A Further Examination of Mark Richt: The Blind Side, SEC Media Days, and the Case for the Career Coach
Jennifer Rohner stops by to share her thoughts on Mark Richt’s tenure and the need for longevity in college football.
I love the movie The Blind Side. There’s just something so warm and comforting about it. Not only does it share an inspiring message about family, loyalty, and charity, it does so through the language of my favorite spectator sport. And all with a Southern flavor. It’s a perfect tide-over for these moments late in the offseason (like now, for example) when one doesn’t think they can wait another second to watch a real, live, honest-to-God football game being played. You know, the point where all of the preseason speculation and off-season player hoopla has become as tiresome as the Harlem Shake and you find yourself wanting to just get on with things, already. That’s when a dose of football cinema can serve as a breather from what gets to be a grating fixation about games that won’t happen for several more weeks.
One sequence of scenes in said film always makes me laugh. It’s the part where our hero Michael Oher is being mercilessly recruited by every high-profile big-name in the SEC. We are treated to a parade of SEC Head Honchos, all playing themselves (with amusingly limited acting ability, considering the roles they’ve been cast in) and all begging to recruit the story’s desperately sought-after lineman. I realize the movie is four years old and that it details events of nearly a decade ago, but looking at those montages one can’t help but notice one thing. Not one–not one!— of those coaches featured still holds his position anymore. (At least not at the advertised school.)
There is a conspicuous absence in that hullaballoo of SEC Celebrity Coaches. And as irony would have it, he is the only one who is still in charge of his program today. He’s the most tenured football coach in the conference (at least until Mizzou joined last year). None other than Mark Richt.
(Not that I think he was left out deliberately. According to the book on which the film is based, Mark Richt’s actual pursuit of Mr. Oher was brief. The book states that he was recruited by Georgia, but Mrs. Tuohy graciously and early on told Coach Richt that Georgia was not on their list. He just as graciously thanked her for her time and went on his way.)
Last week provided another Offseason Night’s Dream in the form of SEC Media Days. While everybody’s attention was grabbed by the audacious Johnny Football, the elegantly mundane A.J. McCarron, and the brashly overconfident Jadeveon Clowney, little was said about the Georgia coalition. Leading the low-key pack was Coach Richt, demonstrating his inimitable way of quiet leadership, confidence, and (some might say) downright dullness.
Looking at both of these paradigms–a slightly older football film and a slew of fresh SEC Media Buzz–reminded me of something I’ve felt strongly about for a long time. Longevity and excellence need to go together as much as possible in this game. The craziness that has become the CFB universe creates the need for programs to have experienced and tenured leaders at the top. Leaders who have been long-invested in their troops to and can lead the Charge of the Light Brigade. These kinds of leaders are becoming fewer and farther between these days.
I believe it’s time for the return of the career coach: the mentor-in-chief who becomes the institution, the elder statesman, and the pillar of the school. And out of all the active SEC Football Leaders today, Mark Richt stands the best chance of becoming the steady force that could guide his program with excellence and consistency for years to come.
I don’t care if he didn’t set the world abuzz last week with clever antics like Australian Accents or bold assertions on controversial issues like player stipends. Things like that work for Les Miles and Steve Spurrier. Let them be them–I’d be disappointed if they didn’t live up to their personas. But Coach Richt also does what is right for him, and for the program. And in my opinion he always has.
Coach Richt has been through a lot with the Bulldog Nation. From returning the program to national attention in the early 00’s to merciless calls for his head a mere three years ago, then bringing us back to the national title mix all over again, he has continued to keep something of a Southern Gentleman/Churchillian resolve.
As far as I’m concerned, that says something about what SEC football should be about–loyalty, tradition, and ultimately enduring excellence. Of course, the longer you hang around any given school, the greater your chances are not only of taking a program and flying with it, but also running the risk of stumbling, falling, and incurring the wrath of all-too-often unforgiving fans. It takes a hearty soul to stay around and withstand all that. (Even Chris Fowler implied this at the beginning of his interview with Mark Richt this week, saying that head coaches in the SEC “aren’t supposed to last thirteen years”.)
How many Bear Bryants, Vince Dooleys, Bobby Bowdens, or Eddie Robinsons are there in the CFB world anymore? (The best example I found of such longevity was Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, having led the Hokies since 1987. After him very few come even close, from what I could determine). Call me a crazy old traditionalist, but in the world of College Football today, often wrought with arguably misplaced priorities and unnecessary scandal, not to mention just plain absurdity (let’s face it–stories about college football players with imaginary dead girlfriends should NOT be turning up on TMZ), a little bit of stability would seem to be in order.
It takes time and dedication, though, to build these kinds of football dynasties. And there will always be a lot of peaks and valleys, even for the best of them.
But in our quick-fix, want-it-now, push-the-easy-button world, tenacity and resolve often becomes lost virtues. Football, like all sports, can be a useful metaphor for life. At its best it can be not only an impressive display of elite athletic prowess and mental perseverance, but also can relay important life lessons through the parables of downs for players and fans alike. But to subject it to the whims of impatient supporters and relentlessly scrutinizing and naysaying media can shift the focus away from the original ideal.
Sure, if a guy isn’t getting the job done at the helm, isn’t the right fit at the right time, or in some way dishonors the program, it might be time for him to go. I’m certainly not saying that it’s OK to stay in a bad situation (as all of us Georgia fans know that at the time, both Ray Goff and Jim Donnan needed to go). But when you have a good thing going, something that is good more often than it is bad, like an overall happy marriage or a solid friendship, it is probably worth keeping. Even through some rough patches.
(As all of us ladies know, if you have the right guy, keep him!)
Unless, of course, as fans we are more interested in the immediate gratification in winning over the big picture of a perennially successful program. Which, unfortunately, is going to include some losses and even frightfully bad seasons from time to time (even for y’all, Crimson Tide Nation).
Coach Richt has stayed with us all these years, sticking to his principles, and even at times taking on the press and being a strong leader when it has been warranted. He’s someone who stands a good chance of becoming the next great elder statesman of SEC Football. I am by no means saying that Saban, Spurrier, or Miles couldn’t do exactly the same thing where they all are now. In fact I hope they do. I’m just saying that when it comes to consistency, lack of volatility, and simple tenure, Coach Richt is pretty hard to catch.
I would love nothing more than to see him stay around long enough to recruit generations of ‘Dawgs to come and bring them into the continuing chapters of one of the most storied–and stable–programs in the country.
You may say I’m a dreamer…..but I strongly suspect I’m not the only one!
What do you think? Do you think your current coach has what it takes to stick it out and build a true and long-lasting football dominion? Think any of the newer coaches will stay around indefinitely and become the next Bear Bryant? I’d love to hear from you!
Next time….I will be investigating some of the auxiliary aspects of SEC game days!
–Jennifer Rohner, Chief Culture Correspondent