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Smart on Mark Richt: 'I couldn't be prouder to be honoring him'
ATHENS, GA — A lot of fans don’t remember, but Georgia head coach Kirby Smart served as a graduate assistant under former coach Mark Richt in 2000. The sixth-year head coach also directed the Bulldogs’ running backs under Richt during the 2005 SEC Championship season.
Now, as the No. 1 Bulldogs prepare to face SEC East opponent Missouri, the University of Georgia will honor its former head coach in Sanford Stadium on Saturday.
Smart acknowledged on Wednesday that he has a tremendous amount of respect for Richt, especially after inheriting the program from him in 2015.
"I think the cohesiveness is about just having class, and both the University of Georgia and coach Richt have that,” he said. “Just tremendous respect for each other and a lot of those decisions and things that are made at the time, they pass over time. The history and tradition that he helped build here is tremendous and I think that no better documentation than that than the players that played for him. So, any chance you get to honor somebody that has affected this university the way he has, I think you do that."
Richt coached the Bulldogs for 15 seasons and posted a 145–51 overall record. His tenure included three SEC championships, five SEC Championship game appearances and averaged 10.5 wins per season. Richt and UGA parted ways in 2015 after he led Georgia to a 9-3 overall record. Ultimately, he set the standard for Smart and left the program better than found it.
“Coach [Mark] Richt and Katharyn [Richt], their family have just been tremendous to myself and Mary Beth (Smart),” Smart said on Tuesday. “I think my career was probably similar to his in terms of coming up. Being a GA, growing up we both GA’ed kind of under Coach Bowden (Bobby) and I think he met his wife at the time, Katharyn, and then I kind of went on my career and then bounced back, by the time I was at LSU and Nick (Saban) went to Miami, ended up getting hired and Coach Richt gave me an opportunity to coach running backs, which I'd never done.”
Smart spent a couple of seasons at Valdosta State as a defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator from 2000-01. He then spent two seasons at Florida State before joining Saban at LSU for one year. When Saban took the head coaching job with the Miami Dolphins, that’s when Smart moved back to Athens and served as Georgia’s run-game coordinator in 2005.
“It showed a lot of confidence in me as a coach and I learned a lot from him,” Smart said. “I learned a lot about being the right kind of person and how to run an organization the right way. It's meant a lot to my career and I was really only with him for one year, but always followed him from afar because he was at my alma mater and I respected the job he did. He certainly made this a really good job from the way he built everything and the things he did the time he was here.”
Richt, who now is a part-time Athenian, sometimes still visits the Butts-Mehre building and UGA athletic facilities. However, it’s a lot different than he was at the helm in Athens. Smart has elevated the program and there is a brand new $80 million facility, plus a full-indoor practice facility. There’s also a new recruiting lounge and locker room at Sanford Stadium. It’s something that is attractive to recruits and has separated the program from other SEC schools.
Regardless of all that, Smart focuses on the fact that Richt helped lay the foundation for all these new expensive projects.
“It's always been very fertile in terms of people and players in the state but he's meant so much to so many,” Smart said. “I think when you talk to the players, I know all the guys that played for him, I've seen so many alumni and players that have just come back to events and they just rave about their relationship. You see guys like Terrence Edwards and Ben Watson and these great players that just respect Coach Richt and the things he did for this university. I certainly feel the same way and I couldn't be prouder to be honoring him.”
Smart pointed out that even while he was coaching under Saban at Alabama, Richt would reach out to him.
“He’s reached out to me so many times where he and Katharyn have said, ‘Hey, we're praying for you and your family,’” Smart said. “I mean, back when I was in Alabama, it just meant a lot that he did those things, but I'm glad he's doing it, and I know our fan base will be there to recognize him.”
Georgia offensive lineman Warren Ericson grew up a Florida fan, but knows all about the legacy Richt left at Georgia.
“I didn’t even know they were honoring [Mark] Richt this Saturday, but that’s a huge credit to him,” he said. “I think its definitely much overdue because everything that I have heard from the people that either still work here in the building from when he was the head coach, or people that I’ve come across that have played for him, just nothing but amazing things about his character. Also about how he treated his players and loved them. So, I think that’s really awesome that UGA is doing that for him. It’s definitely much deserved.”
***Richt will be signing autographs at the UGA bookstore on Friday, Nov. 5 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.