ATHENS, Ga. -- The thought of relaxing never crossed Mark Richt’s brain after he watched his team slip into the driver’s seat of the SEC East.
Even after Arkansas’ 44-28 win over South Carolina Saturday put destiny into Georgia’s hands, the Bulldogs’ coach, who was surrounded by vitriol after an 0-2 start, went right to work. His brain switched from pig sooie to War Eagle, as he began preparation for the 15th-ranked Bulldogs’ game with No. 20 Auburn (6-3, 4-2).
A Georgia win and a South Carolina loss would give Georgia the division.
He was excited when he saw then-East-leading South Carolina lose, pushing Georgia (7-2, 5-1) to the top of the division, but he understood that all the pressure was now on him.
“Before we really didn't have control, and we could only control trying to keep pace,” Richt said after meticulously laying out almost every detail concerning Auburn’s team. “Now that we have control of our destiny I would say that's even more of a reason to heighten your work ethic and prepare maybe even a little harder."
After losses to Boise State and South Carolina to open the season, it was easy to write Georgia and Richt off. He and the Dawgs hadn’t made it to the SEC title game since 2005 and were fresh off a disastrous 6-7 season.
To say Richt’s seat in Athens was hot was a grave understatement. It was nearly engulfed in flames after that 45-42 loss to the Gamecocks in Week 2.
While hope might have been lost on the peripheral, confidence was still there inside the program. Richt felt it and his players felt it.
Former Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley felt it, too. He acknowledged being beaten by a better Boise State team and the myriad of mistakes that cost the Bulldogs against South Carolina, adding that Georgia “outplayed” the Gamecocks. But he expected a rebound.
“I said early on that I felt like [Richt] was going to be OK,” Dooley said shortly after accompanying Richt for his weekly press conference.
“I really felt like the team would do good and they’ve done good.”
For Richt, getting this team back on track was all about reinforcing the chemistry constructed during the offseason. He wanted to build togetherness and a family. You handle adversity with trust, but he wasn’t going to be sure what his team was made of until it was challenged.
“You never know for sure until it hits you in the mouth how you are going to react,” Richt said. “I wasn't shocked that they guys reacted in a real positive way.
“There wasn't a whole lot of 'woe is me' in there, it was more of 'If we get our act together, we can be really good.'"
Quarterback Aaron Murray said this team never caved because it understood that the SEC wasn’t going to be won after two weeks.
“We knew we still had a chance when we went 0-2 and people were like, ‘Oh, the season’s over with,’” Murray said. “We have great leadership on this team and guys were like, ‘Hey, this is the SEC.’ South Carolina has never gone a season without losing at least three SEC games, so we’re like, ‘Hey, just because we’re one behind them, you never know what could happen.’”
Even with all the negativity hurled his way, Richt said he turned to his faith and let his life away from football navigate him.
“I love my job. I love Georgia. But what I do is not who I am,” he said. “Sometimes if we become what we do, and then things aren't going just right, then all of a sudden our entire world falls apart. I've got a faith in my Lord and savior Jesus Christ, and I know that God loves me and is going to take care of me.”
Richt might have stayed mellow, but his players understood what was possibly at stake. Tight end Aron White said the team took Richt’s criticisms to heart and didn’t want to be the reason he was shown the door.
“No one wanted to be that team at Georgia that ended the Mark Richt era,” he said. “That’s not the legacy that we wanted to leave at all. We’ve definitely been playing our hearts out for him this year and he’s been coaching his heart out for us.
“We don’t want to see him go and I don’t think anyone in the Bulldog Nation wants to anymore. That was something we never questioned. We were always playing for Coach Richt.”