Mark Richt is having fun again, and Miami's rebirth is his vindication
A back-to-basics approach has Richt relaxed and the Canes in the national title hunt
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Deep inside a renovated Hard Rock Stadium on Saturday night, Mark Richt revealed a hard truth.
The former Georgia coach who has won more frequently than anyone in the program's modern era said he came to Miami "to enjoy coaching again, to have fun again."
Richt's point was subtle but clear after a dismantling of Notre Dame. For years at Georgia, he wasn't having fun. A man who delivered two SEC titles, nine bowl wins, seven top-10 finishes and five division titles in 15 years never seemed to do enough to satisfy demanding Georgia fans.
With No. 2 Miami set to make its first top-four appearance Tuesday in the College Football Playoff Rankings, there's a plate of irony to be served in Athens, Georgia, this week -- along with a side of vindication.
After being told for parts of those 15 years at Georgia he couldn't win the big one, Richt just won the biggest one at Miami in 15 years.
"We all know the most fun in coaching is winning," Richt said, "so I wanted to come to a place where I knew we had a chance to win. Miami is one of those places, and it happened to be my school."
Mark Richt's career at Georgia
13-1, SEC title
11-3, SEC East title
10-4, SEC East title
12-2, SEC East title
10-3, SEC title
|2007||11-2, SEC East title||2015||9-3|
The rebirths of the program and the coach have coincided. Richt is more relaxed as reflected by his South Beach-friendly goatee. Miami's rejuvenated 57-year-old coach looks more like the guy who cleans your pool than the coach who is leading a wandering program out of the wilderness.
And we mean that in the most cool South Florida way possible.
"It's because of the head coach," said defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, "because of the way Mark Richt runs everything in his program. The way that we picked the staff. There's great alignment, great chemistry."
As the Notre Dame rout became apparent, you couldn't tell the Miami players from coaches Saturday night except for the headphones dangling from their necks. Both sides were dancing, jiving, slapping hands and reveling in a magic that had been lost for a decade and a half.
It was Diaz himself who invented the now-famous Turnover Chain as a way to motivate his defense. The Miami native now oversees a unit wearing the most bling associated with this program since the Canes were getting it in -- ahem -- extra benefits.
There have been four turnovers created by Miami in each of the last four games -- 16 total. That's more than 73 teams have caused all season. The Canes' grand total of 24 is tied for second nationally.
"It is so hard, you don't see it behind the scenes," said Diaz, in his sixth's DC job since 2006. "When you watch a team and it seems they're playing really well, there's got to be staff chemistry. The players sense it. The players love structure. Of all the great things that Mark has brought here, that's the greatest."
Larry Coker (after he ran out of Butch Davis' players), Randy Shannon and Al Golden tried to restore Miami. Richt flicked on the light switch almost immediately. That is, 22 games into his second life as a Hurricane.
But why so soon? Richt is in a large group of coaches turning their programs around in their second season -- Kirby Smart, Scott Frost, Matt Campbell.
Jim Kelly's backup while playing at The U from 1978-82 looks fit and fitting for the job. Remember, it took Richt only three days after being fired at Georgia to decide he wanted to coach again.
"The interview we had, we probably talked about five hours," athletic director Blake James said. "There was a turning point in the interview where Mark was all in. That's when it became 100 percent clear to me that he was going to our next head coach."
Richt doesn't recall a turning point in the interview, just that in the end it all seemed so natural. Many of his former Florida State and Georgia players "hit me up" in the 24 hours after the firing.
"My wife and I said, 'Well, maybe we're not done with this coaching thing,'" Richt said.
The surroundings were familiar, although Richt doesn't remember the Miami campus' lavish landscaping when he was in school.
Jon, his 26-year-old son, is now the quarterbacks coach. That allows Richt and his wife Katharyn to be closer to their two-year-old granddaughter Jadyn, who is battling Crohn's Disease.
We haven't mentioned yet the talent in South Florida, a pool first activated by Howard Schnellenberger. About 45 percent of the roster has been recruited by Richt.
There is also a cosmic karma reminder just 23 months removed from his firing: Richt's Canes are ranked ahead of Richt's former Dawgs in any poll you want to peruse this week.
But why is this happening in the second season when so many others failed? James suggested it's been a combination of factors. The team was driven away from campus for nine days by Hurricane Irma. It hunkered down in Orlando.
"Some of our guys, quite frankly, didn't have a whole lot to eat for a day or two," Richt told me in September. "… We have to get used to tackling again, blocking again."
The Canes returned to play three weeks later against Toledo, "where we really were not in any shape to play a football game," Diaz said.
"This team had this bond of forced togetherness," he added. "Then the crazy days in October."
That would be four wins by eight points or less. That was the signature piece of this undefeated season until back-to-back dominating wins over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.
"I'm learning to celebrate even the smallest things even more than I used to the past," Richt said.
That meant embracing the return of approximately 300 former coaches and players on Saturday. Miami football has always been sustained by those who helped built the foundation. Former All-American safety Ed Reed flew in early last week to talk to the team and even watch film.
"Mark Richt has been here. He's a Cane," Reed said. "He's a player. That's something he and I talked about."
Based on the recent past, it would be so Hurricane of them to lose to Virginia or Pittsburgh down the stretch and ding the paint job on the playoff limo.
But on Saturday, Miami had clinched the ACC Coastal Division for the first time before the game was played. That part was done. The Canes will play Clemson on Dec. 2 perhaps for the right to go to the College Football Playoff. The fans will want more. That part is familiar to Richt.
"They're always going to move the stick," Diaz said. "… Whenever you win a big game, then they say the next game is real big."
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