Mark Richt has a problem most college football coaches would envy, but it's still a problem.
Richt has averaged 10 wins a year entering his 10th season at the University of Georgia, a stint of extended success that is unprecedented in program history. Yet the Bulldogs are coming off an 8-5 season, the worst in Richt's tenure, and the two Southeastern Conference title trophies he won in 2002 and '05 are beginning to gather dust in a league now dominated by Alabama and Florida.
"He has done what others have done, like Bobby Bowden and maybe myself and others who have set the bar high," former Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley said. "Once the bar is set that high, then the expectations go right along with that, and anything less than that is judged by what happened last year or the year before. It's about expectations, and expectations are built on success.
"He's such an outstanding coach and such an outstanding person, and the one single nemesis has been Florida more than anything else."
Expectations under Richt went through the roof during his second season, 2002, when the Bulldogs went 13-1, ended a 20-year SEC championship drought and finished No. 3 nationally. They have not won that many games in a season since but claimed the second SEC title in '05 and finished No. 2 nationally in '07 after capping an 11-2 season with a crushing of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.
Georgia began the '08 season ranked No. 1 but lost three games -- including dreadful defeats to the Crimson Tide and Gators -- before last year's erratic team plummeted to the Independence Bowl.
"The bottom line is that we've gone through a whole class of players from freshman to senior year that have not been a part of a championship season," Richt said. "We want to get back on track."
Richt's 90-27 overall record with the Bulldogs translates into a 76.9-percent win clip that ranks third nationally among coaches who have been in a minimum of 100 games at the Bowl Subdivision level. He has just two victories in nine tries against Florida and has yet to defeat Florida and Tennessee in the same season, but he has won four straight against Auburn and is 8-1 against in-state rival Georgia Tech.
No coach leaves his fan base feeling better each winter than Richt, who is a combined 15-3 against Tech and bowl opponents.
"It's not easy winning 90 games in nine years and being one of the five winningest coaches since he's been there," said former Bulldogs quarterback David Greene, who set an FBS record with 42 victories as a starter that stood until Colt McCoy of Texas broke it last season. "Obviously last year was not the season he was looking for, but if you look at his track record over the past nine years, it's pretty amazing."
Richt became the dean of SEC coaches following the '08 season, when Phillip Fulmer was forced out following 17 years at Tennessee and Tommy Tuberville chose not to return for an 11th season at Auburn. Amazingly, only nine coaches in the FBS have been at their respective schools longer.
"I feel old," former Bulldogs receiver Fred Gibson said. "I came in with the guy."
Having the drive
In a league that boasts Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, coaches who have won two national championships apiece, Richt often is viewed as an upper-echelon SEC coach but no better than third.
There also is the stout perception that Saban and Meyer manage to find a 25th hour each day and that the 50-year-old Richt prefers a more balanced approach. A devout Christian since 1986, Richt speaks at churches and FCA functions, aided in the 2006 faith-based film "Facing the Giants" and went on summer mission trips to Honduras in 2007 and '08, taking several Bulldogs players the second time.
He visited U.S. troops in Kuwait in the spring of 2008 and tries to make time during the season to watch Division II Mars Hill (N.C.) College, where his oldest son, Jon, is the quarterback.
"I've got to be who I am," Richt said. "I think everybody has certain personalities, and one thing might work for one guy and one thing might work another way for another guy. I'm real comfortable that I work extremely hard and that I work hard enough to get the job done.
"We're always looking for ways to do things better and win more games and all that, and we're not going to shy away from that, but I don't think there is anything wrong with staying in contact with your wife and kids, so I'm not going to apologize for being a good husband and a good father."
Greene, whose demeanor on the field routinely mirrored Richt, believes his former coach gets slighted in the dedication department.
"He was a coach that didn't have to say a whole lot, but you could tell he demanded a lot out of you," Greene said. "The workouts during that first season in '01 were extremely tough, because it wasn't anything we were used to. His natural personality is to be laid back, but at the same time he's as competitive as anybody I've met."
When Dooley spoke with Florida State's Bowden in December 2000 about hiring Richt, then the offensive coordinator for the Seminoles, Bowden said his lone concern was that Richt was "too nice." FSU had sizzled with Richt on staff, posting a 120-15-1 record from 1990 through 2000, and Dooley ultimately decided if being too nice was the worst thing about him, then Richt was his man.
Dooley, incidentally, doesn't believe Richt is too nice.
"If he went ahead and dismissed those three football coaches," Dooley said, "I think you can say he wouldn't fit that category."
Four days after last season's upset win at Georgia Tech, Richt fired defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, defensive ends coach Jon Fabris and linebackers coach John Jancek. Martinez and Fabris had been members of Richt's inaugural staff, and Jancek arrived after the '04 season, having worked previously with Martinez and Brian VanGorder, Georgia's defensive coordinator from 2001-04.
It marked the one true overhaul Richt has made in his nine years, as prior turnover was usually the result of coaches desiring greener pastures (such as VanGorder leaving for the NFL and offensive line coach Neil Callaway taking the head position at UAB).
"That was by far the toughest thing I've had to do in my professional life, if you want to call it that," said Richt, who wound up hiring Dallas Cowboys defensive line coach Todd Grantham as his new coordinator. "There have been other things that have been out of my control that happened to me or to someone I know and love, but as far as a decision that I made, it was absolutely the most gut-wrenching thing that I felt like I needed to do."
Hard to grasp
The longer Richt coaches in the SEC, the more he realizes just how much the profession entails.
In addition to his challenges on the field, Richt continues to experience his share of off-the-field woes. The 2003 offseason was the most tumultuous, as nine Bulldogs put their 2002 SEC title rings for sale on eBay, five were suspended for marijuana possession and four others were suspended for breaking unspecified team rules.
This spring has been far from quiet, too, as Richt had to dismiss quarterback Zach Mettenberger, outside linebacker Montez Robinson and walk-on punter Trent Dittmer following arrests.
"I don't think you can ever get your arms around it and control it," Richt said. "It's kind of this big monster that is always moving and changing, and it's very difficult to say, 'I've done it five or six years, and now I've mastered it all and know it all, and I know how to handle every situation.' There are new situations that crop up, and it's just constantly changing and moving."
Though the incidents continue, players and recruits admire Richt and his principles as much or more than ever. Bulldogs sophomore tight end Orson Charles hails from Tampa and admits he picked Georgia over Florida because Richt is strong in Christ.
"What really pushed me to him was that he wasn't scared of it," Charles said. "It wasn't a secret. You get a lot of Christians where you really don't know until you ask somebody, but he was very open and was like, 'Why don't you come to church with me?' I really enjoyed that."
Said tight ends coach John Lilly: "I think Coach Richt really seeks the Lord's guidance for any decision he has to make. Words like 'character' and 'integrity' are probably tossed out too easily with people, but with him it's real, and everybody who knows him knows that about him."
Meyer is five years younger than Richt but nearly stepped down in December after five seasons with the Gators, citing stress and fatigue. Saban is 58 and could make Tuscaloosa his first coaching locale in which he's spent more than five seasons, but will it be much more than that?
Might Richt return to the SEC summit by outlasting Meyer and Saban?
SUCCESS OVER TIME
Active coaches with a minimum of 100 games coached in the Bowl Subdivision:
Coach W L T Pct.
1. Urban Meyer (Florida) 96 18 0 .842
2. Bob Stoops (Oklahoma) 117 29 0 .801
3. Mark Richt (Georgia) 90 27 0 .769
4. Gary Patterson (TCU) 85 28 0 .752
5. Joe Paterno (Penn St.) 394 129 3 .752
"If you have good balance, then you can last longer," Richt said, "but the bottom line is you've got to win, and you've hopefully got to win in a way everyone can respect, also. My philosophy is not to win at all costs. People might think that's the only way to do it, but the bottom line is that I want to win very badly but I want to win with honor and class. I think that's important, because we are still educators and these young men are still college students, and they're still learning how to grow."
Despite many accomplishments the past nine years, the Bulldogs are having to grow again as a program. They have been ranked among the top 15 teams in the Associated Press preseason poll eight straight years but could begin this season unranked.
Like most seasons recently, the barometer matchup occurs Oct. 30 in Jacksonville against the Gators, who have rung up 90 points in the past two meetings with the Bulldogs.
"Everybody has really struggled against them, and we're certainly one of them," Richt said. "But we've won an awful lot of games here. We've won championships here. We have an expectation to continue to win. We have an expectation to win the (SEC) Eastern Division. There is a lot of excitement around this program right now, and I am excited about it.
"It was very difficult to make change, but I think the change has created excitement, and I think it's been healthy for us, as hard as it was. I believe that it's going to make us better."