DESTIN, Fla. — The question was bound to come up, but Mark Richt was primed with the perfect denial.
“Does it seem strange to you, after all your success, that your name has been mentioned as a coach on the hot seat?” one reporter asked Richt during Tuesday’s SEC league meetings.
“I didn’t know it had,” Richt said with a grin. “Is that true?”
Indeed it is, although how much credence any of those claims merit is a matter of debate.
Still, the truth remains, Georgia is coming off its worst season during Richt’s decade-long tenure, and the biggest buzzword of this offseason has been change. From the three new coaches on defense to the new philosophies on special teams to the new quarterback atop the depth chart, 2010 promises to be the beginning of a new era for the SEC’s most established head coach. And yet, for all that change, Richt promises he’s still the same.
“My mind-set has always been, let’s do what I think we need to do to succeed and try not to be influenced by anything other than the people closest to the program,” Richt said. “I’m trying to do things in a way with a lot of integrity and a lot of character and hopefully we’re still winning games and educating young men. I think you can have it all.”
That’s been Richt’s philosophy since the day he arrived at Georgia 10 years ago, and he’s unabashedly proud that he’s achieved so much success without compromising his beliefs. But while 10 years of success would be enough to overcome the occasional pitfalls in most professions, for Richt, his longevity has become his critics’ primary weapon.
LSU’s Les Miles won a national title in his second season on the job. Nick Saban won one in his third. In five seasons at Florida, Urban Meyer already has two national titles. The league’s most accomplished coaches have scaled the highest peaks early on, while Richt enters his 10th season without a national title, five years removed from his last SEC East championship and fresh off back-to-back seasons labeled by most fans as disappointments.
The notion that longevity is the enemy of a head coach isn’t entirely easy to dismiss either. Even South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier — the only head coach in the SEC with more years in the conference than Richt — acknowledged that it’s tough for a coach to last more than 10 or 12 years in the same place.
“Everybody’s expected to win, and if you’re not winning, what the fans want to see is change,” Spurrier said. “Even if change doesn’t bring wins, it brings the hope of something different happening. That’s the nature of sports.”
Change may be the only constant, as the saying goes, but that’s not Richt’s style.
Yes, Richt shook up his staff this offseason, but those changes marked the first time in his tenure that an assistant left for involuntarily. Football and family are synonymous for Richt, and change isn’t a big part of that equation.
“I came from Florida State, and I was with Coach (Bobby) Bowden who had been there forever,” Richt said. “That was kind of the model that I saw and really aspired to have. When I left Florida State, my goal was to find a place I could coach for the rest of my career, and that’s what I found in Georgia.”
So all the changes this offseason aren’t so much about creating a new beginning, Richt said. He spent the offseason evaluating his program — from how he runs practice to tweaks to the strength-and-conditioning program — but none of that was about creating a new beginning. It was about finding a way to recommit to those core values he built early on.
“It’s just like Year 1 — you have to decide how you’re going to go about your business and then just stay focused on your mode of operation,” Richt said. “You’ve got to focus on your job. If you’re worried about things you can’t control or won’t help you succeed, then you’re really being counterproductive.”
For a coach who has won 90 games in nine years on the job, the status quo might not seem so bad. But consistency can be a fickle asset.
Richt knows that, too. Even if those hot-seat rumblings are little more than offseason bluster, he’s not immune to the pressures of the job. But while finding success in the same place for the long haul is no easy task, Richt remains a firm believer that the right approach never gets old.
“I think if you make decisions based over the long haul and treat people the way they should be treated,” Richt said, “then I don’t think it’s impossible to do.”