Mark Richt: Bulldog for Jesus

The head ’Dawg begins each day during football season not by reviewing a playbook or studying video of the next opponent, but rather by attending to more foundational matters. Mark Richt, head coach of the University of Georgia Bulldogs, joins his family for breakfast at home at 7 a.m. They eat together, read from Psalms or Proverbs and take a few Christmas cards from the stack received last year to pray for the senders.

Upon arriving at his office, he’s prone to spend a few more moments reading the Bible and praying.

Then the nation’s seventh longest-tenured major college football coach (14 seasons at Georgia) vigorously turns his attention to leading one of the top programs in the highly acclaimed Southeastern Conference.

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He’s extremely competitive and approaches his job as instructed by his life verse, Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (NASB).

“I think we all want to know, ‘What does God want me to do?’” said Richt, 54. “But I think God is more concerned about how we do what we do—and whom we do it for.

“If you’re only going to do your work heartily as unto your boss, then what are you doing when your boss isn’t looking? Sometimes people think they can have a secret life and ‘Just as long as I please the boss, I’m good to go.’ But if you’re doing it as unto the Lord, that’s the highest accountability you can have.”

Richt’s 130 career wins through Oct. 3 ranked fourth among active major college coaches, and he’s one of only five men in NCAA Division I-A history with 115 or more victories in their first 13 seasons.

The Bulldogs also have been successful in the classroom, ranking third nationally with an 82 percent players’ graduation rate, according to a recent ESPN report.

At a time when pro football is under intense scrutiny for its questionable handling of domestic violence offenses by its players, Richt already is on record for emphatically responding to such issues.

Last summer, Richt dismissed a player from the Bulldogs’ team, one day after he was charged with felony assault against his girlfriend.

Richt’s decisive action came three days before the NFL announced a lean, two-day suspension against Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for a domestic violence charge. Rice was later cut from the Ravens and suspended indefinitely from the league after fans, corporate sponsors and media expressed outrage at the prior penalty.

Richt felt the Bulldogs player left him no choice.

“It’s just not acceptable behavior, so he lost his privilege of being here,” Richt said. “Do I still love him? I do. I’m hoping he learns from it and moves on and never lets that happen again, which will bless his future wife and children.

“If we did nothing about it, chances are that behavior would have continued. Not to say it will stop, but I think there’s a better chance of it stopping because there was a consequence—taking away something that was very meaningful to him—to help him understand how serious what he did was.”

Richt tries to be a good steward of his influence with players. Georgia has weekly character education sessions, in which players are taught life lessons based on biblical principles that, if applied, will help them grow into responsible men.

“When we leave here, he wants us to leave with more than just a football experience,” said defensive lineman Ray Drew. “He cares more about the long term than just right now.”

Richt is widely admired in the coaching profession. He and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops finished tied for first in a recent ESPN survey that asked major college coaches which other coach they’d want their son to play for.

Richt centers his life and career around his relationship with Jesus, and he deeply desires for others to know the joy of eternal salvation through Christ.

His pastor, Bill Ricketts of Prince Avenue Baptist Church in Bogart, Ga., tells of the time when Richt met a Bulldogs fan with skybox season tickets at a luncheon, and later responded to a call from the woman when she had cancer.

“She knew Mark was a man of faith,” Ricketts said. “She called him and asked him to come see her. He went over to the hospice house, sat down by her and led her to Christ. She died not long after that.”

Richt’s own relationship with the Lord was birthed in September 1986 when he was confronted with a tragic fatality. Serving as a graduate assistant coach at Florida State University, he stood in the back of a team meeting room while head coach Bobby Bowden consoled players shocked by the shooting death of teammate Pablo Lopez.

Bowden, a devout evangelical, pointed to the chair where Lopez usually sat and asked others in the room if they knew where they would spend eternity if that empty chair was theirs.

Chills shot through Richt’s body. Many times, he had rejected the Gospel presentations of his college roommate. He remembers thinking: I know where I’d be, and it’s not a good place.

The next morning, Richt went to Bowden’s office and prayed to enter into a saving relationship with Christ, asking for the forgiveness of his sins through Jesus’ death on the cross and surrendering the remainder of his life to the Lord.

About two months later, Richt was strongly affected by a short discussion with Billy Graham, who had just addressed the Florida State team while in Tallahassee, Fla., for a Crusade.

“When the meeting with the team was over, I asked him if he could talk with me,” Richt said of Mr. Graham. “He agreed, and we went back into a little side room. I wanted to talk with him about an issue with a family member. He told me that we’re called to love, that we all have issues and sin, and to not be comfortable or happy with the sin, but to love the person.”

Now, Richt’s love and humility impacts others.

“I’ve been in the Marine Corps, I’ve been a sheriff’s deputy, and I’ve seen people get promoted,” said Georgia team chaplain Kevin Hynes, who has been married to Richt’s sister Mikki for 18 years.

“I’ve never seen a man get more humble with more success, but that’s just what God has done in his life.”

Mark and his wife, Katharyn, have taken mission trips to Honduras and desire to be a blessing to others through giving. Convicted about owning a $2 million vacation home on Lake Hartwell, they gave the home away for use by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

“It was never ours,” said Katharyn. “God blessed us with it and entrusted it to us.”

The Richts say they desire to obey the Lord, regardless of the call or the cost.

“If we feel like God is leading us to do something, we want to do it,” Mark said. “Have we been perfect at that? No. Have we tried to talk Him out of things? Yeah. But our philosophy is if we think it’s coming from the Lord, then we need to be obedient.”

In 1999, the Richts sensed God leading them to expand their family through adoption. They already had two sons by birth, Jonathan, 9, and David, 4.

The Richts were stirred by James 1:27: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble” (NKJV).

They also were influenced by the fact that Katharyn’s brother and sister-in-law, Billy and Lisa Francis, were adopting from Ukraine at the time. Lisa sent Katharyn a picture from a Ukrainian orphanage, which showed, in the background, a little girl who looked just a little different.

“I don’t know what it was about her,” Katharyn said, her voice trembling. “It might’ve been the twinkle in her eyes. I just remember thinking that every child deserves to be loved, but not every child is loved.”

About six months later, the Richts traveled to Ukraine and adopted that little girl, Anya, along with a boy, Zach. They were from the region of Ukraine known as Crimea, which recently was taken over by Russia as part of an ongoing conflict between the two nations.

Anya and Zach are now 17 and 18, respectively. They have both accepted Jesus, something that may never have happened if they hadn’t been brought into a loving Christian home.

As is often the case with adoptions, there have been significant challenges, but more joys. Anya has undergone several facial surgeries and, despite that, is warm and outgoing.

“I’ve had a lot of parents say, ‘Your daughter was very nice to my child,’” Katharyn said. “Anya might know she’s going to get looked at, but she doesn’t let it stop her, and she doesn’t cower from it.

“She seems confident of who she is in Christ. When she was younger, she loved to say, ‘My daddy says I’m beautiful.’”

While it’s not unusual for college and pro football coaches to begin their workday before dawn, Mark gives his assistant coaches until 8 or 8:30 a.m. to report to duty and encourages them to spend early morning time with their children, as he has done for years.

“Coaches are gone a lot, so when our kids were younger, he would ask them, ‘Are you OK with what I do?’” Katharyn said. “They’d always say yes.”

Two days before a recent game, Mark Richt sat in a meeting room overlooking Georgia’s practice field, deflecting credit for anything he has done or accomplished.

Despite his many roles, his focus is singular.

“If you really know that the Lord loves you and if you understand that He wants a close relationship with you, you want to love Him back. You want to please Him.” © 2014 BGEA

Bible verse marked NASB taken by permission from the New American Standard Bible, ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif.