Greg Cote

Blindside hit! Mark Richt can call it retirement, but he just quit on the Hurricanes

Mark Richt delivered a massive blindside hit Sunday to the University of Miami and the football program he came to rescue and return to national prominence.

Richt abruptly announced he was retiring from coaching after 18 seasons — including the past three at UM that produced a 26-13 record, emphasizing the decision was all his.

He can call it a retirement.

It felt more like quitting.

Richt just quit on UM when it needed him most to cap a dispiriting season and an utterly miserable December for The U.

In the span of a few weeks, the Canes lost elite defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who left to become Temple’s head coach. They watched recruiting sag sharply to a national ranking of 34th for the recent early signing period. They were humiliated in a 35-3 loss to an ordinary Wisconsin team in the Pinstripe Bowl to end a 7-6 season.

Now this.

Now the head coach pivots on his heels and walks away, not only leaving a job unfinished, but leaving it in a shambles.

The timing? Exquisitely awful.

Diaz was the only coach on his staff with the heft to be a head coach, perhaps to be UM’s heir to Richt. Had Richt made his decision a few weeks earlier, or made his intentions known to Diaz, perhaps Diaz never would have left. Now — short of Diaz telling Temple he’s changed his mind and galloping back to Coral Gables on a white steed, though wrapped in controversy — UM and athletics boss Blake James have no choice but to name an interim guy from the staff and launch the proverbial national search.

Meanwhile many or most UM’s early-signing-period commitments feel betrayed, gut-punched by Richt’s out-of-the-blue decision.

The search for his replacement had better be far-reaching, painstaking, creative and not constricted by money limitations. Miami needs either a proven winner or The Next Big Thing, someone with the draw to make recruits want to come to Miami, someone who has the map to getting UM back all the way — and the patience to commit to it.

It can be a veteran coach. Could UM maybe coax Urban Meyer to change his mind about retiring? Its worth a feeler phone call.

Miami’s next guy also could be a find, a gem. Like what Oklahoma now has in 35-year-old Lincoln Riley.

In any case, the Hurricanes need a head coach who wants this program, and this challenge, as much as this program needs and wants him.

Richt returning to his alma mater seemed to be that perfect marriage.

It seemed perfect as recently as late last season, when Miami once was 10-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation before the train derailed.

His UM career started out 19-4. From there he was 7-9. His honeymoon had ended. There was some disgruntlement, whispers after the bowl loss that he’d “lost the lockerroom.” But there was nothing to suggest Richt was on a hot seat with the university or that he wouldn’t be back for a fourth season and beyond. To see this through.

Then he quit.

Retirement was the word he used.

But he quit.

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Greg Cote is a Miami Herald sports columnist who in 2018 was named top 10 in column writing by the Associated Press Sports Editors. Greg also appears regularly on the Dan LeBatard Show With Stugotz on ESPN Radio and ESPNews.