A nice chat with Mark Richt (remember him?) before the big game

To hear one of his chief aides tell it, it’s hardly a surprise that Mark Richt’s office inside Miami’s football complex is so relatively spare. There are no ornate display cases holding the unspoken boasts of a fine, long career. The walls do not sag from the weight of tributes to and photos of his past triumphs. The borders of his desk are reserved for family photos.

Hurricanes’ defensive coordinator Manny Diaz would tell you that Richt’s workplace reflects the difference he has made.  

When asked why Richt has energized the Miami program where others failed, Diaz said, “The way he is secure in himself. Everybody from the staff to the players, they take a lot of comfort in knowing there is going to be a structure here, a consistency. We have an amazing staff chemistry, and the reason for that is coach Richt is an ego-less man. So, there is no one on the staff can say I’ve done this or I’ve done that. You have to fall in line behind him.

“I think the players see that. I think that’s why you see a great team in terms of how we support each other offense, defense, special teams. All the things that Mark Richt brings because of who he is filters down to the staff and into our locker room.”

What does dominate the head coach’s office, what looks over Richt’s shoulder every day at work are the five overblown photos of the national championship rings won by Miami between 1983-2001. That is the history he serves now. Those are the relics he needs to make relevant again. Which may explain the construction noise just beyond his walls, where the foundation has just been poured for a new indoor practice facility.  

Two years and two days after his uncomfortable parting press conference at Georgia, Richt will take the Hurricanes to their first ACC Championship game. That is not a misprint. The once mighty ‘Canes, thought to be wolves let into the chicken coop when admitted to the conference, are just now getting around to their first title game. 

Two years after being fired by the Bulldogs, Richt was named ACC coach of the year. Last season, his first back at his alma mater, Miami won its first bowl game in a decade. This season it went 11-1, beat rival FSU for the first time in eight years and could advance to the College Football Playoff with an upset of nine-point favorite Clemson.  

Just before the big game, Richt sat for a conversation that wandered into territory both familiar  - his life in Miami, getting back to play-calling - and just a little bit out of character - Miami’s now-famous turnover chain and this conservative coach’s definition of “swag.”   

Q: Nice goatee. I think you experimented with that at Georgia, but now it’s a thing?

A: I decided what the heck. I cut my own hair, you can probably tell. I take a number 4 (hair trimmer setting) and go. What the heck, I don’t worry about (appearance) too much anymore.

Q: What have you sensed this season has meant to the Miami fan base?

A: The support that we’ve gotten this year has been astounding.

“People said it was the type of atmosphere that hadn’t been seen since moving from the Orange Bowl (in 2007). That says a lot.

Q: What has it meant to you personally, as a one-time backup quarterback at UM (class of 1982)?

A: I’ve said it a million times, but I took the job because I knew we could win. I didn’t want to take a job that didn’t have a chance. Some jobs, it doesn’t matter how hard you work, it’s very, very, very difficult to win. Miami, you can win. It happens to be my alma mater.

The fact that it was my alma mater, the pride kept growing exponentially. The good feeling of saying you know what, this is my home, this is my school. And I’m thankful to be right in the middle of it.

Q: Getting back to offensive play-calling, how satisfying has that been?

A: The best thing about that is for me the energy level that it takes and the competitive spirit that it takes daily. Even in spring ball, you’re going against the defense. In fall camp, you’re going against the defense. Week by week you’re going against the opponent. You’re competing. I think my natural competitive spirit comes out better than when you’re the CEO. I think it has been good for me. And I think it has been good for the coaches and players to see that part of me.

Q: You had a player this week (safety Jaquon Johnson) tell the media you brought the swag back to Miami. Before playing Appalachian State last year you gave the team a speech about the meaning of swag. Excuse me, but putting you and the word “swag” in the same sentence just seems wrong. 

A: It depends on what your definition of swag is. When you win, whatever your style is becomes swag. Becomes cool.

It’s just like the turnover chain. Think about it. If we’re 5-5 and got three interceptions and one fumble recovery, there’s no swag in the chain. Success is the engine that drives swag. 

When Miami was winning at such a high level whatever they did was considered swag. If we keep winning on a consistent basis, however we do it will be considered swag. I really do believe swag is about winning. Swag is about getting after somebody and whipping them.

Q: About that famous turnover chain. Did you have to be talked into that one?

A: No, Manny (Diaz) snuck it in on me. Not that I wouldn’t have done it. Game 1, Manny was like, oh, by the way coach we got this little thing – we wanted something to reward a guy. We decided we wanted to do a turnover chain. He goes, it’s kind of gaudy, but it’s Miami for sure. I’m like, OK, whatever.

Q: Have you tried it on yet? 

A: I’ve never touched the turnover chain, to be honest. Not that I’m not allowed to. I probably could get permission to. Somewhere along the way I’ll probably hold it in my hands, but I’ve been too busy coaching.

Q: That probably wouldn’t have worked at Georgia, huh?

A: Nah, nah. It is a Cuban link chain – there are a few Cubans here in Miami. It kind of fits. The U fits, and the glitter fits.

 Q: How much do you suppose you’ve changed Miami, and how much has Miami changed you?

A: A little bit of both. (Richt then launches into one of the little pleasures of living where he lives).

Miami has a lot of star power around here. So, if a ball coach from Miami is walking around, it’s not that big a deal (he lives in nearby Coconut Grove).

Kathryn (his wife) and I are empty nesters, living in a beautiful spot. We’re a morning practice team, so you can put in a 12-hour day and it’s 6 o’clock and the sun’s still shining. You can walk to the Greenstreet Café and have dinner outside with your wife, just kind of chill with everyone else in the neighborhood. It’s refreshing.

Q: Is it too simplistic to say this is the happiest you’ve ever been?

A: No, I’ve been happy everywhere I’ve been. That’s one thing Kathryn and I have always done, we chose to be happy. We chose to be thankful.

I’m happy, I can tell you that.

Q: Going to go all metaphysical on you here, but do you believe you end up where you’re supposed to be?

A: I do think God works out the good for those who love him. I’m in a really good place at a really good time. I was so fiercely loyal to Georgia because that’s the job I took. God knows it wasn’t going to be my decision to get out of there.

The day of the (firing) press conference, I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought I was going to coach the team in the bowl game (Miami hired him beforehand).

I got hit up by I can’t tell you how many former players saying thank you for what you’ve done for me; sorry about the news. Just encouragement. Literally, 250 text messages like that. I and said you know what, God, maybe I’m not done doing your work. Because (coaching) certainly is a platform that can be used for good.

Q: Do you glance at what Georgia’s doing these days?

A: Well, yeah, I’m not reading daily what’s happening. But now with what’s happening at the end of the season, all the College Football Playoff stuff, yeah.

Obviously, I’ve known that Georgia’s had a great season. I’ve shot a couple things out here and there, wished them luck and congratulated them. I’m happy for Georgia. I’m happy for Kirby, happy for the coaches. I’m happy for the people. They’re doing great.

Q: The perfect storyline here now is if somehow Miami and Georgia meet in the postseason. Have you thought about that?

A: It could happen. Could happen in any one of a number of spots, possibly (bowl or playoff).

So, we’ll see.   

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