Hot Seat Diaries: The Tale of Georgia’s Mark Richt

HOOVER, Ala. – Mark Richt appeared comfortable and at ease standing at the podium Thursday morning for SEC Media Days.

Good thing he wasn’t sitting down, because the Bulldog-shaped, 500-degree grill that would meet his posterior would insta-sear normal mortals.

Richt, who is about to start his 11th season as head coach and Chief Philanthropist of Bulldog Nation, knows all too well that there are just a handful of coaches anywhere in the country who are able to blow out an “11” candle on top of their big-time coaching cake.

And surely Richt knows the clock is ticking on him both in Athens and beyond – not that he was about to admit it Thursday.

“If you walk into Butts-Mehre Hall, there not once sense of doom and gloom,” a confident Richt said. “There’s only excitement, only guys that are so thankful that we’ve got a new season and a clean slate and the ability to play some great opponents to start the year. The expectations are just as high as they’ve ever been going into any season.

“Our goal is to win the Eastern Division. That’s just the way we think every single season. We believe we’ve got just as good a chance as anybody to do that. Then, of course, if you win that, you play for the whole thing in Atlanta. Our goal is to play in the dome place, play in the Georgia Dome twice.

“I don’t worry about all that. I worry about the future. I worry about enjoying the ride, you know. We’re in good shape.”

While Richt isn’t worried about his coaching future at Georgia, that hasn’t stopped pundits and talking heads throughout the Southeast from tagging him as holding the lead-lined ticket at the head of the unemployment compensation line.

Then again, a mind-numbing 6-7 season in 2010 – in which Richt later pointed out that it wasn’t as if the Bulldogs “got blown out of the water” in those losses – will do that when the fan base has annual aspirations of SEC Championship trips and crystal footballs in mid-January.

Not only did Richt and Georgia end up with seven losses, the seventh one came in particularly embarrassing fashion – a 10-6 loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl that did as much good for UCF’s George O’Leary as it did any confidence straw poll on Richt.

“It hurt real bad. I didn’t enjoy it,” Richt said. “But devastation means you’ve like blown up the program and it’s beyond repair, so I don’t think it was devastating. But it was awful. I can say that.

“I will say this. Coach O’Leary out-coached me. Their team played harder than we played and they deserved to win. We learned from that. We learned that we better compete harder and we learned we better finish better. That was the story of our season.”

And there was also the four-game losing streak that came after a walkover win at Louisiana-Lafayette, which included a 24-12 road defeat at Mississippi State and a 29-27 loss at Colorado.

Nevertheless, Richt acknowledged Thursday that expectations for Georgia are high for 2011 – regardless about the buzz surrounding his future.

“Number one, we know we’ve got an outstanding bunch of football players and some outstanding coaches. We know we have a great fan base. We know that six of our losses were within a touchdown in the fourth quarter,” Richt said. “If we just finished better, we’ll have a better season. We’re not getting blown out of the water, we just didn’t win. We know that.

“We had a tremendous recruiting class. There’s tremendous momentum that was gained by the young men who decided to become a Bulldog. I can’t talk about names or whatever, but we’re getting guys that are committing to us not only for the 2012 class, but 2013 and even 2014. So people have faith in our program and our leadership.

“There’s a lot of reasons to be very optimistic about what’s going on.”

And that decade-long stretch in one place, Mark? Is it getting more difficult to hang on, even with two SEC Championship rings in your 11-year run as Head Bulldog?

“It’s not difficult if you win,” Richt said with a smile. “It’s not difficult if you win nine, 10, 11 a year, win the Eastern Division every other year, win the SEC every three or four years. It’s not a problem at all.

“It’s when you get 6-7, that’s when it’s a problem. But greater days are coming. The best is yet to come.”