A House Divided

written by BRE HUMPHRIES | illustration by ROBIN HARRISON

With 122 years of “clean, old-fashioned hate” behind it, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech football rivalry runs deep. Anxious for action-packed afternoons where Hairy Dawgs and Ramblin’ Wrecks reappear, we reached out to head coaches Mark Richt and Paul Johnson for a behind-the-sidelines peek at the men behind the programs. We’ll be forced to choose sides when they face off in Bobby Dodd Stadium on Nov. 28, but until then, we’ll be rooting for the home team — be it by bark or by buzz.

As the head coach of a Southeastern Conference (SEC) powerhouse, University of Georgia head football coach Mark Richt is something of a celebrity in these parts, but he’s not the type to revel in pride. “I got into coaching because I wasn’t good enough to play anymore,” he said with a good-natured laugh.

With an older brother to watch from the sidelines, Richt was eager to hit the football field as soon as he was eligible in the fifth grade. He continued to play – first as the star quarterback for Boca Raton High School in
Florida and then as a backup quarterback for the University of Miami in the early ‘80s – until he moved back to the sidelines as a volunteer quarterbacks coach for the Florida State Seminoles under Coach Bobby
Bowden in 1985.

After a brief stint with East Carolina University, Richt returned to the Seminoles coaching staff, where he moved up the ranks until he was hired as head coach at the University of Georgia (UGA) in 2000. His 14 years between the hedges have been highly successful – Richt has led the Bulldogs to five SEC Eastern division titles and tied for another, as well as two SEC Championships.

Richt’s love of the game is only part of his motivation. As a coach, his commitment to the players is a driving force as well.

“I really enjoy the competition and the strategy, but as you coach for years, you realize how important your relationships are with the players and how you can affect lives in a positive way,” he said.

In addition to football strategies, Richt coaches his players in other aspects of life and emphasizes graduation; under his watch, a total of 238 players have earned degrees. In fact, the opportunity to impact players may even keep Richt involved in UGA’s football program after he retires.

“One thing I’d be really interested in doing is continuing to work with the young men who have played at Georgia and try to help them transition from football to life when their playing days are over,” he said, describing an existing program already dedicated to that cause. “I might even try to run the darn thing if I got out of [coaching].”

Then again, his life after football may look very different, depending on Katharyn, his wife of 28 years. “When the coaching days are over, I’ll find something she wants to do and pay her back for all the sacrifices she [has] made for me,” Richt said.

Anyone who follows Georgia football has likely seen Katharyn on the sidelines as the team’s water girl. Not only do the Richts work together on game day Saturdays, they also serve together in fundraising efforts for the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia and pour as much time as possible into their four grown children – two biological sons, Jon and David and two adopted children, Anya and Zach – as well as their one-year-old granddaughter, Jayden.

“One thing I’d be really interested in doing is continuing to work with the young men who have played at Georgia and try to help them transition from football to life when their playing days are over.” – MARK RICHT

“Mark is a very intentional father,” Katharyn said, claiming that the quantity of time he loses due to his demanding schedule has always been made up by quality time spent with his family. While Jon is the only one currently following in his father’s professional footsteps, serving as a coaching assistant for the Buffalo Bills, all four of the Richt offspring have inherited quality traits from their dad.

“They’ve picked up on his integrity, his loyalty to his family, his love for the Lord and how he makes decisions at work and at home … They’ve even picked up a little of his sarcasm!” Katharyn laughed.

Jokes aside, Richt is open about his faith and clear about its implications in his life, both on and off the field. For him, there is no distinction between the way he approaches life as a coach and the way he approaches it as a professing Christian.

“I think everybody sees life through a certain lens,” Richt said. “Whether I’m a football coach or not … I put all my faith in God through his son, Christ. I think it affects every decision I make. My goal is to try to live a life that’s pleasing to Him. When I make decisions, I try to make decisions He’d be pleased with.”

Richt has received some criticism over the years for his less-than-cutthroat approach, but also a lot of support for his values, his sincerity and the unity he has established within the football program.

“I’m trying to do things the right way,” he said, acknowledging that the program doesn’t always meet the expectations of fans. “We’re battling like mad to have those championships, but we also want to make sure we do it the right way and that we treat our student athletes the way they should be treated.”

As always, those expectations leading into the 2015 season are high from those who bleed red and black. Most of the early preseason predictions place Georgia in the Top 10, and key returning players include running back Nick Chubb, though a tough schedule is likely to present challenges. But the Bulldogs have been known to perform well under pressure, and Richt has high expectations: “Win the SEC, get into the playoffs, and win it all!”

If a competitive spirit and lifelong love of the game are the necessary ingredients for a good football coach, Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson has what it takes.

Johnson’s football career started as a child, playing youth league football in Newland, N.C., and eventually at Avery County High School. Though he did not play college ball, Johnson decided to pursue coaching as a profession while at Western Carolina University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1979, and returned to his high school alma mater as the offensive coordinator upon graduation. From there, his career led him across the continental United States and beyond, with stints at Georgia Southern University, the University of Hawaii at Mānoa and Navy before landing his current position at Georgia Tech in 2008. Since then, he’s taken the Yellow Jackets to three Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Championship games and seven consecutive bowl games, and averaged 8.2 wins per season – including last year’s overtime win against the Bulldogs.

A relentless desire for improvement is Johnson’s key motivation. “I’m a very competitive person, so I’m always trying to be better at everything I do,” he said.

That drive has served the reigning ACC Coach of the Year well, as Johnson has had something of a Midas touch with the football programs he has managed. In his tenure with Georgia Tech, Johnson holds a record of 58 – 35 and has won more games in his first six seasons than any other coach in GT history, including the legendary John Heisman. Using his high-octane spread option offense, the Jackets have repeatedly ranked in the top six nationally for rushing offense and rushed for more yards than any team in college football since 2008.

Prior to taking the reins at Georgia Tech, Johnson was credited with orchestrating one of the NCAA’s best turnarounds when he took over the program at Georgia Southern in 1997 and also with bringing Navy back into the national spotlight in 2002 after the program’s worst two-year span in history. In 18 years as a head coach, Johnson has compiled an impressive overall career record of 165 – 74.

Johnson’s proclivity for improvement has even impacted his coaching staffs. Brian Bohannon, former GT quarterbacks coach is now head coach at Kennesaw State, which plays its first season this fall. Former assistants Ken Niumatalolo (Navy) and Jeff Monken (Army) are head coaches too.

“He’s very approachable, and he has a lot of humor and wit that people don’t see by watching him on the sidelines.” – SUSAN JOHNSON | Wife of Paul Johnson

The thrill of competition extends to Johnson’s personal life, as well. “Golf is the only hobby that consumes me,” he said. Locally, Johnson is a member of Cherokee Town & Country Club in Buckhead, and enjoys a few rounds at Grandfather Golf & Country Club when he sneaks away to his family’s mountain home in Linville, N.C.

Johnson’s ambitious streak may be contributing to a somewhat negative public opinion, but the self-proclaimed family man insists he’s not as gruff as the media often portrays him to be — a sentiment Susan, his wife of 35 years, backs up wholeheartedly.

“I think there’s a big misperception about him just from what people observe,” she said. “He’s very approachable, and he has a lot of humor and wit that people don’t see by watching him on the sidelines.”

“Now, he’s not going to put up with a lot of nonsense,” she continued. “He’s very straight-up. You always know where he stands. He’s honest, and he expects you to be that way with him. He’s loyal to [his team and coaching staff ], and he gets that loyalty from them in return.” The allegiance between Johnson and his staff is evident by the length of time his coaches have stuck by his side, including offensive line coach Mike Sewak, who has coached with Johnson in various capacities since 1985.

Of course, Johnson is just as loyal to Susan and his daughter Kaitlyn, an opera singer who recently graduated from Rice University in Houston with a degree in vocal performance. Though he claims Kaitlyn’s musical talent came from his wife – a pianist in one of the children’s choirs at Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church – Susan credits part of her daughter’s success to determination, work ethic and competitive nature – traits she inherited from her father.

If he wasn’t coaching, Johnson lists competitive industries such as finance or sales as possible options. But for now, with a contract that extends through the 2020 season, he’ll continue to pour his energy into sustaining a successful program at Georgia Tech.

“Clearly there’s a lot of excitement around the program, and we’re returning a good nucleus of players … Certainly the quarterback, Justin Thomas, will be the marquee name coming back,” Johnson said. The Jackets are also returning several defensive players, giving the coach high hopes for improvement in an area that admittedly struggled last season.

“I’ve always been one who has high expectations for myself and the teams, but I think you just try to make sure that the team you’re coaching and the program is as good as it can be, given the talents and the limitations you have. I try not to get too far ahead of myself … Each team is different, and I’ll let our team set their own goals and expectations,” he continued, although a few of the program’s key goals never change – winning the ACC and landing in a prominent bowl game or the college playoffs.

With early preseason predictions placing Georgia Tech near the Top 20, there’s undoubtedly a lot of buzz surrounding the Yellow Jackets this year. If Johnson’s commitment to improvement is any indication, their future is indeed looking bright.