When I am traveling and have time to reflect, I sometimes flash back to those times when Georgia fielded teams that found a way to win. Those serendipitous moments that warm the heart.
This Bulldogs team is the first one I have watched, with troubling frustration, that seems to find a way to lose. It is not a bad team – just a team with a bad record.
The leader, Mark Richt, being a man with a gripping spiritual bent, must feel like a modern-day Job. God, as the Bible reveals, allowed Satan to smite Job with "dreadful boils." Job was pushed to the point that, while seated in ashes, he "scraped his skin with broken pottery." Even Job’s wife admonished Job to "curse God and die."
Although the Bulldogs coach hasn’t reached Job’s state, he has, nonetheless, been smitten by exasperating and curious mistakes that doggedly frustrate.
It’s not that the team isn’t trying. It’s not that the Bulldogs have given up, and it’s not that they don’t care. They just have not found a way to win games.
This team is the most snake-bitten lot I have ever seen at Georgia.
Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, were convinced that Job’s suffering was the result of Job’s sins, but you won’t find anybody close to Richt who believes the man deserves his fate – not that I’m suggesting that such is ordained from above.
Regardless, Richt has too few sins for what he is experiencing. He tries as hard as anybody I have ever known to do the right thing. Richt will turn the other cheek in a business where rules-bending is often practiced with one proviso: "Don’t get caught."
There are many who don’t believe the Bulldogs ship can be righted long-term. They have given up on the Bulldogs boss, but I hold the view that a good and competent man can find a way to fix things.
In the meantime, I reflect on the positive features of Mark Richt’s program. Others can deal with the negatives, but I prefer to underscore his countless contributions, lobbying for all to give him time.
He knows he has to produce to keep his high-profile job. He knows that winning is vitally important to his constituency. He knows he has to restore their confidence. I believe he can do that.
Following are some illuminating vignettes that I happen to know about. I also have the full knowledge there are considerably more in his goodwill portfolio.
A guy sent word that his son was distraught. His girlfriend had overdosed, and the boy’s condition was so fragile that the father worried about what his son might do. Would coach Richt call him and offer some words of encouragement? Mark said, "What’s his number?" The coach had never met the young man, but he called and offered counsel.
Another guy whom he has never met suddenly came down with what appeared to be incurable cancer. When Richt found out about it, he wrote the most encouraging letter I have ever read in such circumstances. One of the points of his message was to quote late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano, who said, "Cancer can kill you, but it can’t kill your soul."
A football player had misbehaved. He was warned, but he committed a serious second offense. Richt had no option but to kick him off the team. Then he asked the player to meet him on a Saturday morning – when the coach could have been spending time with his family – so he could try to get the player into another school where the kid could continue his NFL dream.
These are only a few stories with which I am familiar. Think of the many people in his wide circle of friends who have knocked on his door to ask him to help someone in need by offering an encouraging word. He can’t minister to everybody. He can’t counsel everybody with a debilitating disease, but he does his best not to turn down any request for a prayer or an encouraging word.
For whatever it is worth, I think about those things when he is being persecuted by the critics. Job’s story had a happy ending. aI wish the same for Mark Richt.
• Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for the Athens Banner-Herald. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org