ATHENS, Ga. - Mark Richt emerges from his office on a recent morning wearing a blue jogging suit. He's warm and cordial to a visitor, but there is an element of distraction. His mind appears elsewhere, concentrating on more important matters. And why shouldn't it be?
He's been living at Holiday Inn for almost two months now, with his wife and children - "four kids in one room is a little tight," he remarks - who joined him there two weeks before this late-February morning.
It's tough to feel at home when you don't have a home, and the Richts are working on that. They've recently closed on a new house, and they expect to abandon their temporary digs in a few days.
For a deeply spiritual family that spent 15 years in Tallahassee, Fla., finding a church is high on the to-do list. Also, there's seeing that the children's transition to new schools in a new town continues to go smoothly.
There's that football thing to worry about, too. The 40-year-old Richt happens to be University of Georgia's 25th football coach, the man charged with ushering the Bulldogs to gridiron greatness.
"Until you sit in this chair, you really don't know what you're dealing with," said Richt, whose team will conclude spring drills today with the annual G-Day game. "You might think you're ready for the next step, and you probably are, but until you're living it, you really don't know all the things that come into play and all the decisions that need to be made and all the people that are expecting a piece of you."
IT WILL TAKE about a year, Richt estimates, before he'll be truly comfortable in his role as the Bulldogs' third coach in six years.
He's not some Lou Holtz or Dennis Erickson who relies on proven formulas from past water-to-wine miracles to establish himself. It's his first job as a head coach, and melding the diverse ideas and philosophies of nine assistant coaches into something productive will take time.
"It's not like I brought eight assistants from Florida State and everybody knows exactly how we're doing it," said Richt, who spent seven seasons as the Seminole's offensive coordinator before signing a five-year contract worth $750,000 annually Dec. 26.
"It's the very simple things that you just kind of take for granted sometimes."
Little should be taken for granted at Georgia, and the fate of the man Richt replaced serves as ample proof. Jim Donnan was fired despite a 40-19 record in five seasons - the program's best four-year run since 1980-83 - and four straight bowl victories.
On the field, Donnan soured his fans and his bosses with too many losses to his chief rivals. Georgia was a combined 4-4 against Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech in Donnan's first two years but 2-10 against the four thereafter. The Bulldogs were a combined 2-8 against the Volunteers and Gators on his watch, 4-6 against the Tigers and Yellow Jackets.
RICHT DOESN'T NEED a refresher on expectations and high-stakes football. A 10-2 record is great at almost any place but Florida State, and a loss to Florida or Miami makes for a long winter in Tallahassee.
So Richt can cope with the demands of a Bulldog Nation that often was on the brink of revolt in 2000. The season began with talk of a championship but ended with an 8-4 record and a trip to the nondescript Oahu Bowl.
Perception is almost as important as performance at Georgia, and many fans perceived Donnan as surly and arrogant. The 55-year-old wasn't the most interactive or endearing of coaches on the booster circuit, and he sometimes engaged in heated exchanges with fans on his weekly radio show.
Donnan's successor said he's comfortable knowing he can't please everyone.
"It's common courtesy and normal to treat people with respect and to be friendly and polite and be professional about how you go about your business," said Richt, who considered Missouri and Virginia before taking the job at Georgia.
"I know that I'm going to make a lot of decisions that people won't be happy with, because no matter what decision you make, somebody is not going to like it."
But good public relations is secondary to the real issue, which involves winning over the masses by winning on Saturday. Every Saturday, preferably.
"There's not a lot of margin for error as far as what people want," said Richt, a former quarterback at University of Miami. "It's tough to meet the expectations of anybody's program."
LATELY, GEORGIA'S PLAYERS have displayed an embarrassing inability to conform to expectations of the law. From late December to late January, three Bulldogs were in the headlines for the wrong reasons:
On Jan. 20, defensive end Charles Grant was arrested and charged with pandering, a misdemeanor. Police said the junior offered an undercover officer money for sex.
On Jan. 12, safety Terreal Bierria was arrested on an outstanding warrant in Carroll County. Authorities said Bierria had twice failed to appear in court for charges of underage possession of alcohol.
On Dec. 27, senior running back Jasper Sanks was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana.
Also, before the 2000 season, seven players were suspended for one game for using a school long-distance code to make personal calls.
The off-field incidents seemed to confirm the professed view of university president Michael Adams, who said Dec. 4 at the news conference announcing Donnan's firing that the problems under the head coach had "reached a level of institutional concern."
So it makes sense that discipline is Richt's top priority. Richt said he meted out most of the punishment in the form of early-morning conditioning drills and community service.
"You've got to try to decide what to do about it, and those answers are never easy," he said. "It's easy to throw a guy off the team. It might be easy or popular to suspend guys for games. You've got to try to find a balance. Discipline definitely needs to occur in these situations."
Defensive line coach Rodney Garner, the only holdover from Donnan's staff, said the rules apply to everyone and every place.
"There are boundaries set, and those boundaries are for everybody," he said. "It is very demanding. Off the field, we want to make them accountable, not just to us as coaches, but to one another. They have to understand that if they miss class, if they miss study hall, if they miss a tackle, the rest of their teammates are penalized."
Doling out discipline hasn't been Richt's only problem during the spring. Injuries have hit the Bulldogs hard, particularly in the offensive backfield. In the first three days of drills, sophomore Musa Smith suffered a broken bone in his right foot and freshman Albert Hollis tore ligaments in his right knee.
Also missing time because of less serious injuries were linebackers Boss Bailey and Chris Clemons, Grant, Sanks and offensive lineman George Foster.
IT'S BEEN 21 years since Georgia's national championship season of 1980, 19 years since the Bulldogs' last SEC title and 18 years since they finished in the top five of the national rankings. Since 1983, Georgia has been ranked 10th or better in the Associated Press poll twice - 1992 and 1997.
In Richt's mind, returning to the glory days won't happen just by acting or playing like the great teams of the past; the Bulldogs will look like them, too.
Georgia's uniforms will go retro come fall. Richt will return the solid white stripe to the helmets, whose back will feature the players' jersey numbers and be adorned with merit-based decals.
Black and white pants, which were occasionally used under Donnan, will be shelved in favor of the silver garb popularized by former coach Vince Dooley.
"We're really looking to get to what is traditional," Richt said. "There's a lot of great tradition at the University of Georgia that I think we need to tap into. We want the players to realize there was a past, and there was a lot of positive things that happened in the past. Not to say that nothing positive has happened lately, but sometimes if you can draw from what has happened in the past - the pride of the heyday, the times when things were the best.
"I think that can help motivate these guys to try to emulate that very same thing."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or email@example.com.
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