It’s Thursday night — “Date Night” or “Family Night” — as University of Miami football coach Mark Richt sometimes calls it.
In less than 24 hours, Richt will leave for the airport with his players for their first Atlantic Coast Conference game at Georgia Tech. But on this night, when college football coaches across America are dissecting their next opponents, packing to board planes or just plain worrying about the coming Saturday, Richt stands in front of more than 100 kneeling, sweaty boys, ages 4 to 13, donning green and orange football jerseys.
The coach, 56, looks them in the eyes and tells them about life.
“How many of you want to play college football one day?” Richt asks, as 100-plus hands reach for the sky, where the setting sun is streaking swirls of cotton-candy blue and pink among the clouds at Fort Lauderdale’s Mills Ponds Park.
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“I’m looking to see, ‘Are you good enough to help us win the ACC and good enough to help us win the national championship?’ ” says Richt, quickly segueing into the importance of school.
“It’s No. 1 at what you should be taking care of. No matter what happens in life, no one can take your education away from you. Football can’t take it away. An injury can take football away, but an injury can’t take away your education.
“So, hey, do good in school while you’re little. Do good in school as you’re growing up through middle school and high school. Get in the habit of doing things right. Because wherever you go, you’re going to have to act a certain way to be able to stay on a football team.
“Third thing I’m looking for?”
A tiny voice yells out: “Attitude!”
“Yeah,” Richt says. “I’m looking for your character. … Do I have to worry about him every time I turn around? Do I have to worry if he’s going to do something dumb? I want guys who are going to do it right. It’s hard to find guys who put the team first. Everybody wants it to be about them…
“The Richt family loves every one of you all, wants every one of you guys to do great, wants to see you succeed in life.”
Whether it’s money, time or a message he believes will help others choose the right path, Richt, a former UM quarterback and one of the most successful coaches in college football history at Georgia over the past 15 seasons, knows all about giving.
He and his wife, Katharyn, donated $1 million of their own money toward a new indoor football practice facility that will be built within the next two years at the University of Miami. He is forming a program — “U Network” — to connect adult Hurricanes with employment opportunities after their playing days end. He had his Miami players visit several schools and community centers in Miami-Dade this past offseason to mingle with kids, play games with them on playgrounds and offer them advice. He and fellow assistants also have run youth coaching clinics, like the one in Plantation for 300 coaches.
“Mark Richt is genuine,” said Tolbert Bain, 52, a former Miami cornerback who won national titles in 1983 and ’87 and has helped Richt organize some of the outings. “There are so many different parks in the area, and he’s reaching out. Just imagine if you’re a kid playing youth football and the Miami coach stops at your practice. He answers every question and takes pictures with the kids. He enjoys himself.
“These kids are going to remember.”
Brian Blades II, the 13-year-old son of former Canes receiver Brian Sr., plays cornerback and receiver for the Fort Lauderdale Hurricanes of Mills Pond Park. “It was fun listening to him,” the younger Blades said. “I’d love to play for the real Hurricanes. My dad and uncle played for them, and I want to keep the legacy going.”
Said his dad: “It’s a blessing that a person like that would be involved in our community. We haven’t had coaches from UM do this in a long, long time.”
Little Brian’s uncle, Bennie Blades, won the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back for Miami in 1987.
“A lot of these kids will never have the chance to come out and watch Miami play,” Bennie Blades said. “Just to see a major coach take interest in what they’re doing says a lot about his character. And if you’ve got a coach with character, you’ve got a coach with substance.”
Richt, the father of three grown sons and a daughter, said his park visits, which have halted temporarily as UM gets into the heart of its season, will continue afterward.
“This is fun,” he said. “What better way to spend the night than to be out here with these kids and see real positive things happening?”
He explained that when he and his wife moved to South Florida before the season, “one of the things we wanted to do was get into the communities and try to do everything we could to bless them.”
He tells the youngsters that he’s there for “a selfish reason,” as well. “I know there are a lot of great players here,” Richt told the youth Hurricanes — no connection to the collegiate ones — at Mills Pond Park. “You already have the U on your hat. You already know how to shoot the U. I just want you to get good in practice, so when it’s time to decide what college to go to…”
Shavis Linder, 9, a third-grader from Pinewood Elementary in North Lauderdale, is a 102-pound defensive end for the Fort Lauderdale Hurricanes.
“I like coach Richt,” Shavis said. “He’s good talking about stuff that’s real-life, like people having good lives and being thankful, being safe and taking care of your family.
“It affected me.”
Enough so that Shavis will think of the day Richt came to visit if he ever gets good enough to play in college.
“I’m still going to Florida State,” he said, pointing to his father. “That’s my daddy’s choice.”
The elder Linder laughed and said he appreciated Richt’s thoughtfulness and that his words were “definitely an inspiration to the kids.”
“I’ve always had a respect for UM because it’s a college in my backyard,” he said. “Mark Richt really is a good person.”