Seven Years in: Richt is making it look easy

ATHENS – Even during the lowest point of Mark Richt's coaching career, he was on the right track, said coaching consultant Homer Smith.

Richt asked Smith to come to Athens to counsel him after the 2001 season, Richt's first as Georgia's head coach. The subject was Richt's highly criticized decision to run the ball with just seconds remaining in a 24-17 loss to Auburn. It was a move that made many wonder if the former Florida State assistant was cut out to make the jump to head coaching.

"It wasn't a consultation," said Smith, a longtime assistant coach and formerly the head coach at Davidson and Army, who has written 17 manuals on football strategy. "It was an exchange. I found him pretty sharp on the subject. He said, ‘I just wanted someone to tell me that this stuff is really hard.'"

Six years later, Richt is making it look easy. When he leads his No. 6 Bulldogs (9-2) into Bobby Dodd Stadium today for a 3:30 p.m. game against Georgia Tech (7-4), he'll be going for the 71st victory of his career. Last week, he became just the eighth coach in Division I-A history to win at least 70 games in his first seven seasons.

"It's hard to do that in this league, to win as much as we have, and obviously he deserves a lot of the credit," said defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, who is one of six assistant coaches to have been on Richt's staff since the beginning. "Obviously, we've had a great staff here. We haven't had that many guys leave. Coach has just done a tremendous job of keeping it together as a staff."

Richt is the fourth-winningest active coach in Division I-A. His 70-19 record trails only Southern Cal's Pete Carroll, Florida's Urban Meyer and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops.

"I never would have dreamed it," Richt said. "It's absolutely Georgia's victories. Shoot, I'm doing less now than I've ever done."

This is the first season Richt hasn't called plays for the Bulldogs, and he's growing into his role as an overseer, he said.

"I'm just watching the coaches do what they're doing, keeping the ship in the right direction or whatever," he said. "I have enjoyed it more once I got the hang of it. Early on, there was a little bit of a disconnect, like, ‘Where do I fit in this thing?'"

Where he has most visibly increased his role this year is as head cheerleader, whether it's exhorting the faithful for more noise or quietly encouraging and supporting his coaching staff.

"I basically do for the offense what I've been doing for defense and special teams since I've been here, and that's hire really good people who know what they're doing and give them the time to do what they're doing and try not to mess with them too much," Richt said. "I do enjoy encouraging people. I enjoy trying to help people succeed."

That's a lesson he learned from Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, he said.

"I don't feel like I need anything personally to make myself feel good, like I have to be the play-caller or whatever," he said. "I'm enjoying trying to help our coaches succeed, I'm enjoying trying to get our players to succeed."

Smith saw it coming from the beginning, he said.

"I remember thinking that this guy has got it," Smith said. "He's a great guy and he knows how to be thoughtful toward people all around him. He lives an admirable life. I think anyone who is close to him admires how he puts things together. Maybe most important, he is a very, very knowledge football coach. He knows what it takes to win games."

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