The Bulldogs’ longtime mentor was speaking to a gathering of the county’s high school coaches, and other local dignitaries, during the 25th annual event sponsored by the Marietta Daily Journal and Cobb EMC.
New to the luncheon was Cobb County’s first intercollegiate football program, Kennesaw State. The Owls were represented by a contingent led by coach Brian Bohannon and athletic director Vaughn Williams.
Richt said he had many glamorous moments over his first 12 years at Georgia, winning two SEC coach of the year awards, two SEC titles and making three other appearances in SEC championship games. He’s also led the Bulldogs to bowl games each year, and he was 5 yards away from playing for a national championship last season, before Alabama made a defensive stand to win the SEC title at the Georgia Dome.
But Richt’s coaching status quickly went from “glamorous” to being on the “hot seat” after he experienced his first losing season — a 6-7 mark in 2010 after quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno departed early for the NFL draft.
In front of his high school counterparts, Richt discussed handling adversity, and how Georgia bounced back in 2011 by going 10-4 after a 0-2 start and playing for an SEC championship.
“You guys have heard of the hot seat, right?” Richt asked from the podium. “In the FBS, there’s an excellent website called the ‘Coaches Hot Seat,’ if you even look at that thing. They rank coaches from 1 to 125, and the goal is to not be in the top 10. If you get into the top 10, they actually have your picture across the front of the website, and you have flames coming around your face.”
Richt did what he could to refrain from the negative publicity when he fell under the microscope, and he went about his business of getting ready for the next game. But he would know something was up when he would go to church, and parishioners would either give him blank stares or approach him by saying, “We’re praying for you.”
After Georgia started 2011 with losses to Boise State and South Carolina, Richt said he was then approached at church and told, “We’re fasting for you.”
Richt didn’t have much to say after losing 35-21 to Boise State, but after losing 45-42 to South Carolina, he only focused on the positives and that this team had the potential to turn things around. The Bulldogs continued to focus on the positives, along with team unity, and they won the next 10 games.
“The No. 1 thing he shared was capturing the heart of the team,” said second-year Kennesaw Mountain coach Andy Scott, who is building the Mustangs from what was a winless team before his arrival. “The message we all preach as football coaches is teaching them how to win at football, but we also have to teach them how to win at life. The players will eventually be role models in society, and that’s our responsibility.”
Added Walton coach Rocky Hidalgo, who is trying to bounce the Raiders back from an injury-plagued 2012 season: “We’re just as important to our players as they are to us.”
After that 2011 season, Richt said he was asked how he dealt with personal criticism. He referred to what Bobby Bowden once said while Richt was an assistant to the longtime Florida State coach.
“He said, if we can’t handle criticism, get out of the business,” Richt said. “You’re going to get criticized because you have that leadership position. He also said criticism is pointed toward the position, not you personally.”
The openly religious Richt also referred to a Bible verse, Jeremiah 17:7 — “But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.” One day in his time at Florida State, Richt received a call from Chad Ward, the brother of former Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, suggesting that he read that verse.
Before closing his speech Friday, Richt gave one last piece of advice to the assembled crowd.
“The bottom line, I trusted God, no matter what happens. In the end, God isn’t going to judge us on the games we win. He will judge us based on our relationships with him.”