Richt Still Crossing Paths With Bowden
By BJ Bennett
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It's hard to directly compare Mark Richt and Bobby Bowden as they are simply coaches of a different breadth. They are men, however, of great symmetry.
Watching Mark Richt's progression as a head coach into the now-patriarch of the SEC, it's been easy to trace his tutelage to Florida State legend Bobby Bowden. Richt, who is entering his 12th season in Athens, worked under Bowden as a graduate assistant from 1985-1989 and the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 1990-2000. Richt has found great success emulating one of the winningest coaches in the history of the game.
It's a tie that has great abstract relevance and more of a practical parallel than you may think. Through eleven years, Bowden had a winning percentage of 71.4%. Richt has won 73.6% of his career games. Over a much-longer and more dramatic span of course, Bowden's elevation of the status quo ultimately ended his storied career. In the mid-to-late 2000s, he could not live up to the expectations that his accomplishments created. Starting in year two, Richt went on to win at least ten games in six of seven ensuing seasons. Prior to that run, Georgia had reached the ten-win plateau just twice in 20 years. A vocal portion of the fan base believe his time has worn thin.
Philosophically, there are many similarities at play.
Sometimes to the chagrin of select fans, Richt, like Bowden, has shown an overwhelming passion for service outside of football. Both men are strong in faith and extremely active in the non-profit community. They regularly participate in mission work and frequently travel to spread their messages. Bowden and Richt both act on the positive outlook they deliver from the platform their fame has provided. Those efforts have helped make each coach amongst the most beloved figures in all of collegiate athletics, especially in the eyes of the vast majority of their players.
"Coach Richt is a man of high character," stated former UGA starting nose guard Gerald Anderson, who now coaches for Birmingham Southern College at the NCAA Division III level.
Richt has delegated responsibility to his assistants, often embracing a hands-off approach while loyally entrusting considerable influence to those who work under him. Bowden was one of the true pioneers of this approach, committing to his staff in attempt to fortify program consistency and cohesion. That stance helped the Seminoles develop a dynasty, finishing in the top four nationally for 14 consecutive years before Richt left the panhandle for the Peach State. Such trust, which detractors will point to critically, put Richt in the spotlight during the end of Willie Martinez's tenure as defensive coordinator and has opened the door for questions of current offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
Richt's candor has helped Georgia become a perennial power player in recruiting. Per Rivals.com, the Bulldogs have signed a top 15 class every season since 2002. The current haul-in-progress is slotted 8th. Players and prospects both seem captivated by Richt's even-keeled vibe, which can be a rare find in college football today. Bowden, when FSU had more blue-chips than a poker table, attracted recruits the very same way. Prospects signed with the personality. Big picture, Richt has done a remarkable job of keeping Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and others from poaching top in-state talent. In 2011, he signed seven of Georgia's top ten prospects; last spring, he inked three of the top four.
"When you first meet him, everything about him makes you know that playing for him is the best decision a person could make," continued Anderson, who was committed to Georgia Tech until Richt was hired at UGA. "He is the perfect father figure and role model for a lot of young men."
Richt has filled that void for countless Bulldog players.
Bowden, who was revered for his mentoring duties during his era, personally helped many who came through his program: former stars Warrick Dunn, Deion Sanders and Charlie Ward just to name a few. Bowden ended his career as the second-winningest coach in Division I history and a tremendous ambassador for the good that college football represents. He did have some notable players get in trouble during his distinguished career. Part of that, and the foundation for a large portion of the negative headlines that are seen, is that college football is merely a microcosm of society; out of 85 young men out on their own, some are bound to slip up.
A few though, even without premeditated malice, may have taken Bowden's compassion for granted -- and mistaken it for sheer charity. That may be a scenario now being played out a few years later, roughly 285 miles to the north. With a coach like Richt's personal persona, may come more perceived elasticity in the eyes of some in the locker room and therefore more mistakes made in the public eye. Bowden and Richt alike have punished extremely high-profile players over the years. Hundreds upon hundreds have found direction through their grace. Some, far fewer, have gotten more misguided.
It's hard to directly compare Richt and Bowden as they are simply coaches of a different breadth. They are men, however, of great symmetry. The former has followed in the footsteps of the latter, emerging on the scene in a much different era. Richt enters this fall trying to recover from a chaotic off-season and deal with the pressure that comes with national expectations. In some ways, his career is a look into the proverbial distance, a constant tussle with pragmatism over both who a head football coach is and what fair evaluation should be. In other ways, it's simply a glance back at what's been done before.