It isn’t just the campus landscaping that has blossomed drastically since former University of Miami quarterback Mark Richt left Coral Gables in 1982. Richt, who on Friday was named Hurricanes football coach to much fanfare, says at 55 he is a much-changed person, humbler and wiser than the kid who wore the “U’’ helmet so many years ago.
The death of a young South Miami football player led to a cathartic moment for Richt, a moment that changed the course of his life.
On Sept. 14, 1986, Florida State University offensive tackle Pablo Lopez, a South Miami native, was shot and killed in a Tallahassee parking lot altercation. FSU coach Bobby Bowden gathered his shaken players in the team meeting room, pointed to Lopez’s empty chair, and asked: “Where is Pablo today?’’
Bowden reminded the players that life can be taken anytime and challenged them to think about their mission and the afterlife.
When Bowden went back to his office, 26-year-old graduate assistant coach Richt was there, eager to discuss the topic further. Richt decided that day to become a devout Christian.
That faith has guided Richt for the past three decades. It kept him humble as he racked up 145 wins, seven top-10 finishes and nine bowl-game victories during 15 years as University of Georgia coach.
It helped him cope when he lost his 36-year-old gay older brother Louis to AIDS in 1994. Louis was two years older than Mark, and the two were close.
It inspired him and his wife, Katharyn, who already had two biological sons, Jon and David, to adopt two kids from Ukraine, including a little girl named Anya, who was born with a severe facial deformity from a rare congenital disorder.
It gave him strength when Katharyn was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2006 (she has been cancer-free since surgery, and is finishing up nursing school. She had a final exam Friday).
And Richt says prayer led him back to Miami after a painful dismissal from Georgia, where he was beloved by many but deemed by others unable to win enough Southeastern Conference titles or a national title.
Asked on Friday how he is different now than when he was a UM player, Richt replied: “In a nutshell, in 1986, I became a born-again believer in Jesus Christ and I went from a really self-centered guy to an other-centered guy. My goal became to try to live a life that God will be pleased with on a daily basis.’’
Richt was born in Nebraska, where his father, Lou, was a tool-and-die maker for Western Electric. The family moved to Boulder, Colorado, on Mark’s seventh birthday because Lou got a job at IBM. Another job transfer six years later landed the Richts in Boca Raton. Mark is second-oldest of five siblings, with brother Craig and sisters Michelle and Nicole (Nikki) behind him.
Richt became a star athlete at Boca Raton High. His family nicknamed him “All Turnpike’’ because of the many awards he won up and down the state. He was recruited by FSU, UM and Brown. His dream was to win a national title, win the Heisman Trophy and play in the NFL. He wound up backing up Jim Kelly at UM, got a few looks from NFL teams, but nothing panned out. Unsure what to do with his career, he took a life insurance sales exam. He valet parked cars. He sold sports club memberships. And then, Bowden, who had recruited Richt, offered him a grad assistant coaching job.
He was a natural.
“He really thought he was going to win the Heisman and play in the NFL, and none of that happened, but I am so proud of the man he has become, even more so than his coaching success,’’ said his mother, Helen, reached Friday in Watkinsville, Georgia, where Richt’s both parents (they’re divorced) now live. His sisters also live in the Athens, Georgia, area. Nikki is married to former NFL quarterback Brad Johnson. Michelle is married to minister Kevin Hynes, who served as the Bulldogs’ chaplain.
“I don’t think we’ll all be moving to Miami now, but we definitely will be rooting for the Canes,’’ said his father, Lou. “It was sad when he lost his job, and I’m so happy he got back to what he loves doing. He needs to be coaching, and I’m happy he’s back in Miami, where it all started.’’
Richt visited his mother a few days ago and showed her the 300 text messages he had received, many from former and current players thanking him for being a mentor.
“I was boo-hooing through the whole thing,’’ she said. “He was thinking about maybe taking a year off from coaching, mabye doing some more mission trips, but I told him, ‘This is your mission, to help those kids.’ He doesn’t have to go to another country to help people. He can help these young football players right here. He looked invigorated about the UM job. I told him, ‘You look so good, like you took 10 years off your life.”
Richt vowed Friday to mentor the Hurricanes during and after their playing careers.
“I’m going to ask our players to take care of business academically. I want them to behave socially. And I want them to do their very best in every area of their life and represent this university the right way, but also set themselves up for the future by growing into men that can become wonderful husbands and fathers, and leaders in their communities where they choose to live in when it’s all done.
“I do believe that football coaching at the collegiate level is more than coaching football. It’s about educating young men, it’s about preparing these young men for life, when it’s all said and done when football is over. There will be programs implemented for that as well, during their time here and post-eligibility. I am very interested in helping all the lettermen, when their playing days are over, if they need help getting things going in their business life or whatever it may be.’’
At Georgia, haunted by the suicide of former player Paul Oliver, who was distraught over the end of his career after five years in the NFL, Richt launched the Paul Oliver Network, a mentoring program which helps former players and offers guidance for their personal and professional lives. Another Georgia player contemplated suicide and called Richt, who along with other staff members helped him get back on track. Richt says he will start a similar program at Miami.
“I know I am very biased, but Mark really does walk the walk and is quite a man,’’ said his mother. “When he was little, he went to CCD and took communion, but he didn’t really buy into it then. He was a typical teenager. It wasn’t until that day with Coach Bowden that he changed. I can tell you a whole lot of people in Georgia are crying because they didn’t want to see him go.’’
Richt certainly seemed happy to be back in Coral Gables, though he barely recognized the campus.
“I didn’t know if the landscaping just got phenomenal or I just never noticed it when I was 18 years old,’’ he said, smiling. “But it’s a beautiful place.’’
Former UM quarterback Vinny Testaverde played one season with Richt. He recalled Richt answering his every question, breaking down defenses, coaching him though he was just a teammate.
Testaverde was on the coaching selection committee and also has a son — Vincent Jr. — on the UM team.
He said: “I was schocked that Georgia let him go. But their loss is Miami’s gain. As a parent, there’s no better role model for my son than Mark Richt.”