Former University of Miami center Brett Romberg was at the Georgia Dome for an Atlanta Falcons-Minnesota Vikings game on Nov. 29 when an announcement over the public-address system rocked the stadium.
Mark Richt had been dismissed as the Georgia Bulldogs coach.
“The stadium went frickin’ nuts,” said Romberg, the center who ended his NFL career with the Falcons and played for UM’s last national championship team in 2001. “People started booing, screaming, crying, you name it. Adrian Peterson had rushed for 158 yards, and all anybody talked about was Mark Richt.
“That guy was a god in Atlanta.”
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Maybe so, but even after one of the most illustrious careers in college football history, this revered coach who grew up in Boca Raton and was a backup Hurricanes quarterback for then-future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Jim Kelly, had not brought a national title to Athens, Georgia. The man respected for his integrity and amazing football record wasn’t quite amazing enough — despite nine of 15 seasons with double-digit wins, two Southeastern Conference titles, another four SEC East titles and seven AP top-10 finishes.
So, exactly five weeks after Al Golden was fired on the heels of UM’s worst loss in history, a 58-0 embarrassment against Clemson, Richt was let go after a superlative 145-51 overall record (.738) at Georgia.
“The expectations have been built to the point where if you don’t win a championship, it’s kind of miserable around here,’’ Richt acknowledged at his farewell Georgia news conference.
Georgia’s loss has been Miami’s gain. Richt has come home, and South Florida has embraced his return.
“His arms are open to former players and the community, and it’s just beautiful,’’ said former UM cornerback Tolbert Bain, 52, with whom Richt conferred about his plan to regularly visit youth football programs throughout South Florida. “I want to send the Georgia athletic director a fruit basket for doing us this great favor.’’
Among the many ways UM has benefited even before Richt’s opener against FAMU at 6 p.m. Saturday:
▪ Season-ticket sales are expected to reach 40,000.
▪ Hurricane Club membership has exceeded 10,000 for the first time and reached an all-time high $12 million through its annual fund.
▪ Fund-raising for a $28 million to $30 million indoor practice facility, for which Richt pledged $1 million, has been strong.
▪ Former players are reinvigorated by Richt’s insistence on their inclusion in UM’s events and culture.
▪ Overall fan exuberance, with Richt’s avid support of the community, is palpable.
“It’s the direction we want to go — back toward the top,” UM athletic director Blake James said. “Since last Dec. 4, when we announced Mark’s hiring, there has been a real wave of energy around the program.”
Said Richt of the “outpouring” of support: “It has been a little overwhelming.”
Richt has a new staff of animated, upbeat assistant coaches. He will be calling plays again on an offense for the first time in several years for a quarterback, Brad Kaaya, regarded as a first-round NFL prospect. He’s fit and feeling terrific after losing 40 pounds in the past few months. He’s reunited with his son and 2-year-old granddaughter, Jadyn. And the wife he openly adores, Katharyn Richt, has graduated from nursing school and joined him at their townhome in Coconut Grove, where peacocks have visited and reaffirmed to Richt that he lives in “paradise.”
Basically, he’s a happy man.
“He’s loving life again,’’ said Miami quarterbacks coach Jon Richt, Richt’s son, whose little girl has filled her grandfather with joy. “Not just football — he’s loving life. He’s having a great time down here in Miami. He’s back home, he’s competing with the guys in drills and he’s involved the whole time.
“His plan is to be here as long as we can. This is his last stop.”
Mark Richt has repeatedly said his team can win the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and after that go for the ACC title and, hopefully, whatever comes next.
“All we can do is ask our student-athletes to work as hard as they can, prepare the best they can, play as hard as they can,’’ he said.
Richt’s players, for the most part, have listened.
“Everybody in the building feels he’ll get us to the next level,” receiver Braxton Berrios said of his coach, a devout Christian who believes it’s equally important to turn his players into kind, productive men. “He’s proven. What he did at Georgia was incredible. Coach Richt can be the turning point for this program.’’
Said safety Jamal Carter: “I love him. Really, I love him. He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t say much, but when he says something he means it. He shows us he cares about us.’’
Miami football, which finished 8-5 in 2015, has been mired in mediocrity since Larry Coker’s last season coaching in 2006. UM’s cumulative record since then: 71-56 (.559).
The Canes’ cumulative record from 1996 through 2005 (including the three years UM lost 31 scholarships from NCAA sanctions): 96-26 (.786).
UM has lost its past six bowl games dating to 2008.
Can Richt turn Miami into a winner again?
“Yes,” said college football analyst and broadcaster Gino Torretta, UM’s 1992 Heisman-winning quarterback. “Miami is still in his blood. He’s obviously re-energized and taking a more active role in coaching the offense like he first did when he took over at Georgia.
“Mark learned from some great coaches here and coached under a great one [Bobby Bowden] at Florida State. … His credentials are far superior to [former UM coach] Al Golden’s from a coaching perspective. Look at his track record. Not many guys are able to be a head coach in the SEC for 15 years and put up the wins he did.”
One of those quarterbacks Richt mentored when he was FSU’s offensive coordinator (1994-2000) was Danny Kanell, 42, now an ESPN college football analyst who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, threw for more than 8,000 yards as a Seminole and played for three NFL teams.
“I thought Georgia fans were being incredibly unrealistic in their expectations,” Kanell said. “You get awfully spoiled winning nine and 10 games a year. Then, when you’re watching other teams, specifically Alabama, winning multiple national championships, you start to look around and think, ‘Why isn’t that us.’ The first person to go is the coach.”
Kanell described Richt’s coaching style as “cerebral’’ and “not demeaning.”
“He’s conversational,” Kanell said. “He explains things on the field. But he’ll also lash into you if you need it. I missed a mat drill — I was sleeping in — and I’ll never forget the way he just laid into me. I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’
“Mark Richt is an exceptional football coach, and he’s going to have his team coached up. But no matter how football works out for anyone on that roster — Brad Kaaya or the 110th man — they’ll be better men if they listen to what Mark Richt is telling them.”
Howard Schnellenberger, who coached Richt at Miami and went on to lead the Hurricanes to their first national title, said the Richt hire was “a marriage made in heaven.”
“Without question, the best place to start with a new football team is right there in Coral Gables,’’ Schnellenberger said. “Now all he has to do is get the choir, the cadre and the fans to come together in unison and start acting like stout-hearted warriors and believers and get this ball rolling.
“You’d have to be a renegade not to come home for Mark Richt.”
Game plan: Pro-style offense
Mark Richt is back to calling the offense and reigning over the quarterbacks — with his son, Jon, designated the quarterbacks coach and running backs coach Thomas Brown assisting him.
Richt’s pro-style offense is more traditional than the current trend of four- and five-wide receiver sets with a dual-threal quarterback. His aim is to make quarterback Brad Kaaya less vulnerable by establishing a physical run game and giving Kaaya plenty of protection to throw from the pocket. Thus, a fullback will be used often, as well as two backs and sometimes multiple tight ends. There also will be more huddling.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t mix it up.
“Mark Richt is an offensive mastermind,’’ said ESPN college football analyst Danny Kanell, a former NFL quarterback who played for Richt when Richt was the offensive coordinator at Florida State. “He will incorporate some of the spread-em-out-wide concepts being used today in college, but his identity is more traditional. There will be multiple formations and multiple concepts that are going to help Brad Kaaya make the jump to the next level and are more similar to the NFL game than the current college game.’’