Greg Cote

Mark Richt needs only look up over his shoulder to see UM’s expectations, and his burden

Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt speaks to the media at the University of Miami on Monday, August 8, 2016.
Miami Hurricanes head coach Mark Richt speaks to the media at the University of Miami on Monday, August 8, 2016. adiaz@miamiherald.com

One climbs stairs and steps into Mark Richt’s University of Miami office and immediately notices it doesn’t exactly have a homey, lived-in look.

The pale-green walls, a shade not to his liking, are mostly unadorned. There are three frames of leftover inspirational quotes that were there when he moved in. His to-do list hasn’t allowed much time for interior decorating since taking over as the Hurricanes head football coach eight months ago. He is not behind his desk as a visitor enters. Instead, with apologies, Richt is sneaking in a quick lunch, spearing pieces of cantaloupe and grapes, in between Monday’s media-day event and afternoon film sessions.

The unmistakable focal point of the office: Pictures of the five national championship rings UM won between 1983 and 2001. He didn’t put them there, but he knows they loom over everything. They are over his shoulder. They are his shadow.

“I’ve inherited that history,” he says.

Richt was hired to breathe new life into that history, and the proving that he can is about to begin. It’s been easy so far. All he has had to be is the popular hire — popular because Al Golden wasn’t, and popular because Richt came with the proven pedigree of 15 years at Georgia in the tough Southeastern Conference, and also the stamp of family after having been a UM backup quarterback in 1978-82, just before the dynasty commenced.

Miami athletic director Blake James on Monday described “a real wave of energy” in UM’s bell-cow program since Richt’s hiring. Hurricane Club membership and donations are way up. So are football ticket sales for the season that begins Sept. 3 vs. Florida A&M.

Now all Richt has to do is win. A lot. Make Miami strong enough to challenge Florida State and Clemson atop the Atlantic Coast Conference. Return the Canes to national prominence at long last. And eventually put a sixth ring on that high wall above his desk.

I ask Richt about the weight of all that.

“I feel excitement,” he says. “I don’t feel weight.”

He knows about the pent-up expectations, though. About all of those fans who long to proclaim of UM football, “We’re back!,” and to say it with a vengeance.

He notes what a “great situation” it was for him when the job at his alma mater became available last winter in lockstep with his time in Athens ending and adds, smiling, “I hope UM fans continue to feel that way, too.”

Richt, 56, surprised us Monday by saying he likely would have taken this season off or even quit coaching altogether if the perfect job had not presented itself.

“I probably would have sat out and possibly retired, yes,” he said. “I didn’t know what I’d do. There was media [broadcasting]. Could have been an ambassador at Georgia and helped raise money. I didn’t know.”

Then UM called, and Richt quickly accepted the challenge of resurrecting a once-elite program. Don’t talk to him about “bringing the swagger back” though. The popular T-shirt among Canes fans reads, “The U Invented Swagger,” but the whole notion of that makes him wince a little bit. He knows, rightly, that swagger isn’t something handed down or inherited. It must be earned, one way only.

“Do you think those players invented the word swag? You think the players said, ‘Hey, we got swag?’ ” he asks, rhetorically. “They didn’t do that. What’d they do? They won. If they didn’t win, nobody would be talking about swagger. If they didn’t line up and whip somebody across the field, there’d be no swagger. I want our players to play well enough and win enough for somebody to give us a name. If it’s swagger, fine. But swagger to me is not antics. It’s production. It’s execution.

Wise old coach that he is, Richt is guaranteeing nothing but readiness and effort.

He says, “We’ll never go into any game not thinking we’re going to win,” but otherwise makes no promises. The starting point of Richt and quarterback Brad Kaaya alone give UM a shot to be a ranked team that competes to play its way into the ACC Championship Game, but he is honest about what separates Miami, right now, from Alabama and other elite programs.

“Teams that year in, year out have recruited well enough over time to survive attrition due to graduation, guys turning pro, guys getting in trouble,” he says. “There is attrition in college football, and without depth you won’t be a great program. You’ve got to put [successful] recruiting years together that will help you sustain excellence.”

For now, Richt loves what he sees of his 2016 squad. Outside his office there is a wall entitled “114 Whys.” On it, every player lists who or what he is most playing for.

“Mom & Dad,” reads one testimonial. “For my city,” reads another.

“I feel like we’re on track,” says the new boss, 25 days from his first season opener as UM coach.

Richt is a big part of why this looks to be a golden age of sorts for South Florida’s major team sports in terms of the coaches leading them.

Start in Coral Gables. Richt deserves every benefit of doubt as being just the right hire for UM football ... except there is no doubt at all about that. And Jim Larrañaga and Katie Meier have UM basketball in excellent hands.

At the pro level, Don Mattingly is proving to have been a smart managerial hire for the Marlins, Gerard Gallant has the hockey Panthers headed right, and Erik Spoelstra might be the biggest reason to still believe in the Heat. New Dolphins coach Adam Gase is debatable in a way Richt is not — one has the proof of résumé, while the other is a rookie NFL head coach — but there is little doubt that Gase is highly regarded and spoken of in glowing terms thus far in training camp.

(Then again, when one follows the likes of Cam Cameron and Joe Philbin, the bar has been set so low that Gase towers Lombardi-like by comparison even as he readies for his first exhibition game.)

Expectations are such that Gase will be a conquering hero if the Dolphins merely eke into the playoffs on his watch.

Expectations are higher for Richt. They are as high as those five championship rings that rise nearly to the ceiling above the desk in his office.

“I feel excitement,” he says. “I don’t feel weight.”

The weight starts when the wait ends.

The games are almost here.

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