A hurricane is creating chaos during the most important week of the season. His team’s biggest rival is coming to town and the practice schedule is in peril.
Mark Richt, as always, is peaceful.
That is the key to understanding the University of Miami’s football coach, the man whose rebuilding project at his alma mater is off to an undefeated start. Know that he is a man of immense faith, and you’re nearly there. For the last 30 years, Richt has been on a spiritual journey that began when he was a young graduate assistant at Florida State, the team scheduled to play his Hurricanes in a nationally televised, prime-time showdown Saturday night. Anything that happens before that game, during or after will not shake him.
Richt, 56, is outspoken about his Baptist faith in a way few, if any, Miami coaches have been. A Boca Raton High graduate who played quarterback at Miami from 1978-82, he tells the story of a day in 1986, when FSU offensive lineman Pablo Lopez was shot and killed. The way coach Bobby Bowden preached to players about the afterlife and their choices moved Richt to pursue a new path. He prayed with Bowden and re-dedicated his life.
“I went from a really self-centered guy to an other-centered guy,” Richt said in his introductory press conference at UM on Dec. 4. “My goal became to try to live a life that God would be pleased with, on a daily basis.
“I’m not saying that (I’m perfect), but I’m saying I’m forgiven, and I have peace, and I’m thankful for that.”
Long have Miami coaches and faith been entwined. Howard Schnellenberger had a priest conduct Mass 4½ hours before every game. Jimmy Johnson kept the tradition and regularly attended. He wasn’t Catholic, but Dennis Erickson was. Butch Davis rediscovered the Holy Spirit during his time as Miami’s coach. Larry Coker was a devout Baptist. Randy Shannon and Al Golden were private about their Christianity.
Richt has brought a new style to 10th-ranked Miami (4-0, 1-0 ACC), a nonsectarian private school. He encourages all to grow spiritually, and leads players and coaches in prayer before and after practices, games and meetings. In August, they took a trip to a local church. Hearing some players didn’t own Bibles and others couldn’t understand theirs, he arranged to purchase an easy-reading one for each player, with their names embossed.
The Post has spoken with more than 100 people who knew Richt as a player, as a coach at FSU and Georgia, and who met him after he took over at Miami. All of them, even those who competed against him, say he is a kind and caring man.
Hurricanes players, coaches and parents — a group of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures — say Richt does not push his faith on others, that he purely wants to offer something that made his own life better.
“It shows how genuine he is,” said quarterback Brad Kaaya, who said faith isn’t a major part of his life. “You have some guys out there who throw up a front. Coach means what he says and he walks the walk.”
“He’s not a preachy person,” said Wellington native Randy McDermott, whose youngest son, Kc, is Miami’s starting left guard and whose middle son, Shane, played center under Shannon and Golden. “He’s no Bible-thumper. Somewhere along the line in his early adulthood, he found something that made a profound impact on him, and what a loving gesture to share that.”
Unlike McDermott, who doesn’t practice an organized religion, offensive lineman Bar Milo was raised in Orthodox Judaism. He did not attend the church trip, which like the accepting of the Bible gift and other faith-based actitivies, was optional. But he has no problem bowing his head in prayer with his teammates. “Let’s just say I’m praying to a different person, but in the end it’s the same person,” Milo said.
Milo, from suburban Los Angeles, attended the same Catholic high school as Kaaya, who said he’s not “super spiritual.”
“I think learning about someone else’s religion really relieves the ignorance,” Milo said. “I completely understand what’s going on in their religion, and I understand how close it is to mine. We don’t talk about it, but every (Christian) I’ve encountered who’s very religious always has this silent respect for me. Their Messiah was Jewish. Jesus was a Rabbi. We get along that way.”
Not all take that stance. Last August, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a group which advocates separation of church and state, accused Richt (then with Georgia), Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, Cincinnati’s Tommy Tuberville and other public-school coaches of using their position as state employees to proselytize. They said Richt and his brother-in-law, then-UGA chaplain Kevin Hynes, used an “inherently coercive” relationship to push faith on players.
Richt wouldn’t comment on the report then, and wasn’t asked to for this story. UM officials say they have no issue with Richt’s faith.
Richt’s staff is a mix of backgrounds, religious and otherwise. All nine of his assistant coaches identify as Christian, but several staffers are non-religious. Two are Jewish. They are mostly white, but six are black and four are of Latin descent. They come together daily for a “devotional.”
“Some share something from the Bible. Some share how they got here,” said Joel Rodriguez, an offensive lineman at UM from 2000-04 who is now director of player development. “ ‘This is what I went through, this is how it applies to our staff and team.’ We’ve had all kinds of stories come out. People share their hearts. I really enjoy it. It bonds us together. You’re sharing life.”
He said Richt has inspired him to consider his own faith more deeply.
If they’re open to the hearing it, Richt is happy to share his story with recruits. It’s how he landed his running backs coach and offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, when he was a Georgia high school star.
“The other coaches would talk about football stuff only, how deep they could take me in football,” said Brown, the son of a Methodist Bishop. “He only spoke about his faith walk and his aspirations to make sure he turned every young man he came in contact with into a grown man by the time they left the university. That was important to me.”
Faith helped Richt grow from his own college days, when he was known as “Boca.” It helped him overcome bitter feelings about not making the NFL. It led him to his wife of 27 years, Katharyn, with whom he has four children.
It steeled them to deal with his pent-up feelings of his parents’ divorce when he was 13, the death of his older brother from AIDS in 1994 and Katharyn’s successful fight against cervical cancer.
It sent them on mission trips to Central America and spurred them to adopt Zach and Anya, their youngest children, from a Ukrainian orphanage in 1998.
It moved them to quietly donate millions to church-related causes and to sell their Georgia lake house, valued at $2 million, for charity.
It also brought him to a park in Palmetto Bay on a warm, humid Thursday last month. Continuing a speaking tour he began this summer, he spoke to about 150 elementary and middle school players, telling them he wanted them to “do great things in life,” and “bless the people in your family by how you behave.” He encouraged them to “trust God with your life.”
He also wanted to find future Hurricanes. He stated the three qualities he’s looking for — ability, grades and character — and examples of players who have them.
“At the ‘U,’ I promise you, we’re going to win championships. We’re going to strive to be the best in America,” he said. “But we’re all going to strive to be the best men we can possibly be.”