By now, you’ve heard that Mark Richt is returning to UM about as many times as you’ve heard that Jerome Bettis is from Detroit. But, while folks have undoubtedly seen the photo of Richt, along with Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde, Jim Kelly and company by now, they might not know the role that Richt played here.
With Kelly, Kosar, and Testaverde capturing the attention, Richt stood in the shadows. Yet, Richt was quite the accomplished player in high school. He earned 4A all-state honors his senior year of high school, leading Boca Raton High School to the 1977 state semifinals.
Of all the aforementioned quarterbacks, Richt was the only one to be offered a scholarship by former coach Lou Saban in 1978; the rest were offered by Howard Schnellenberger. As fate would have it, Richt was a part of one of the most influential changes in the history of college football, as the pro-style offense that Kelly and Kosar ran under Schnellenberger revolutionized the game in the early 1980s.
I had the chance to speak with Richt in 2013 while writing Game of My Life: Miami Hurricanes, and he told me about the exciting changes that Howard brought to the offense.
“For me, it was really pretty exciting, the pro system he was going to bring in. We didn’t think of him so much as a Bear Bryant protégé, as much as a Miami Dolphin coach and bringing the Miami Dolphin system to college football.”
In the Canes’ 1980 season finale at Florida, UM held the football and a 28-7 lead in the waning moments of the game. Schnellenberger was intent on running out the clock, when something bizarre happened.
It started raining frozen oranges from the student section.
A Miami cheerleader and assistant coach were pelted by oranges. Incensed, Schnellenberger sent on the field goal team.
“It was like incoming artillery,” Schnellenberger told me. “One hit my cheerleader and knocked her down. One hit my son and put him on the ground. The last one that triggered my going out there and kicking the field goal was when one of my assistant coaches came up to shake my hand, and I’m shaking his hand and the damn thing hit him in the back of the head and knocked him down to both knees. So I had to help him back up.”
“Everyone was putting on their helmets,” Richt said. “I have nothing to compare it to really, so I guess it didn’t shock me. It was a little wild. When it was all said and done, I don’t blame coach for kicking it.”
Danny Miller drilled the field goal in the final seconds for a 31-7 win over the Gators, which was followed by the Canes’ first bowl appearance since the 1967 season.
However, the intrastate blood feud had already been revived. And, if that wasn’t enough, the teams’ typical end-of-year meeting was moved up to the opener of the 1981 season. There was certainly no love lost between both sides, and now there would be no time to bury the hatchet before the teams took the field.
Little did Richt know that he would have a huge role in the outcome of this intrastate return grudge match. The Gators secured a 14-3 halftime lead in the Orange Bowl on the strength of the passing of quarterback Wayne Peace.
In the third quarter, after leading UM on an 11-play, 82-yard touchdown drive to close the gap, Kelly went down with a calf injury. It would be up to Richt to lead UM back from a 20-11 deficit.
“I remember I completed two passes,” said Richt. “I think that was it. One to Rocky Belk for a 55-yard touchdown on a square in. So we scored a touchdown there. And late in the game, I hit Glenn Dennison on a little crossing route and got just enough range I guess for Danny Miller to convince coach that he should kick it. I think coach called a timeout.
“I think Danny was kind of tugging on his jacket, saying he could make it. You could tell there was some kind of discussion going on. He called timeout, and Danny convinced him he could do it.
“Sure enough, it went off the upright, and it went in. Danny deserves a lot of credit for stepping up in a touch situation.”
With 45 seconds left in the game and the Canes trailing 20-18, Miller swung his leg. The ball boomed off his foot and sailed through the air – 55 yards, to be exact. As 73,000+ fans held their breath, the ball dinged off the right upright and fell through. As the officials raised their arms over their heads, pandemonium broke out in the Orange Bowl stands. For the second time in school history, the Canes had won four straight over the hated Gators.
The come from behind win over #16 Florida propelled the Canes into the rankings at #17, and kicked off what would be a strong 1981 campaign. On the way to a 9-2 season, Miami toppled #1 Penn State in the Orange Bowl 17-14 and crushed Gerry Faust’s Irish 37-15, ending the Canes’ 11-game losing streak to Notre Dame. UM’s two losses – to #4 Texas and #16 Mississippi State – were by a combined 11 points.
Having helped lead UM to a season-defining win over one of its biggest rivals, Richt returned to the bench in favor of Kelly. However, Richt’s number would be called again in 1982 after Kelly suffered an ankle injury against Virginia Tech. Schnellenberger tabbed Richt, then a senior, to start the next 5 games over freshman Kosar and Testaverde. Richt would go 2-3 as a starter, losing to Florida State 24-7 in his final start.
While Richt’s coaching success at Florida State and Georgia have been well-documented, it actually came as a surprise to his former coach, Schnellenberger.
“I didn’t think at all he wanted to become a coach,” Schnellenberger told the Palm Beach Post. “I thought he was on a direct course with business America. He’s good looking, clean-cut, well-spoken, intelligent. It never dawned on me he could become a coach.”
And what a coach he’s become. 145-51 record as the head coach of Georgia. Two SEC titles and won or shared the SEC East title six times. Two Sugar Bowl victories. Mentored two Heisman Trophy quarterbacks in Chris Weinke and Charlie Ward while at FSU.
But, for one early September afternoon in the Orange Bowl, Richt, the player, led the Canes to a rarely-mentioned, but meaningful win over one of UM’s biggest rivals. Here’s to him keeping that trend going for a long time as its twenty-fourth head coach.Go Canes.