Richt has taken Georgia to the next level

ATHENS – It seems like a lifetime ago now, but it has been just eight years since Mark Richt arrived in Athens, a highly respected but unproven coach from Florida State.

He wasn't exactly a marquee name at the time, and even he admits, he was in over his head when he first took the reins of the Georgia football program.

"Georgia hadn't won (a conference title) in 19 years or something, and there was probably a reason why," Richt said. "I didn't know what it was, and I didn't understand the league. There was a lot of things I didn't know, so going in, I didn't know what to expect other than to try to get the thing going in the right direction."

Few other coaches have pointed a program in the right direction faster.

In seven seasons as head coach, Richt has won nearly 80 percent of his games, has the fourth-highest winning percentage of any active coach, has won 10 or more games five times, has recruited top talent from across the nation, and has won or shared the SEC East title four times, with two conference championships.

In fact, the one thing that hasn't changed much since Richt arrived is the head coach, himself.

"Same guy," said senior wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, "cool, calm and collected."

Unlike counterparts Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier, he hasn't sought out an NFL job. While several other SEC coaches have been lightning rods for criticism, Richt has managed to avoid the national spotlight for much of his career. Yet, in a league that has five coaches with national championships on their resume, the understated Richt still garners plenty of respect.

The reason might be just how little Richt craves the attention. He enters the 2008 season with the No. 1 team in the country, but despite the predicted glory at the end of the season, he never wavers from the task at hand. It's the work that obsesses Richt, not the reward.

"I'm not sitting here saying, ‘We're No. 1, we've got to keep our ranking,' " Richt said. "I'm saying, man, we've got to get better."

So during a preseason wrought with distractions – from national publicity to player arrests and suspensions – there may not be a better person to navigate the Bulldogs through the rough waters of a national-title run than Richt.

When a rash of player arrests left a bevy of players suspended and one dismissed from the program, Richt made no secrets of his disappointment. He thinks of his players as his own children, and this was a major blow to the relationship.

Still, he called the dismissal of Michael Lemon from the program the hardest decision of his career. He has waited nearly a month to determine the fate of suspended players Jeff Hensen and Donavon Baldwin because he didn't want to make a rash decision. While national media members questioned the professionalism of his program, he always defended his team.

"He's a leader, he's always confident, he's always going to pull for his troops, always going to believe in his guys, and we love that in him," Massaquoi said. "We know he's always going to have our back."

The greatest asset Richt has, according to defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, is his ability to measure the personality of his team. But what makes that job a bit easier is just how well Richt molds the Bulldogs in his image.

"Watching him, he's a guy that doesn't buy into anything," quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "He realizes the only thing that matters is how we go out and play every week and how we prepare, so that's the big deal around here."

When Richt first came to Athens, that calm, cool and confident mentality wasn't the pervasive theme in the locker room. Georgia had a legacy of greatness, but it had been a long time since the program lived up to its past.

That year, the Bulldogs finished 8-4, the same record that had earned the previous coach, Jim Donnan, a pink slip. But despite the similar results, things were different.

"I didn't think we were very far away personnel-wise," Richt said. "I thought it was more a matter of changing attitudes and beginning to believe."

The next year, the Bullldogs finished 13-1, earning their first SEC championship in 20 years. The tide had turned, the confidence was back, and Georgia was officially Mark Richt's team.

Since then, each passing year has brought with it more confidence, more credibility and, at least on the recruiting trail, more prominence for the head coach.

"Out of state, we're getting a lot more guys excited about hearing from Georgia, by a long shot," Richt said.

So now Richt's team includes a star quarterback from Texas, an All-SEC linebacker from North Carolina, a Heisman-hopeful running back from New Jersey, and a majority of the starting lineup comes from out of state.

Richt has built a team that finished No. 2 in the country last season, narrowly missing a chance at a national title, and enters this year with the school's first preseason No. 1 ranking. But again, nothing much has changed for the head coach.

"I really and truly don't think we're a whole lot different than the last four, five, six years," Richt said. "After our first season, I believed we could win the Southeastern Conference."

Preseason hype, after all, is bound to fall on deaf ears when it comes to Richt. For all the coachspeak and clichés, Richt truly doesn't look back with regret or look down the road at possibility. He only cares about the task at hand.

"That's what he does a good job of, focusing on now, focusing on the moment, us, not them," Martinez said. "When we're here, we don't hear all the stuff outside. We're aware of it, people are talking about it, but you're going to always be measured by your results."

The results Richt will be measured by this season are lofty ones. Anything less than a national championship will be considered a disappointment by many Bulldogs fans. But that alone stands as a monument to what Richt has accomplished at Georgia.

Expectations, after all, only come with success.

But Richt never forgets how that success was forged, so even under the brightest of spotlights on the heels of the closest of missed opportunities, he still has a singular focus.

"Right now, I want to beat Georgia Southern, that's all I'm really thinking about," Richt said. "The national championship is out of our hands. … I'm not worried about any style points. I'm just trying to win."

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