The 40-year old assistant calling the shots for the nation’s top-rated offense was a hot commodity when schools with openings for a head coach came calling.
Missouri was one of them.
Mark Richt, then the offensive coordinator for Bobby Bowden at Florida State, remembers meeting with athletic director Mike Alden in the Tallahassee, Fla., airport in November 2000 as the Seminoles were making their third straight run to play for the BCS national title.
No offer came, but Richt said he didn’t view that as a crushing blow.
“I had a lot of things going at the time,” said Richt, who said he believes he probably spoke to Alden by phone before the interview in Florida. “You never know how long people are interviewing other people, so it wasn’t like when the interview was over they said we’re not taking you. What happened, the interview ended and then time went on.”
Richt flew to Charlottesville to interview for the Virginia opening and he was hearing from people that “things were happening at the old alma mater.” That would be Miami, where Butch Davis would leave a couple of months later for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.
“Things were cooking at the time,” said Richt, who spent 15 seasons as a Florida State assistant. “I think Butch was ready to go. Some people on the inside knew it and they were trying to gauge my interest, but it was nothing official.”
That never got to an interview, but Georgia fired Jim Donnan, pursued and landed Richt, who became Georgia’s 24th head coach the next month. Richt was coming off a season when Florida State led the nation in total offense and passing offense and was third in scoring offense.
Now in his 12th season at Georgia, Richt will experience his first game at Missouri on Saturday night when his sixth-ranked Bulldogs play Missouri in the first Southeastern Conference game for the Tigers.
Missouri landed Toledo coach Gary Pinkel, who remains the Tigers coach. Richt and Pinkel are tied for sixth among current Football Bowl Subdivision coaches for longevity at the same school.
“I think Missouri found their man in coach Pinkel,” Richt said. “It wasn’t a decision that I turned down Missouri. It was a decision that Missouri, I believe coach Pinkel was the best man for the job. Obviously, they were correct.”
It has worked out for both schools.
After not winning the SEC championship game for 20 years, Richt won conference titles in 2002 and 2005 and has made two other trips to the league title game, including last season.
“Mark Richt has done such a great job with that program,” Alden said at the SEC meetings this spring in Destin, Fla. “There’s a lot of similarities with our institutions and I think in Columbia, the atmosphere around our football program and football Saturdays over the past five or six years has been awesome. I’ve seen it when it hasn’t been as awesome so those last five or six years have been phenomenal, but I think when we have an opportunity to be able to matchup with the University of Georgia, I think it will be just electric.”
Pinkel is 85-54 at Missouri, but has won 70.4 percent of his games since a 2005 Independence Bowl victory over South Carolina. Missouri finished the 2007 season ranked fourth in the nation, two spots behind Georgia.
“Certainly staying in one school for 12 years, then all of a sudden switching leagues, that’s probably historic in itself,” Pinkel said. “How many college coaches could say that could ever happen?”
Richt has been to Columbia, Mo., for recruiting trips before. Georgia landed tight end Aron White and quarterback Logan Gray from Rock Bridge High School, but his home — and most of his immediate family — is in Athens.
“There was no burning desire to leave Tallahassee, but I knew that this head coaching thing was going to happen if I wanted to take advantage of it,” Richt said. “The types of things that coach Bowden was building in Tallahassee were the types of things that I wanted to build here at Georgia. It’s not shocking to me that I’m still here in that I know in my heart this is where I want to be, but we know that it’s a rough business too.”