It’s that exciting time of year. Radio talk shows are buzzing. Fall is just around the corner and whether you’re into sports or not in Georgia that can only mean one thing: it’s football season.
All around the Atlanta area, you can’t miss the fervor of the fans of the University of Georgia’s Bulldogs. The Bulldog nation numbers in the hundreds of thousands cheering endlessly for their Dawgs, and they love nothing more than watching the Bulldogs win on Saturday afternoons.
It is a contagious spirit. Simply driving around the Athens’ campus brings a sense of pride even to transplanted Georgians as we arrived at the athletic complex. Towering trees, rolling hills, and streets lined with students scurrying about to classes, the athletic building was filled with children from summer camps carefully admiring the beautiful trophies representing the proud tradition of winning seasons, “All-Americans” and “Heisman Trophy Winners”! One couldn’t help that among the wide-eyed children that perhaps one was a future Bulldog.
The last few years were especially exciting for UGA fans. In December of 2001, Mark Richt was named head football coach. Since then he has led record-breaking teams in what was already a terrific football program. But Mark Richt the outspoken Christian and widely admired family man represents much more than intercollegiate football.
Coach’s roomy office offers a panoramic view of the football field. On the summer day of our visit we could watch the crews making full use of the sunny day as they carefully manicured the practice field.
Coach Richt exudes excitement, warmth and sincerity. A former player himself, tall and athletically built; he looks the part of the “football coach” naturally, as if chosen for the role by Hollywood central casting. Smiling constantly, Richt had a summer tan. Sunglasses hung around his neck; the coach seemed ready for the players to arrive and eager to get another excited season kicked off.
The coach spent his younger years in Omaha, Nebraska, then, lived for a short while in Colorado. When Mark was thirteen, the Richt family moved to Florida when IBM transferred Mark’s dad. Up until that time, Mark attended church regularly with the family. But shortly after moving to Florida Coach Richt’s parents divorced, and church attendance became irregular. Despite the disappointing separation of his family, Mark remembers loving parents that were there to support him.
Schoolboy athlete Mark Richt was good enough as a high school quarterback to receive a full scholarship to play quarterback at the University of Miami. It was his dream to play football professionally. However, at Miami, playing quarterback meant playing second fiddle to future NFL Hall-of-Fame legend, Jim Kelly. Therefore Mark spent most of his time on the sidelines, watching the accomplished starter play.
Nevertheless, Mark displayed enough skill to earn NFL tryouts for two teams, the Denver Broncos and the Miami Dolphins. The try-outs offered a long shot to live his dream. He didn’t make it either time. At the time it was a shattering blow. “I learned some valuable lessons by not getting what I wanted,” Coach Richt recalls. “That is how we grow up, if we get everything we want, we become spoiled very quickly.”
But football was in his blood. If he couldn’t play, Mark decided that he would coach. That coaching career began at 25, coaching quarterbacks at Florida State University. After years of success and exposure to one of the nation’s most accomplished football programs, Mark was promoted to a lofty position as offensive coordinator of the Seminoles in 1994.
Though during this period at Florida State, Mark was a Christian, but without the commitment for which he is known today. There was one event that forever changed his level of commitment. A player was shot and killed. Understandably this had a devastating impact on the coaching staff and the entire team. Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden, himself a committed Christian told the players of that team that they all needed to consider their eternity. “He asked that if we died tonight, like Pablo had, did we know where we would spend eternity?” Mark remembered that wake up call as if it was yesterday. At that point, the young Coach knew that he needed to get serious about his faith.
Until this defining moment, Mark felt he needed to be a “better” Christian. Like many, he was waiting until his life was right before he came back to God. “I was afraid I needed to be perfect and had a whole list of things I needed to give up first. I also wanted to play ball and was afraid God would send me off on mission trips instead,” he said with a laugh. The next day Mark prayed with Coach Bowden that Christ would come into his life. He also learned that he didn’t need to try to be perfect anymore, that salvation was a gift, not something that he needed to earn.
God did call him to missions, but one spent mostly on the sidelines of a football field. In December 2001, Mark eloquently accepted the head football coaching position at the prestigious University of Georgia—competing in the Southeastern Conference. He had been offered head coaching jobs before, but Mark and wife Katharyn knew God led them and this was the right place at the right time.
It was at Georgia that God gave Mark the opportunity to really impact His kingdom by doing what Richt loved best. The handsome, energetic young coach could use his talents and experience to lead college athletes to be their best, challenge them to be winners but also encouraging them to be men of integrity, while winning football games and breaking records.
After its first SEC Championship in 20 years in 2002, the Dawgs conquered Richt’s mentor Bowden and Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. UGA finished the season ranked third. In ‘03 they played in the Capitol Bowl defeating Purdue, ending that season once again in the top 10. Last season the Bulldogs finished 10-2 and ranked sixth in the nation. The team also won a third straight bowl game, avenged two 2003 losses to LSU by defeating the defending national championship team, as well as beating arch-rival Georgia Tech for the fourth straight time and Florida for the first time since ‘97.
Perhaps invoking the most pride in Mark is his family. Married to Katharyn for 18 years; they have four children, John 15, David 10, Zack 9, and Anya 8. Two were adopted from the Ukraine after a revelation for Mark and Katharyn during an impactful Sunday school class. “We were talking about how the church should be helping those in need. We asked ourselves what were we doing to help?” That led to their going to the Ukraine and bringing home two children that needed a family, making their family of six complete.
When asked the secret of a happy family, Coach was quick to answer. “The marriage comes first. God should be the center of your marriage, and you both agree that God is sovereign and in control. I am to love Katharyn like Christ loved the Church. That is a sacrificial love.”
Like all college football coaches, Mark lives a challenging schedule, leaving little free time to teach values to his children and be a devoted husband and father. But his commitment to honor God by honoring his family is more than important to this busy coach. “Often we have breakfast together and then I’ll read from the Bible. Then we discuss how to apply that to the day. Each day one child will pick a Christmas card from the previous year, and we will pray for that family together,” he said.
The definitive style of Coach Richt works whether at home with his own children or on the field. Laying out clear expectations and having consequences for poor behavior is effective leadership. Consistency in character and integrity are key to the success in this man of God, but even with those qualities he must daily be at his best professionally and maintain standards of excellence. “Bottom line is, you don’t win, you don’t stay,” he says as acknowledges the strict demands of coaching one of the best programs in the country.
Many would say he is living his dream, as he would surely attest. Admitting that all Christians should live their dream but few actually do, I asked what he would advise to anyone of any age what they should do to live a fulfilling Christian life? His answer was like hitting a bull’s eye in a dart game. “I would tell them to read Colossians 3. ‘Whatever you do, do it heartily, as for the Lord rather than for man.’”
Richt continued, “I don’t know if that means there is a ‘one thing’, but Scripture says, ‘whatever you do, do it heartily’, meaning the very best you can do. Motivation would not be money, praise, adoration, or glory; the motivation is to please God. If you make choices accordingly, chances are whatever you do, you will do it well.”
Taking advise from any winner can be rewarding, but Coach Richt’s advice just may be life-changing council. In a society where people often over commit and under-perform, we are spread thin and excellence is a rare commodity.
Living your dream can be as simple as saying no to anything undeserving of your personal passion. With that said, use sound judgment. Wisdom says you don’t quit a job you have little passion for until you have sought God and wise council, but one way to avoid mundane commitments is to say no.
The next time you are faced with a decision to commit your time, simply take an inventory of your passion. Is this something I will do heartily, as for the Lord? If not, don’t do it. From those decisions, less time commitment will enable you to better hear God as he leads you towards your purpose, thus allowing your truest passions to surface.
No matter your team of choice, you can be a winner too! Simply guard your time and live your passions by saying no to what you cannot commit to do heartily. Daily meditate on Colossians 3 and live an intentional life full of purpose and passion.