The New Mark Richt

BIRMINGHAM – On the sideline, Georgia head coach Mark Richt had become known for his stoic demeanor. There was no sense in losing his cool, he said. He was too busy focusing on the next play. When trouble arose, he wanted to be prepared with an answer.

But after the Bulldogs were routed at Tennessee last October, Richt had no answers. It was a low point. His season hung in the balance, and he realized his team had barely put up a fight.

"I was getting kind of mad at them until I looked in the mirror and realized that they were just basically reflecting me," Richt said. "I was sitting there watching, waiting for somebody to do something, too."

So he decided the changes had to start with him. Enter the new Mark Richt.

Calm and stoic became excitable and engaging. The normally reserved sideline demeanor was replaced with a few extra jabs at the officials. And three weeks after the Tennessee loss, in a move that has since taken its place in SEC lore, the coach who was regarded as one of the classiest people in college football actually insisted his team get penalized for celebrating its first touchdown against Florida.

And celebrate they did. After Georgia's first score, every player on the sideline ran onto the field, jumping and dancing, and the referees' flags flew. It wasn't exactly what Richt had been planning – he was figuring on 11 guys exchanging high fives, he says – but with that, the world was introduced to the new Mark Richt.

Florida's coaches and players blasted the move. They demanded an apology. They promised retribution. Oh, and they lost. For just the third time in 18 years, the Bulldogs topped their SEC East rival. Georgia went on to win five more games in a row, including a Sugar Bowl route of Hawaii, finishing the season ranked No. 2 in the country. In fact, the Bulldogs are a perfect 7-0 under the new Mark Richt.

"I knew it had to start with me," Richt said of both his and his team's midseason transformation. "And then it did kind of catch fire."

Of course, the change didn't exactly happen overnight. In fact, Richt said, if you talk to his family, it really wasn't much of a transition at all.

"There's been people saying, you know, Mark Richt, he's a true gentleman of the game. He never gets excited. He's just kind of calm and stoic," Richt said. "My family members are just texting me saying, ‘We know better, we know better.' "

On the football field, however, responsibility had always trumped competitiveness.

During his days as offensive coordinator at Florida State, Richt quickly learned there was little time for distractions like yelling at refs or chewing out a player after a mistake. His head had to be in the game on every snap.

That mind-set continued when he arrived at Georgia, filling the dual roles of head coach and offensive play caller.

"As I called plays, my goal was to stay calm," Richt said. "My thinking was better when I was calm."

When Richt handed play-calling duties over to assistant coach Mike Bobo late in the 2006 season, however, things began to change.

"Now that I'm not calling plays, people are seeing a little bit more of my personality, because I've been more free to do that," Richt said.

One group getting an earful of that personality last season was the officials.

During his first six years as Georgia's head coach, Richt rarely engaged in verbal sparring with the referees, but the new Mark Richt was going to be the type of guy who got things off his chest.

So for two or three games, he said, he made a point of getting in the ear of the officials when he didn't like a call. After one particularly enthusiastic disagreement, the official on the wrong end of the conversation attempted to fire back.

"I thought you were a class act," the official quipped.

Without missing a beat or lowering his voice, Richt yelled back, "I am a class act!"

Despite the immediate evidence to the contrary, Richt wasn't lying.

The new Mark Richt couldn't really stray too far from the old Mark Richt, and it wasn't long before the head coach admitted he wasn't the argumentative type.

"I told the staff after about two or three games, I said, ‘Look, I know you guys want me to get after these guys, but that's not me,' " Richt said.

While the SEC officials can breath a small sigh of relief, opposing teams might not be so lucky.

As Richt gets his team ready to kick off the 2008 season, experts around the country are predicting big things. And today's Mark Richt says he's found a pretty good balance of the calm and cool guy who earned that gentlemanly reputation his first six years in Athens and the fiery head coach who told his team to throw a party in the end zone against Florida.

"I still have a lot of big decisions that have to be made game day," Richt said. "(But) I'm not doing that like I was, so I'm a little bit more free to kind of turn it loose. And that's what you want your team to do, is turn it loose."

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