(RNS) — Former college football coach Mark Richt, who was the head coach at the University of Georgia for 15 years and at the University of Miami for three, talks with Maina Mwaura about his Parkinson’s diagnosis; his new book, “Make the Call“; and how his faith has shaped his decisions on and off the field.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mwaura: Well, there are some people you think you’ll never meet, not because you don’t like them, but because you don’t like the team they represent. I’m here with Coach Mark Richt. Who did you coach? Two teams. University of Georgia. Not a fan at all. Hey, just being transparent here. Of course, the University of Miami; not a fan there either.
Richt: You must be a Gator.
Mwaura: I’m a Gator fan, so pray for me.
Richt: You shouldn’t have told me that before we started.
Mwaura: It’s good to be here with you. Thank you so much. I’ve got to ask this question, and it’s a simple one. How are you doing?
Richt: I’m doing great. You know, I posted that I had Parkinson’s. I kind of just got tired of people asking me what was wrong because, you know, my balance gets off a little bit. You slow down a little bit and then people start noticing, you know, are you OK, Coach? Is everything OK? Can I help you? Does your back hurt? You know?
Finally, I just said, let me just get it out in the open and and get it over with as far as letting people know. And it was kind of therapeutic to do that, really, just to kind of get it off my mind and not have to sit here and try to explain to people what’s going on. But, I really do see it as a momentary, light affliction I have, compared to the glory I’m going to have in heaven when we get those glorified bodies — with no sin and with no disease and all that kind of good stuff. So I’m looking forward to that day. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy life like I always have.
Mwaura: When you were first given the diagnosis. What did you think? What did you feel? What was going through you at that time?
Richt: It was kind of gradual. I didn’t really have somebody say, you’ve got Parkinson’s. It’s a process of feeling some symptoms, going to my primary care, him sending me to a neurologist locally and taking pictures of your brain and all that stuff. And then him wanting to send you to a specialist, you know, in another city and all that kind of thing.
But by the time I left the the first neurologist in town here, I pretty much knew what the deal was because the symptoms were very apparent. And there’s nonmotor symptoms or nonmovement symptoms that you get. I’ve probably had Parkinson’s for 10 years prior to anything manifesting. So by the time you start slowing down and you’ve got tremors and things of that nature, by the time you get those, you probably had it for a decade and you don’t even know it. It’s so subtle. But, you know, I didn’t think much of it — and my dad’s got Parkinson’s. I guess the first thing I thought was, you know, I’ve lived the awesome life, you know, almost died of a heart attack a few year or two ago.
Mwaura: Which you laugh about now?! What’s amazed me was your faith. Lots of people would say, man, how do you do that?
Richt: Well, it’s like a football team. People talk about, you know, is a team united? Is it going to stay strong through adversity? Well, you can’t get in the middle of a bad season and at game three decide, “We’re going to have a team meeting and we’re all going to get together and be united together.” That happens in January and February and March of the off season. Spring ball, summer workouts, all the things you do together to build a team and build unity. And then when the adversity hits, you’re ready for it. You can handle it.
The same thing is true in your faith. You know, if you spend time with the Lord and you truly have that peace that surpasses all understanding in your faith in Jesus, then when these things happen, you can handle them better and you can stay positive. That’s a big part of this disease. You got to stay positive. You can’t be depressed. You can’t stay in bed. You’ve got to keep moving. There’s things you could do that can really ward this off. And this is not a death sentence. It sometimes feels like it. You know, it’s a life change for sure. But a lot of people have spent 10, 20 years in stage one, which is relatively mild. And that’s kind of where I’m at right now.
Mwaura: But you feel good, though?
Richt: I feel good. I’m not in pain. You know, I do get stiff and sore easier than usual. And, you know, just the thought of getting up and working out this morning was not easy. We got a little workout room up there. And when I get my lift in and I’ll walk up and down these steps and get about a 50-minute workout in, and then I’ll ice my hip as I’m reading the Word. Then I’ll take a hot shower and that’s usually the best I feel. Oh, I forgot the the yoga. Gotta do yoga, right? The stretching really, really helps you.
Mwaura: Well, I got to ask this next question here, man. Where does your faith come from? I was telling friends of mine for the last week, that I’d be here with you, and that was the number one thing they wanted to know. Because it’s not just something that’s been around for a day or two or even a year. Shoot, it’s been around your whole career. Where does that come from?
Richt: Well, 1986, I prayed to receive Christ in Coach Bowden’s office after an untimely death of a player. I was a young graduate assistant coach. I wasn’t even on the payroll yet, you know. But I was in the back of the room when we had the team meeting and he said, man, Pablo’s gone. His name was Pablo Lopez.
And (Bowden) basically preached the gospel and said, God loves us. He wants a relationship with us. He wants us to be in heaven with him for eternity. But, you know, the standard for heaven is perfection. And none of us can reach that. We have no chance at a sinless life. But that’s why he gave us Jesus.
So he basically preached the gospel to the guys. And he said, man, that chair right there’s where Pablo used to sit. He goes, “You guys are 18 to 22 years old. You think you’re going to live forever, just like Pablo did.” He said, “If that was you last night instead of Pablo. Do you know where you’d spend eternity?” Well, he’s talking to the players, but I’m in the back of the room and the Holy Spirit, you know, jumped on me pretty good. And some seeds that were planted by a teammate way back at the University of Miami came to fruition. And so I’m like …
Mwaura: I’m in.
Richt: So the next day, knocked on the door of Coach Bowden’s office. “Hey, buddy, come in.” (He calls you buddy when he forgets your name.) But I come and I say, “Coach, I know you’re talking to those players, but I’d like to pray to receive Christ.” So I did that in his office. And it was real. My spirit changed. My heart changed. I went from a very self-centered, selfish guy to a Christ-centered and others-centered person. I had one goal from that day on and that was to live a life that would be pleasing to God, regardless of what he asked me to do, whether I was coaching or not. You know, “God just use me.” All those things I was afraid of when my buddy in college was telling me about it. You know, I was always worried about what other people thought rather than what God thought. I was afraid he’d send me on a mission trip and I’d never come home. And, you know, all these things. So that’s where it changed.
Mwaura: Recently, you and Coach Bowden had an interview together, in fact, and I wish I had been there in the room that day — although I’m fans of neither one of your football teams — but I’m fans of both of you guys. What does Coach Bowden mean to you?
Richt: Yeah, well, we just mentioned how he led me to Christ. He was bold enough to talk to that team and preach the gospel right there at a time of adversity, a time of sadness. And because he did that — and had his door open to anybody who wanted to talk to him about it — that changed my life. I mean, dramatically. For all of eternity. Gave me a new perspective on how to live.
Mwaura: Was it full circle seeing him, a few weeks ago?
Richt: What happened was I’m being introduced as the spokesperson for Send Relief, which is part of the North American Mission Board and International Mission Board. It’s a compassion ministry. They wanted a spokesperson. So they’re introducing me at the luncheon … five, seven thousand people there or whatever it was. They play a video of me giving a testimony, and when the lights come on they said,”Hey, if Coach Bowden were here, what would you tell him?” And so I start saying something and they said, “Hey, Coach, turn around.”
Richt: Coach Bowden was right there. They snuck him on the stage. Wow. And so for him to do that for me was huge. You know, some I don’t know, 30 some years later, whatever it is.
Mwaura: Incredible. Now I want to talk about coaching and I want to talk about your new book, “Make the Call.” What was it like writing this? I mean, what was it like going back all those years? And going, OK, I’m going to put this all into a book form. What was that experience like?
Richt: First you got to figure out what the book’s going to be. Is it going to be topical? Is it going to be a memoir or chronological? What’s it going to be? And the only thing that really made sense was to make it chronological. A few flashbacks here and there. But for the most part, just kind of go through my years as a player, my years at Florida State, my one year at East Carolina.
Mwaura: Yeah. You even talk about your one year at East Carolina. Why did you feel the need to talk about that one year?
Richt: It was part of my journey, obviously, but it was my first time as an offensive coordinator, so I got to be able to make mistakes when nobody was noticing. But I also had to face the fear of the responsibility of the job, and being around guys that were really more qualified than I was to do the job. And I’m over them — I’m younger than them — but I’m over them and I am less experienced than them. So I’m going through all this fear. I’m talking about fear where I had a hard time getting out of bed. Or like I just sweat all night and about what’s going to happen the next day, knowing that there’s no way I could get it all done. And then by 11 o’clock, everything was done.
So it was imagined fear more than real. But imagined fear still affects our bodies the same way. So basically, when my faith, in my opinion, when my faith got stronger than my fear, then that’s when the fear went away. And actually, Norman Vincent Peale’s book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” which is, you know, Scripture memorization to help alleviate the fear. And that’s kind of how I got over it.
Mwaura: But it almost seemed like God was setting you up. Like you had to go through that one year of fear and challenges to get ready for what was coming.
Richt: Get ready for two things. One was to be the offensive coordinator at Florida State and have that responsibility. Well, now I’ve done it before — and I can’t say I did it well, but I’ve done it before.
But the other thing that prepared me for was the leadership of being the head coach as well at Georgia, because going from a position coach to a coordinator, you’re not just coaching kids anymore, you’re coaching coaches. And you’re responsible for half the team, basically. And then all of a sudden when I got that opportunity at Florida State to be the coordinator. It wasn’t as scary.
Richt: And we won a lot of games.
Mwaura: You won a lot of games and a few against my own team. But let’s not go down that road. Can we talk about the University of Georgia? Because, I mean, you know, you came here and I say here, you still live here in the area, Athens. You came here for 15 years. What was that experience like?
Richt: Well, first of all, you know, a lot of coaches that become head coach for the first time, they might have been at six different schools; six different ways of doing things. And picking and choosing what they like the most about this place or that place. I was at one place. In essence, I mean, one year at East Carolina, but 15 years at Florida State under Coach Brown.
Mwaura: Which is not a bad thing.
Richt: That’s all I knew. I knew how he did things. And that’s how I wanted to do things. And one of the things he did was he stayed at Florida State a long time. And I saw the benefits of, you know, 11 players from the recruitment in the ninth grade till they get baptized and get married and show me pictures of their babies, you know.
So to be somewhere, 15 years and see kids come back and know their coaches, there’s something to that because there’s so many guys that are used to people just leaving them. You know, there’s a heavy percentage of the guys we coached that really didn’t have a father in the home, so we became that surrogate father as coaches at Florida State. Then, of course, in Georgia, too. So at Georgia, I wanted to have the same longevity. I had many opportunities to go different places and do different things. And every time a headhunter called, I just said, I’m not interested.
Mwaura: How would you know you’re not interested, though?
Richt: Because I knew in the end I wasn’t leaving. I mean, you could take those things and leverage it for more money and more years on your contract …
Mwaura: But it didn’t mean anything to you?
Richt: I didn’t want to feed everybody a bunch of junk when I knew darn well in my spirit, in my heart, I wanted to stay at Georgia, until I ended my career. Fifteen years is a long time.
Mwaura: A long time.
Richt: It wasn’t quite as long as I was hoping for, but …
Mwaura: A long time. Can we talk about “not quite as much as you were hoping for”? Because one thing I’ve always admired about you is that you adjust well. I remember living here at that time and going, oh, well, I’m not a fan, but I’m a fan of yours. Going, OK, coach, go get them. And you did, though, like you adjusted well and said, man, God has something over here.
Richt: Yeah. Well, the bottom line is: We sign up for what we get. In other words, we as coaches, we know you got to win a certain amount of games or a certain amount of championships to keep people happy . To stay 15 years at an SEC school was not unheard of, but there aren’t many that (did). So we had a really good run and we won a lot of games. Coach Dooley obviously won more and more games, percentage wise, but we didn’t win the national championship. And we, you know, we came close a couple of times and didn’t get there. So it wasn’t a shock that they decided to move on and find someone else. But, you know, I wasn’t mad at anybody. I wasn’t. I was thankful. I was thankful. I raised my kids …
Mwaura: In one place for 15 years.
Richt: Yeah. I mean, this is home for them. I mean, our youngest two went from pre-K all the way through graduation at the same school.
Mwaura: That seemed more important to you, though?
Richt: I mean, I knew there was a lot of things that were going to be sacrificed, once you decide to be head coach. You know, could be your health, could be your family time. It could be all kinds of things you have to sacrifice to do the job well. But, you know, my goal all along was to still be that great husband God wanted me to be and still be, you know, that father God wanted me to be. And, you know, I was blessed to have my wife, Catherine, who knew there are certain things I had to do. But she also knew when I had a free moment, I was with them. I didn’t golf. I didn’t fish. I mean people asked me what are my hobbies, I don’t have a hobby.
Mwaura: It was them!
Richt: You know, so I don’t even know what to do with myself in retirement.
Mwaura: I’m sure you’ll figure that out! You say you sign up for what you get, basically? How did you determine in your spirit that you were going to do that? That was kind of one of those things where you were like, “Man, God, I’m going to be thankful…” University of Miami comes rolling along. Which is, you know, back home for you. What was that experience like? What was it like writing about that?
Richt: Yeah, well, after I got let go at Georgia, within 24 hours it was probably six universities that were interested, Miami being one of them. My original goal was just sit out a year or two, get rested, and see what’s up. But because it was Miami, it was my alma mater, and it was a place that had the history of winning. I’m like, this job is not going to be open next year. If somebody takes it, it’s going to be at least three, four or five years before that turns over. So I said (to my wife), honey, I’m going to listen to what Miami has to say. And if it sounds right, we’re gonna do it. And so, you know, she gave me the pat answer she always gives me, “If you think that’s what God’s telling you to do…”
Mwaura: Let’s go do it.
Richt: Yes! You know, if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, I’m out! You do it because God said so, I’m in! She was good at checking my spirit for doing things for the right reasons.
Mwaura: In the book, what did you learn about yourself in this writing process — now that it’s done?
Richt: Well, some of it was reading things I might have said 10 years ago. Or reading about something I might have done 15 years ago that was very healthy for my life, for my spiritual growth. And then maybe seeing myself 20 years later and going, you know what, I’m preaching to me? And one thing I did when I retired from coaching, I threw away everything. I threw away my playbooks. …
Mwaura: Are you kidding me?!
Richt: I can’t believe I did. I really am shocked that I did. I had 15 years of notes as the head coach. They were gone.
Mwaura: Coach, you should have called me.
Richt: (laughing) But anyway, the book was a great experience. And Lawrence Kimbro was my co-writer. And yeah, he was awesome.
Mwaura: Wow. When it comes to “making the call,” what does that mean to people who are getting up, going to work every day, who are just trying to make it day by day? How do they make the call, Coach?
Richt: Well, you know, “Make the Call” is a play on words to a certain degree. If you’re a coach and you’re calling plays in a game every 40 seconds, you got to “make the call.” … Or if you’re on the sideline and you’ve got to manage the game, you’ve got to “make the call” throughout the game or throughout an off season or whatever it may be.
Basically making the calls, just making decisions, making decisions in life. I made a lot of calls as a husband, as a father, as a brother, as a friend, you know, and that’s what everybody does. We’re all making decisions. And so, you know, are you making the decisions for the right reasons? Are you trying to please the right person, which is God?
I mean, that’s what really helped me when I became a believer, is my goal was to make a decision God would be happy with. So if I laid my head on the pillow at night and I had peace, I felt like I made the right call. If I lay my head on the pillow and I didn’t have peace, I woke up the next day and changed my decision. If I could. And some decisions you might have a week to make it. You might have a year to make it. You’ve got a lot of time to think about. You got a lot of time to pray about it. But a lot of times in life, you’ve got to make a decision now. And are you ready to make that decision based on what your belief system is? And once you get your belief system right and you see life through a certain lens, you’re going to make good decisions.
Mwaura: Well, when you’re on the sidelines, though, I mean, you’re coaching. How do you make those calls within 40 seconds? I mean, there’s a lot of calls going on there. Like, how do you not become indecisive?
Richt: I’ll go as fast as I can go. Basically, you have a certain down and distance. First and second down in the green zone. 20 to 20. You’re just calling your favorite plays. But then it gets the third down, possession down, third and one. What do you like the best? Third medium. What do you like the best? Third long. What do you like the best in the red zone? Balls on the 10. What do you like the best? Balls on the five. On the three. On the one. Well, those are decisions that you make with your staff throughout the week and you put it on them, little cards that everybody sees.
So if it gets to be third and 10 and you you look at third and 10 and say, this is my No. 1 run, this is my No. 1 on one pass. … And I know we practiced this play, the kids understand the play. We’re doing it against the tendencies of what that defense does on that play. And then you make the call based off of decisions that were made all throughout the week. So, again, you know, you spend the whole week making those decisions. But when it happens in the game, you just go to the card that you designed for that call.
Mwaura: For that call. Wow.
Richt: That you decided maybe on Tuesday.
Mwaura: So making the call, preparation is a part of that to a certain degree.
Richt: There’s a chapter on this.
Mwaura: There’s a lot of great chapters in here, by the way. Last question. When you hit send on this, and it was done, what did you think?
Richt: Well, I know this, when you tell your story, a lot of times you’re telling somebody else’s story. And so I want to be very careful I’m not telling somebody else’s story in a way that might hurt them. You know, because there’s things that happen in life that I wouldn’t think much of, but that person might think they don’t want that in print. So I either had to call people and say, “I’m thinking about writing this. Are you OK with this?” Or just flat out, I know this person wouldn’t like it.
Mwaura: Just leave it out.
Richt: So if you look at it for really, really nasty dirt on somebody, you’re probably not going to find it. Now, you’ll learn some things (from) behind the scenes, you know, learn the background of a player game or a decision and things like that. But my goal was not to tell someone else’s story in such a way it would hurt them. It’s about hope. I hope I’ve done that.
Mwaura: I think you did. By the way, I cannot wait to dig into this. It’s one of those kind of books I was waiting for for a long time. And of course, I’m a fan of yours.
Richt: Yes, sir.
Mwaura: So thank you for your time.
Richt: Thank you. Feels good.