Thursday, December 3, 2015

Coach Richt - a personal memoir from his era

"Being a part of Georgia is something I get to do everyday. 
And I'm very grateful for it." 

"That I loved Georgia and I did it the right way."

- Mark Richt

It's been a hard week. You've probably heard all the analogies of losing a friend, saying goodbye, grief and loss. But it's also a time of reflection, remembrances, and thankfulness. Thankful because Georgia football is where it is today because of this man.

Mostly, I take solace in seeing that Coach Richt is at perfect peace. After all, it will be him and his lovely wife Kathryn that will certainly work hard to make the transition easier for his staff and their families, all while making a big transition of their own.

So I’ve started this post three different times in three different ways. Approximately 1500 words later I’ve come to realize that this tweet is the best that I’ve got.
I also realize that I’m writing this for posterity in many ways. Something to look back on fondly, in all its highs and lows, and with a tone of appreciation and thankfulness. Something to help my own kids (maybe even my grandkids if we can manage to keep the Internet afloat that long) remember this time period that has come to a close. You know, a glimpse into what our house has been like since just before they were born all the way into their teenage years. Yes, perhaps the best way to show my appreciation of the Coach Richt Era is to recall some key moments of the last 16 years and 15 seasons and how we shared them as a family.

December 2000 - Richt is introduced as the new head coach to succeed Jim Donnan. I remember watching the press conference with my wife. We both remarked at how young he looked. I also remember seeing their kids (Johnathan, David, Zach, and Anya) sitting with Kathryn and immediately impressed with his genuineness in the way he talked about family, his faith, and wanting to win in Athens.

October 6, 2001 - Wife and I are watching the noon kickoff of the Georgia-Tennessee game. The Vols sprint out to that early lead, but it’s close from there on out. Unfortunately, Jenn has to leave for work at halftime when it’s tied 17-17. After P-44 Haynes secured the victory and the Hobnail Boot had broken their nose, I called her with the news.
We won. We beat Tennessee in Knoxville!”
“No we didn’t. You’re lying.
It was then that I realized I would never find the words to describe what had happened. Georgia had finished the drill. The team was confident in the moment of truth and had executed to perfection. What a strangely intoxicating feeling!

The girls with Coach, and some weird guy
whose hunker down done broke.
August 2003 - By now we have a one and a half year old and Richt has helped us knock the lid off the program with his first SEC title. The popularity of the program shows at “Picture Day”. I brought my little girl, complete with stroller and diaper bag, as well as my neighbor Allen and his young son Logan. Uga is the most popular pic, especially with kids, and we’re glad we are early as the mascot’s line is halfway around the Classic Center by the time we get there. After waiting for an hour or so, someone comes out and draws an imaginary line just in front of us and says that everyone behind that line isn’t getting a picture with Uga.

We dejectedly make our way to Richt’s line as he is a fairly close second to Uga at this point in his career. We’re not too far off either, but still find ourselves in a race against the clock before the event closes. Otherwise we’ve driven an hour and spent an entire afternoon waiting in lines for nothing. Should have made it easily, but this is before they cracked down on memorabilia hoarders that required so much attention for the twenty items they brought in. Five o’clock came and went and Richt was still posing and signing. He stayed an extra hour to fit everyone else in. He posed with my little girl and signed a picture to her. She smiled. What a great day!
The Tailgate Crew

September 2005/2006 - Wife and I make the road trip to Starkville and Nama and I make the one to Oxford the following year. There’s nothing like seeing the Dawgs on the road. And these two trips were highlight type experiences back during a stretch when Richt’s teams were world beaters on the road. The band, the road whites, singing Glory, Glory in an opponent’s stadium, the team coming over to greet the fans after the clock drains, Coach Richt with the thumbs raised to the crowd...ain’t nothing better than that as a Georgia Bulldog fan. And Coach Richt embraced all of it. He always said he loved Georgia. More importantly he always showed it with his actions. He walked the walk and this was the time period I really started to feel a connection with Mark Richt as both the coach of my football team as well as a man on this Earth.

September 2007 - My oldest is six and I think it was Western Carolina because I remember Conner asking me what a Catamount is. I answered like any proud, intelligent father would, “Hey sweetheart, the cotton candy guy is coming up the aisle!” Georgia rolls and the crowd is pretty into it. Even though the opponent was a cupcake, it was pretty exciting to see Stafford and Moreno and Brown and Massaquoi click on all cylinders. As we near halftime I begin to worry like most dads do when they bring their young ones to games - Is she going to ask to leave soon? I want to see some of these backups play. Plus the cotton candy is long gone. It’s a matter of time before she’s done as well. Which is why it caught me off guard when she looked at me, eyes full of excitement, and asked “Dad, can we stay the whole game?!?

"Yes honey. We absolutely can stay the whole game." Got a little dusty up there all of a sudden.

September 2008 - Wife and I take the kids to the Central Michigan game. My youngest was four at the time and takes the entire scene in, from the flags on the field pregame to the trumpet in the southwest corner. She could do this because her older sister was taking care of searching for the cotton candy vendors. :)  Y’all probably remember the biggest highlight of the game. If you don’t, perhaps Mrs. Wendy’s question at pre-school the next Monday and Ainsley’s subsequent response will refresh your memory.
“Anything exciting happen this weekend?”
“Yeh! Knowshon jumped over a guy!!”

The next week, I start a blog before the South Carolina game and then we head out west to Tempe. Nama, Ann and I take the town by storm. AJ Green was superhuman and Knowshon defied gravity. It was a dry heat and we left it a dry town. Almost just like we found it. Again, ain’t nothing like being a Road Dawg!
Sun Devil Stadium
  Dawgs On Top!         

January 2009 - Speaking of Road Dawgs, the family heads down to Orlando to see Stafford and Moreno’s last game. Somehow we manage this without them realizing just how close we are to Disney World and avoid the trip costing an arm and a leg. (Sorry, kids. But to be fair we had recently taken y’all there...twice)

May 2009 - Here you can read about the one time I got to interview Coach Richt. And by interview, I mean when you have a buddy that wins a supermarket contest that allows you to eat nachos and ask the head coach a question. The post is a comical review of the evening, but it was a pretty cool experience for sure.

That time Kathryn and I had lunch and she
insisted on a picture with me.
December 2010 through 2011 offseason - Like any long term relationship, there is a period of darkness. I declare that Richt and I are on a break, which was my humorous way of coming to grips with Richt's only losing season.

June 2012 - The dance between embracing a coach and loving a program is a slippery one. In this post I attempt once again to reset the expectations as well as set the bar high. It was as difficult to read as it was to write, but I think it’s as fair an assessment as I could manage. The reason I mention it here is twofold: 1) we may look back on this 2012 team as one of Richt’s most talented and resilient, especially in terms of leadership within the roster, and 2) …..(next slide please)...

Rare moment when no one pictured
is on their Twitter phones.
December 2012 - My favorite post of the 4000+ in the history of the blog leads up to Coach Richt’s biggest game in his career (imho). Having responded to national lack of respect, and rallied the team after getting steam-rolled in Columbia SC, Richt leads the team back to Atlanta for the second year in a row. The Dawgs go toe to toe with mighty Alabama for the right to beat Notre Dame and become National Champions. The wife and I give everything we’ve got because that’s exactly what our team did. She showed the Bama fans around us what true team spirit looks like and I nearly out-sprinted Ogletree to the endzone on the blocked kick. I can honestly say, walking out of the Georgia Dome that night was the weirdest experience I’ve ever had as a Georgia fan. I’ve walked out of stadiums elated with wins and dejected over losses, many times over. But to feel so immensely proud while so very depressed was something I’ll never forget and I'll never get over.

Who has the bigger smile?
June 2014 - My youngest loves some football. If you follow me on twitter you know this already. She’s got quite the arm. Jennifer and I sign her up for Coach Richt’s camp and when I show up at Butts-Mehre to drop her off I’m less surprised that there are like 150-200 kids there than I am that there’s only one girl...the one I brought. Competing is easy for Ainsley, but taking the stares and the casual comments about her gender was less so. Still, Richt’s staff put her completely at ease. From his secretary Ms. Hunt to Coach Inman and everyone in between, she settled in and got in line. I was supposed to leave her for the day, but couldn’t help but return after one trip to Jittery Joe’s to see how things were going.

What’s the word for when the pride you have for your kid crosses paths with the pride you have in your team? At the end of the day, once again Coach Richt stayed late to sign all the t-shirts, pictures, gloves, and footballs. He wasn’t even upset when Ainsley pulled out of his line to get a picture with Christian Robinson first.

Sunday - Ironically, Ainsley and I had just finished throwing the football. As we walked into the house I checked my phone.
“Oh no. Really?”
“What is it Dad?’
“They fired Richt.”

From mine to yours Coach...thanks!
You blink and suddenly your little girl has gone from the excitement of Knowshon “jumping over a guy” to this young lady with beautiful eyes that are filled with the same questions an adult ponders - “What’s next? Who’s the coach? Where’d the time go?” - and you have to explain that this is one of those times when there are more questions than answers.

We had nearly 16 years and 15 seasons with one of college football’s greatest coaches. We saw Mark Richt grow from that young guy trying his best to emulate his own personal role models and make them proud, to a seasoned coach and a magnificent molder of young men. We're all better for the experience, all the highs and the lows and the in-betweens. As a dad, a fan, a man, an alum, an Athenian...I'm eternally thankful for the experience.

Come to think of it, perhaps there are two answers that I have after all. I know that the University of Georgia will never have a finer representative for the program we hold so dear. And I know that my family was blessed to have shared this time with him as part of the Georgia Bulldog Nation. 

Thanks for reading. And feel free to share your own memories below.
Go Dawgs!