ATHENS — Mark Richt is a nice guy.
That is a reputation that has dogged him since the day he was hired at Georgia, when his former boss Bobby Bowden wondered if Richt had the stomach for some of the tough decisions that accompanied being the head coach of a big-time college football program. Now eight games into the most tumultuous season of his career, that old nice-guy reputation is haunting Richt again, with fans asking whether their head coach with the heart of gold is capable of making changes that might not be particularly pleasant for him to address.
There’s usually nothing wrong with being a nice guy, but with a 4-4 record and the future of his program coming into question, Richt said there’s another side to his personality that most fans don’t see.
“People that know me well or the team or the coaches, they know that I’ve got another edge to me that I don’t show publicly all the time,” Richt said. “Maybe that’s what the public wants to see, but if you are going to be accused of something, being accused of being a nice guy is not one of the worse things to be accused of.”
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Richt’s players think he’s a nice guy, too, but they aren’t questioning his willingness to ruffle a few feathers. While Georgia’s head coach may play the role of affable father figure in front of the cameras, the Bulldogs have seen what happens when problems arise behind closed doors.
“He’s a great coach, a great family man, but you know you don’t want to get on his bad side,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “When you’re not getting the job done, not executing, he’s going to let you know.”
Sophomore Marcus Dowtin won’t argue with anyone who calls Richt mild-mannered. In fact, Dowtin has rarely heard his head coach yell. But that doesn’t mean Richt doesn’t have his attention when there’s a serious matter to be discussed.
“When he is serious, everybody knows it,” Dowtin said. “He doesn’t have to raise his voice for everybody to know that he’s serious.”
Still, concerns persist. After all, Richt has never coached a team that has struggled as much as Georgia has this season. As an assistant at Florida State, his teams were routinely ranked in the top five nationally. He lost four games his first season at Georgia, but fans widely recognized he had the program pointed in the right direction. In 2006, his team struggled through a rough stretch of four losses in five games, but freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford showed signs of improvement, and fans again believed the future was bright. This season, however, has been different.
“The only thing I could refer back to is 2006 because there haven’t been many seasons that I’ve lived through that would even resemble this one,” Richt said.
Richt hasn’t extended an olive branch to many of the most concerned fans this season either.
While quarterback Joe Cox has struggled mightily, Richt has steadfastly supported his fifth-year senior, announcing earlier this week that Cox would remain the starter despite throwing three interceptions last week against Florida.
In the wake of a blowout loss to Tennessee, Richt openly questioned fans who critiqued his team without having experienced playing football firsthand.
While many fans have called for changes in personnel or on the coaching staff, Richt has offered little in the way of major shakeups.
In turn, the perception has been that Richt is ignoring the problems in favor of the status quo, but he assured Georgia’s fans he was working hard to address the issues.
“I don’t think one fan has brought up something we haven’t thought of, so we think about all these things,” Richt said. “We’re trying to make the best decisions that we can make.”
For now, Richt said, those will be small tweaks rather than big-picture changes. That’s the only real option midseason.
And while fans are anxious to see a glimpse of the future, Richt said sacrificing the current season sets a bad precedent moving forward.
“We tell our guys to finish the drill. We tell our guys to never quit,” Richt said. “If we made a move and say we are playing for next year, in my mind, we’ve given up on the season, we’ve quit. We don’t quit at Georgia, and we don’t teach our guys to quit.”
It may not be what fans want to hear, but Curran said that simply underscores Richt’s willingness to make the tough decisions. It may not be popular, but it’s what the team needed to hear.
“One of the greatest things about him is he lets you know that he believes in you and that he trusts you and that he’s behind you, which is the greatest thing as a player when you know you have someone who believes in you and sees good in you,” Curran said.
That’s not to say Richt isn’t a nice guy, and Curran understands the perception fans have of his head coach. The truth is, Richt is everything he has been accused of being. He’s a nice guy. He’s a family man. His faith and his values are strong.
But so, too, is his dedication to his football team.
“From the outside looking in, anybody could see the type of person Coach Richt is, that could be translated to the football field saying that he’s not tough enough or that he’s not going to tell a player what he needs to hear,” Curran said. “But in reality, we all as players know that if you’re practicing well, if you’re doing all the right things, you’re going to get an opportunity, and sooner or later you’re going to get that start.”
The fan base may wonder what the future holds, but the players have faith, Dowtin said. There is no dissension within the locker room.
In fact, it’s just the opposite that’s true. Richt hasn’t spent time yelling and screaming, but he hasn’t needed to. The players know they have failed to reach their potential, Cox said. That’s a feeling that’s hard to overcome.
But it’s the strength and composure Richt has shown that has allowed them to move forward with confidence. He believes in them, so in turn, he has their complete support.
“Having a coach like him when we’re struggling as players, we know he’s still on our side,” Cox said. “When we’re playing bad as a team, we know he’s not going to start pointing fingers. He tells us every day that he’s proud to be our coach and no matter what he’s going to stick with us.”