Georgia's Mark Richt becomes the SEC 'professor' after 13 years

HOOVER, Ala. -- Mark Richt waits to enter a network interview room in the bowels of the Wynfrey Hotel. Les Miles emerges from an interview table.

“Hey there!” Richt says loudly.

“Professor Richt!” Miles says.

The Hatter and the Professor exchange pleasantries. Richt asks how former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger, now Miles’ starter, is doing. Miles said he’s doing great, then tells Richt how imposing Georgia defensive end Garrison Smith looks at this week's SEC Media Days.

“Isn’t it nice to coach good people?” Miles asks. Richt nods.

Richt was in his most professorial state Thursday, relaxing against a wall, ready to dispense his faith-based wisdom, seemingly allergic to stress.

He's earned his dean status. He's watched five SEC coaches win national titles while his hands remain empty. A barrage of player arrests and a 6-7 season three years ago created serious job security concerns. His almost-there tenure at Georgia -- now going on 13 years -- was encapsulated by the Bulldogs not spiking the ball from the red zone in the final seconds of the SEC championship game loss to Alabama.

But with 22 wins since 2011 and a near-shakedown of the Tide on the biggest stage, Richt’s resume quietly grows in Georgia folklore. Georgia has 17 double-digit-win seasons since 1960. Richt has eight of them.

The media picked Georgia to finish first in the SEC East despite losing eight starters on defense.

While Nick Saban slithers through large crowds of Alabama fans occupying the Wynfrey lobby, Richt still moves in relative silence. His podium session with the national media wasn’t tweet-worthy. His moments between radio or network interviews were pretty quiet.

But for a few minutes in a dim hotel hallway, Richt briefly ponders his legacy on the SEC and Georgia.

“I’d like to have a national championship and a couple more SEC titles,” said Richt, who has two conference and six division titles. “But it’s about how many lives I affect in a positive way. It’s always been about that.”

Such soul-cleansing talk isn’t always believable with big-money coaches, but Richt’s been vocal about his faith for much of his coaching career.

It’s what helped him through the dry Georgia years, and it helped him when Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley tipped Aaron Murray’s attempt to throw out of bounds and stop the clock. You know the rest. Chris Conley caught the tipped pass, time expired and the Alabama sideline contingent swarmed the field that could have been Georgia’s.

Perhaps Richt could have paraded through SEC Media Days as a national title winner. Notre Dame wasn’t ready for Alabama in the BCS title game, and probably not Georgia, either.

Richt said he never let the outcome from Atlanta consume him.

“When something’s over, you watch it, grade it,” Richt said. “It may not be easy all the time. But looking back on it, I was most proud of the effort. We belonged there.”

Richt has tenure in a conference that often makes tenure difficult to keep. Steve Spurrier and Les Miles and Nick Saban have done it, but the four SEC coaches fired last year combined to average 2.75 years on the job (including Arkansas interim coach John L. Smith).

When asked whether he’s ever compromised his values in what can be a ruthless league, especially in recruiting, Richt cited Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”

“When your heart changes, everything changes,” Richt said. “I make decisions that are in the best interests of the University of Georgia. But you can only really do what we can do.”

Richt might always be chasing Saban or Miles or whichever coach wins the next national title. But Richt also has arguably his best offense to date. Murray might be one of the best third-team All-SEC preseason quarterbacks of all time and could break several league passing records as a senior.

Murray made clear on Thursday: I bypassed the NFL to win a national title at Georgia. Five offensive line starters return, as do prolific tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.

In his own calm, stress-free way, Richt seems prepared for an SEC fight -- possibly with Saban.

“I think everybody’s beatable,” Richt said.

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