ATHENS — Mark Richt had completed the 40-hour course to sell life insurance. He was working as a phone solicitor setting up appointments for agents and preparing to take his exam.
"I never got to take my test because the company that was sponsoring me had some issues going on," Richt said.
"One day I showed up to work and my boss was being handcuffed and put in a car. They kind of locked down the place," he said. "I figured that was the end of my life insurance career."
For a guy who has seemed like such a natural throughout a precocious career coaching football, Richt took awhile to figure out his calling. Even today, despite Richt leading Georgia to a 71-19 record in seven seasons, some college football fans probably couldn’t tell him apart from their life insurance agent. Not known for sideline rants or colorful yarns, the 48-year-old Richt’s profile hasn’t kept up with the Bulldogs’ win totals.
But that’s changing, now that Georgia sits atop The Associated Press preseason poll for the first time. The spotlight will illuminate every detail of how well Richt has evolved from odd jobs to the role of big-time college football coach.
After his career as a backup quarterback at the University of Miami ended in 1982, Richt tried to valet cars and to sell memberships at a sports club. He got fired as a bartender because he spent too much time watching football, which should’ve been a sign. He then switched to cleaning the bar after closing time.
Richt also failed to make a couple of NFL teams. His stint with the Dolphins concluded when quarterbacks coach Dave Shula, the son of coach Don Shula, told him, "I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is you scored higher on the test than everybody. The bad news is my dad wants to meet you and bring your playbook."
A trainer suggested he might want to try coaching.
"I always enjoyed the strategy," Richt said. "I always enjoyed learning why we did the things we did offensively. I always asked why. Sometimes the coaches maybe misunderstood me. I wasn’t really questioning them as much as I was just wanting to learn."
Richt was about to head to LSU as a graduate assistant in 1985 when Florida State coach Bobby Bowden came through with a better offer: he’d coach the quarterbacks as a grad assistant.
"Brilliant" is how Bowden described Richt to strength and conditioning coach Dave Van Halanger.
Before the age of 30, Richt was the offensive coordinator at East Carolina. He remembers "being scared to death and praying a lot."
One game that 1989 season he called a throwback to the quarterback at the goal line. He could see the offensive line coach yank off his headset and slam it into the ground.
The play resulted in a touchdown.
After a year, Richt returned to FSU. The Seminoles’ offensive success would make Richt one of those coordinators whose name always seemed to be mentioned for head coach openings.
"I had told my wife awhile back that if Mark gets a head job, I’d like to go, because I think great things could happen," Van Halanger said.
The only problem was Richt didn’t seem all that interested.
"I just enjoyed life. Period," he said, adding drily, "Then this head coaching thing happened."
His mother, Helen, recalled that Richt had said years ago Georgia was one place he’d like to be a head coach, for the tradition and the community. Vince Dooley, the former Bulldogs coach and then the athletic director, got rave reviews from everybody he consulted during his search after the 2000 season.
The now-famous story is that Bowden told Dooley his only concern was that Richt was too nice.
"If that’s the only thing you can find that’s wrong with him, that’s not bad," Dooley said.
One day at practice during Richt’s first season in Athens, Dooley watched his new coach sternly send a top receiver off the field for loafing on a route.
"I started to run up and hug him," Dooley said with a laugh.
So much for being too nice.
"Some people have to yell and scream to get their point across," said Van Halanger, who indeed followed Richt to his first head coaching job and now serves as Georgia’s director of strength and conditioning.
"Some people have to exhibit certain animation. Mark knows who he is. People respect him because of that. He’s the head coach, but he doesn’t have to tell anybody."
But Richt concedes he was still acting more like an offensive coordinator than a head coach in some ways. And maybe he did need to yell and scream a little more.
"I wasn’t this gifted multi-tasker," he said. "I was kind of coaching off of past experiences and even fumes sometimes. I didn’t study the game on an ongoing basis like I normally do."
What impresses Dooley is Richt’s knack for identifying and addressing his weaknesses. After Richt struggled with some clock management situations early on, he called in Homer Smith, a guru on the subject.
Until late in the 2006 season, Richt called plays for the Bulldogs. That’s how he became familiar with the term visual learner — and discovered that he is one. Standing on the sideline, Richt used to have assistant Mike Bobo describe the view from the press box.
"Which he did a very good job of, but it got lost in the translation," Richt said. "I was listening; I still wasn’t seeing it in my mind quickly enough to make a change or make a call. I would watch games afterward and I’d just think, ‘I can’t believe we went the whole game and I didn’t call this or do that.’ I’d just be upset with myself."
So Richt turned over play-calling duties to Bobo. The head coach no longer had to force himself to stay calm so he could make snap decisions on what to run next.
The most noticeable example of the looser and louder Richt of 2007 was his order to players to get an excessive celebration penalty after their first touchdown against Florida. The ploy didn’t unfold as he expected — and yet worked just as he had hoped.
The entire team charged into the end zone, to the irritation of the Gators. But that moment ignited the emotion and enthusiasm Richt feared the squad lacked.
"He gets fired up when we need him to," said senior fullback Brannan Southerland. "In the locker room at halftime, if something’s not going right, we need to get yelled at, he definitely does that. I think it just serves as an example for a lot of people that you can be passionate about something and yet stay calm and keep your head on your shoulders and stay levelheaded."
Like any mother, Helen is still convinced her son was good enough to start at Miami, where he backed up Jim Kelly. Then again, she mused, what if he had gone to the NFL and gotten hurt?
The way she sees it now, "Life turned out the best it ever could have for him."