A jubilant mood enveloped the University of Miami campus Friday even as rain pelted Lake Osceola.
Mark Richt was introduced as the new football coach. No crown was placed on his head, but the packed ceremony certainly felt like a coronation. Current players, former players, trustees, UM administrative brass and coaches of other teams beamed and applauded and reached out to shake Richt’s hand.
It has been a long time since such a palpable sense of confidence permeated the football program.
The choice of Richt has caused remarkably little dissension or debate. Not only is he beloved and respected, but he’s coming back to his alma mater. He spent 15 clean and productive years at Georgia amassing a 145-51 record in the brutal Southeastern Conference, finishing seven seasons in The Associated Press top 10. He’s the right fit at the right time.
How important is this hire after a dozen years of mediocrity?
“Before I ever set foot on this campus I was told Hurricane football is sort of important,” said UM president Julio Frenk, who started his job 3 1/2 months ago. “Football is not just part of what we do here but part of who we are.”
Even Frenk, a newcomer to Cane culture, understands that football success isn’t merely a fringe benefit at UM but part of the identity of the school and the city.
KNOWS THE HISTORY
UM’s five national championships were won during a span of time when Miami the place and Miami the academic institution were in the midst of a turbulent evolution.
No one can catalog Miami’s growing-up phase in the wild 1980s and 1990s without including the characters of UM’s football narrative: Howard Schnellenberger, Jim Kelly, Jerome Brown, Vinny Testaverde, Jimmy Johnson, Randal “Thrill” Hill, Michael Irvin, Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis, Sean Taylor, Edgerrin James, the military fatigues, the Orange Bowl, 2 Live Crew, the Sports Illustrated cover calling for abolishing the program, the hometown talent, the swagger, the brotherhood, the victories, victories and more victories.
Richt was there at the beginning of that glorious arc, as a backup quarterback from 1978 to 1982. He understands exactly where UM has been and where it needs to go in the second half of the second decade of the 21st century.
“I’m very excited to be home — this is home — and I’m very thankful,” he said, wearing a UM tie and lapel pin. “I don’t want to make a lot of promises other than that we’re going to get to work.”
UM’s leaders made the correct call in selecting a coach with Richt’s pedigree rather than take a chance for the third time in a row on a supposed up-and-comer. That strategy worked with Johnson, Dennis Erickson and Butch Davis but not with Randy Shannon or Al Golden. Those leaders also decided they’d have to swallow hard and make a serious upgrade in annual salary, from Golden’s $2.5 million to Richt’s $4-plus million.
UM has never lacked athletes. They simply did not improve in recent years; they stagnated in Coral Gables. Richt is a proven teacher. Over the past 14 years, 77 of his players were selected in the NFL Draft. During his tenure as an assistant at Florida State, he sent six quarterbacks to the NFL.
HIS FINAL STOP
Richt, 55, won’t be using UM as a steppingstone. He intends to stay here until he retires, which was his intention at Georgia until he was let go at the end of a disappointing season that included an ugly loss to Florida. The feeling in Georgia was that the Richt reign had run its course, that there were humps he couldn’t hurdle (such as Alabama), that change would be mutually beneficial.
He considered taking a year off, but the outpouring of affection from former players “wishing me well and thanking me, even from guys I’d dismissed from the team … that got me,” proving that Richt genuinely cares about “getting these young men ready for life.” And, “I knew this job wouldn’t be open next year,” he said.
Moving from Athens, he will find plenty of invigorating challenges both living in and coaching at Miami, such as revamping the defense, developing quarterback Brad Kaaya, reviving the skill, grit and muscle on the line of scrimmage that used to complement UM’s talent at the speed positions, and refilling Sun Life Stadium, the “home field” UM is stuck with for now. Recruiting won’t be a problem. Assembling a strong staff (that should include Larry Scott unless Scott gets a better offer) is critical.
Angry and distraught South Florida football fans should rejoice at the arrival of Richt. The Dolphins are another, sadder story. UM should finally contend for an Atlantic Coast Conference title and, although the college football landscape has changed, a return to a perennial spot in the top 10 has to be a goal. Georgia’s decision to part ways with Richt dovetailed perfectly in giving UM the answer it was seeking. Davis would have been a smart choice; Richt is better.
As Don Bailey Jr. said during his introduction of his old teammate, the homecoming of Richt is “a dream come true.”