Last Saturday was an emotional letdown for Des Williams. In the morning, his 7-year-old son’s football team, which he helped coach, lost the Gwinnett Football League championship by five points on a touchdown scored with eight seconds remaining. Later in the day, Williams, who played fullback at Georgia from 2003-2007, watched on television as the Bulldogs were dismantled by Auburn.
Georgia had entered the game No. 1 in the country for the second consecutive week. Its game against No. 10 Auburn was one of the most anticipated match-ups of the weekend. Midway through the fourth quarter, Georgia trailed by 30 points.
The excitement that had surrounded Georgia football this season was replaced by the disappointment of a 40-17 loss, and this time, Mark Richt wasn’t there to blame.
In the hours after Georgia’s loss, Richt led No. 7 Miami to a 41-8 win over No. 3 Notre Dame. The timing of the games showed the Bulldogs limping home while the Hurricanes rocked their gold turnover chain and stole the national spotlight. Not only did the Hurricanes’ win prompt pundits to proclaim Richt had revitalized himself and Miami’s program as its head coach, but the victory made Georgia’s one-point win over the Fighting Irish earlier this season less impressive.
To some, the timing of it all was ironic. For Williams, Miami’s resounding win helped alleviate some of the heartache he had accumulated throughout the day.
“I definitely needed that pick-me-up with Coach Richt having a big win at the end of the night,” Williams said.
Not every former Georgia player who played for Richt felt their sadness dissipate with the Hurricanes’ win, which helped lift them to No. 3 in the latest college football playoff rankings.
Still, those who played under Richt at Georgia are elated for their former head coach. During the first half of Miami’s win on Saturday, former offensive lineman Chris Burnette sent a Tweet that said, “@MarkRicht please win the Natty this year coach”.
Following the 2015 regular season, Georgia fired Richt, the program’s second all-time winningest coach. Only two years removed from wearing red and black, it’s still strange for Richt’s former players to see him clad in Miami’s orange and green.
“I never thought of the day when I was playing that Georgia wasn't going to be defined by Coach Richt,” said Rennie Curran, a former Georgia linebacker. “He was Georgia football. You can't really separate the two.”
Though Richt now coaches at a different school, the relationship he developed with his former players hasn’t faded. Richt kept his Georgia cellphone number active so players can easily contact him. Last week, Curran texted his former coach to see if there was a time for Curran to visit Richt at Miami. While Richt was in the midst of preparing for one of the most important games of Miami’s season, he responded.
“All of us are still his guys and almost like his sons,” Williams said. “I think he wants us to continue to build a strong bond between each other and our families. He always wants to make sure all of his guys are successful.”
Every week, former Georgia players tailgate behind the Rankin Smith Academic Center near Georgia’s athletic facility. When Miami plays before Georgia, Kelin Johnson, who played safety at Georgia from 2004-2007, said the television is set to Miami’s game — and the channel doesn’t change.
“As emotionally connected as I am to the University of Georgia,” former tight end Arthur Lynch said, “I'm equally as emotionally connected to Coach Richt because of everything he did for me.”
In three weeks, the 9-1 Bulldogs and 9-0 Hurricanes will play for their respective conference championships. Both teams still control their fate in the College Football Playoff. Should Georgia and Miami meet in the postseason, Richt’s former Georgia players would find themselves in a precarious situation.
They love their former coach, but they also love Georgia. Williams said he’d have to wear a small Miami item like a wristband. At the end of the day, they’ll root for Georgia, but part of them will cheer for Richt. After all, some still think of him like a father. They feel Richt taught them more than just how to play football, and they want to see him have success.
“I want people to know the Bulldog Nation is rooting for him just as much as they're rooting for the Dogs,” Johnson said.