CHARLOTTE — Mark Richt was recruited to play football at Miami when Saban was the head coach.
Lou Saban, the travelin’ man whose 1977-78 stay in Coral Gables was during his stretch of 13 head coaching jobs in 27 seasons that ranged from the NFL’s Buffalo Bills to Georgetown High School.
But the words Richt remembers from his college days came from Saban’s successor, Howard Schnellenberger, who took over a mediocre program with an attentive quarterback from Boca Raton.
“Coach Schnellenberger would always say ‘we’re on a collision course for a national championship and the only variable is time,’” Richt said Thursday at the ACC Football Kickoff inside Charlotte’s Westin hotel. “He believed that wholeheartedly. He did everything he could possibly do to get us there. And we were just young enough and dumb enough to believe that.”
Richt had graduated when Schnellenberger led the Hurricanes to 1983 national championship. That was the first of five national titles that cast a long shadow over a program without an ACC Championship Game appearance since joining the conference in 2004. Richt, 56 and eight months removed from dismissal as Georgia’s head coach, is the ideal antidote for Miami misery.
The Hurricanes need toughness, tenure, discipline, class, credibility and proven recruiting success. Richt is all of that, plus witty.
He was 145-51 at Georgia with nine bowl wins, but they got too tired of a nice guy finishing second (2-3 in SEC Championship Games).
If Richt finishes second in the ACC, he will have boosted Miami back to pre-ACC respectability.
It starts with an alarm clock.
“A lot more early mornings,” junior quarterback Brad Kaaya said Thursday when asked to name the biggest program change under the Richt regime. “A lot of 6 a.m. things. It’s pretty cool.”
South Florida success is measured in style points, and Miami tradition features a fancy passer list including Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinny Testaverde and Gino Torretta. Make no mistake, Richt and his wife Katharyn love their Coconut Grove townhouse and “life in paradise.” But he wants blue-collar muscle, the kind of punishing running game Georgia typically unleashed.
“You have to have guys that know what they’re doing and who want to stick their hat on somebody and get after it and fight,” Richt said. “You have to practice in such a way that you develop a physical attitude.”
He went on.
“Fans can see when a team is playing hard and is well-coached. All we can do is ask our team to play as hard as they can and as well as they can.”
That’s the kind of talk Miami fans, alumni and former players want to hear. It’s what they didn’t see in lopsided losses (58-0 vs. Clemson and 59-21 at North Carolina) as “The U” — U for underachievers — went 8-5 under Al Golden last year.
Richt is smart enough to know it’s July.
“There’s been a great positive buzz,” he said, “but now we’re going to have to get ready to play some games.”
So he is looking ahead, not just to a Sept. 3 opener against Florida A&M and an odd road opener at Appalachian State (Sept. 17) and a coincidental return to Georgia for an ACC opener at Georgia Tech (Oct. 1). Beyond.
Miami, Richt said, should be able to sign 20 or so players per year from what he estimates is an annual group of 150 FBS prospects from Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties in South Florida.
Planting seeds, Richt sent coaches to observe action at seven different summer youth football leagues last week. He recently spoke to 300-plus youth league coaches.
“I want to see the 8-year-olds and 9-year-olds,” Richt said. “I want them to know about the University of Miami. Why would I be seeing 8-year-olds if I didn’t plan on sticking around?”
Kaaya and the rest of the Hurricanes on offense see Richt everywhere they turn. More hands on than he was at Georgia, the energetic new head coach is calling plays and coaching quarterbacks.
“I think it’s important for the staff to see me compete,” Richt said. “I think it’s important for the team to see me compete.”
He gets it.
He likes it.
Mark Richt, the mellow family man, fits splendidly into the Miami puzzle. If not in the national championship picture, the Hurricanes regularly will be in ACC Championship Game contention. Time is the only variable.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff