's longest in-season winning streak (10) in almost 30 years. In a league short on quarterbacks, they actually have one capable of throwing a scare into No. 1 LSU (Aaron Murray). Offensive and defensive lines that were pushed around early, sometimes embarrassingly so, have come around.

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There have been drug suspensions, injuries and always, always speculation. Georgia president Michael Adams summed it up when he emerged from a Thursday cabinet meeting and was asked about Richt's contract status.

"If we win Saturday, he'll be back,” Adams said, "and if we lose we're going to fire him."

He was kidding.

"I would be surprised," Adams then added, "if Mark Richt weren't the coach here next year."

This time he was serious. For the moment. With 2½ years left on his current deal, the expectation is that Richt will get a contract extension next week. Just don't ask what that means in Athens' World of Fickle. Adams and all of Georgia sometimes have problems remembering that Richt has delivered three SEC East titles and two conference titles. In seven of his 11 seasons, he has won at least 10 games.

"I do understand criticism, but how much better are you going to get than Mark Richt? That's a great coach," Les Miles said. "You better find that coach an opportunity to stay rather than to find that coach an opportunity to leave, because you just might hire yourself a guy that's not as good as the one you showed the door." It's a strange world in the SEC. There are better stories in the conference but few of them are here. Steve Spurrier just finished one of his best coaching jobs. Arkansas was a factor. Alabama, of all teams, is counting on the Dawgs just to make sure it's in the national championship game.

Texas A&M just fired a .500 coach (Mike Sherman) anticipating a tougher road when it gets to the league next season. Richt had to post the program's best conference record (7-1) in 10 years to shoo the buzzards off the driveway.

Someone had to win the decidedly inferior East. That would be the division without teams ranked 1-2-3 last week. Richt is thanking God (a lot) it was him. Asked for a reaction Friday to still being the Dawgs' coach, he cited three Bible passages for media at Friday's pregame press conferences.

We'll take his word on the uplifting messages contained therein. None of them, we'll assume, referred to those Georgia fans spoiled by a .750 winning percentage. But there has to be a part of the 51-year-old frequent coaching lightning rod in these parts that aches to lash out at his detractors.

Bobby Bowden essentially kicked his former offensive coordinator out of the nest following the 2000 national championship at Florida State. It was time. He was ready. In his first five seasons in Athens, Richt won two SEC titles.

Following his first losing season in 2010, 6-7, the hottest seat was all Richt's going into this season. He didn't have to be told where he stood after an 0-2 start to 2011. The message boards and radio shows were doing it for him.

"I didn't pay a lot of attention to it, quite frankly," Richt said. "But I knew it was out there."

Being a devout Christian has always left an opening for Richt's critics. He's quiet and calm. There is seldom the fire that appeals to fans and fits some sort of American stereotype. There has always been this general perception that religious equates to soft. It's not quite the Tim Tebow national discussion -- the man bowls over linebackers -- but it's close.

But as inconsistent as the 2010 team was, this one somehow showed some guts.

"After every game you address your team," Richt said. "After a loss you've got to think of something that will hopefully keep the spirits of your team and keep your team together. Sometimes you, quite frankly, you've got to make something up.

"But after South Carolina [made it 0-2], I was encouraged, because I saw a team that fought so valiantly."

In the opener Richt said he didn't account properly for the noise made by the Boise State crowd at the Georgia Dome. There was a celebration at 4-2 after Richt's 100th win at Tennessee. Three weeks later the Dawgs came back from 14 down to beat Florida, always a big deal. Three tailbacks, including freshman Isaiah Crowell, were suspended for reported failed drug tests for the New Mexico State game. Auburn, ranked at the time, was beaten by 38.

Suddenly, only lowly Kentucky stood between Georgia and the division title.

"I've enjoyed [this season] maybe as much as any season that I've coached," Richt said.

Now he finds himself answering the same, old question in a different, but positive, way: How long do you think you'll be at Georgia?

"What Coach Bowden used to say is, 'as long as I'm healthy', as long as Georgia wants me," Richt said. "That's kind of how I feel today."

But be sure to check back tomorrow. This is still Georgia.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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