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Mark Richt's Miami rebuild begins with community outreach

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Richt bringing energy and enthusiasm to Miami (1:07)

Andrea Adelson shares how Mark Richt's impact is being felt at Miami. (1:07)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Mark Richt's arrival comes without fanfare. Around 100 kids are scattered across the football fields at Mills Pond Park, black mesh jerseys and white helmets with a familiar "U" logo (adjusted slightly from the bottom to form an "H") labeling them as Hurricanes, but the appearance of the real Canes' head coach hardly creates a stir. Parents continue chatting along the sidelines and in the parking lot, some underneath tents to shield from raindrops. Only a few of the coaches take notice, former Miami players who knew Richt would be visiting.

This is a big change from Richt's old surroundings back in Athens, Georgia. There, he knew everyone. For 15 years, he was the most famous man in a small town where Bulldogs' football was the center of the universe. Now, he and his wife, Katharyn, can walk from their home in Coconut Grove, down palm-tree lined streets to eat dinner at a busy restaurant without ever being recognized. It's nice to finally be anonymous from time to time, but Richt's visit to this park is about making introductions, about being noticed.

The kids here range from kindergarten to junior high, some frames too small for the oversized helmets strapped to their heads and a few more who might fit nicely with the walk-on linemen on Richt's roster at Miami.

Bennie Blades, the organizer of this youth league and a former All-American at Miami, motions to one of the boys at the end of a line of older kids stretching along the sideline of one of the fields. He's the biggest of the group, pushing 6 feet and maybe 200 pounds.

"You see that big boy?" Blades shouts at Richt. "He's 9 years old."

Richt grins, shakes his head.

Slowly, some of the older kids begin to take notice of the guy in the green Miami T-shirt snapping photos with their coaches.

"That's the coach at The U," one says to his friend, but both boys are too nervous to approach Richt.

Others aren't so reticent. One boy pulls out his phone and shows Richt videos of his game tape. Richt watches politely then snaps a selfie with the kid.

There's a kid who attended Richt's camp during the summer at Miami, where attendance wasn't quite as high as initially hoped, but the kid loved it. He's glad to see Richt again.

Another approaches confidently and informs Richt he's a kicker. He used to play soccer but found he was much better at booting field goals.

There's talent here, and that's what drew Richt to Mills Pond and more than a dozen other parks around Miami in the past few months. Each Thursday, he hops in the car, drives to another stop -- sometimes with an assistant coach or two; sometimes with a few players -- and he sells Miami to kids who weren't born the last time the Hurricanes were relevant on the national stage.

The next superstar recruit is here somewhere, and Richt wants him at Miami.

He watched running backs go through Oklahoma drills and cheers them on with a repeated "atta boy" for each one. He shakes hands with parents, says he's glad to meet them. He takes pictures with anyone who asks. Every new fan matters if the Hurricanes want to keep building, expanding.

By the end, Tolbert Bain is ecstatic. He'd helped create this plan to overlap Richt's presence at Miami with Miami's presence in the community. Bain played at Miami and is involved in area youth leagues. He knew it would be a perfect fit.

It'll take time for the plan to bear fruit, but Bain sees it, off in the distance. The kids at this park and the others Richt has visited, they'll be the ones on the field when Miami is really back .

"What's Nick going to say?" Bain jokes with another coach, referring to Nick Saban, the Alabama coach who's swiped his share of South Florida talent in recent years. "Nick'll be complaining about this."

***

It wasn't so long ago that Miami didn't need a sales pitch from the coach. The U used to be cool, its roster filled with local talents who grew up dreaming of becoming Hurricanes. Howard Schnellenberger, who coached Richt in college, called it "The State of Miami," a virtual wall built around the area that insured anyone who was good enough to play for The U wanted to go there.

In the past decade, however, the wall has come down. Saban and Jimbo Fisher and Jim McElwain poach a hefty contingent of the area's best players. Until this year, Richt was doing it for Georgia.

When Richt takes center stage, more than 100 youth players and their families' eyes focus on him. He says he wants to build a relationship with the community, wants them to know he was involved.

"And the other reason I'm here is a selfish one," he says. "It's called recruiting."

This gets a big laugh from the parents, but the kids are transfixed.

When he asks later how many want to play college football, every one raises his hand. Richt's read the papers. He knows youth football is on the decline other places, but not here.

Then Richt polls his audience again. What's the first thing he's looking for in a recruit?

The kids yell out what they assume he wants to hear: Grades.

"No," Richt grins. "First thing I want is talent."

This gets an even bigger laugh from the crowd, but he's serious.

Richt knows Miami's history. He's from Boca Raton, Florida, and he played at Miami. His old teammates still call him "Boca," even if he hadn't been a regular there in three decades before taking this job in December.

When Richt was at Miami, he shared a depth chart with Jim Kelly and Vinny Testaverde. The year after his departure, Bernie Kosar started at QB. And in the two decades that followed, more NFL talent flowed through the Miami locker room than any school in the country.

Then came the decline. Miami joined the ACC in 2004 and is yet to play for a conference championship. In the 1980s and '90s, the Hurricanes were a constant foil for the blue bloods of college football. Now, they're on a six-game losing streak to rival Florida State, this Saturday's opponent (8 p.m. ET, ABC ). The U on the helmet used to mean something, but in recent years, former Miami stars have publicly lamented the direction of the program and been forced to the periphery, voices unheard inside the football offices.

"What the program lost was the sense of ownership," said Luther Campbell, a musician, youth coach, mentor and unabashed Miami fan. "[At Miami's peak], it was personal. Everybody felt ownership in it. It became our team. It was Miami -- all of Miami."

There's something unique about The U in that way. The campus, the university, the football program -- it's part of the fabric of the city. For kids growing up in neighborhoods from Boca Raton to Liberty City, The U is the home team.

"This is the city's team, the purest representation of South Florida in the sports world," said Manny Diaz, Miami's defensive coordinator and son of the city's former mayor. "We love the Heat and the Marlins and the Dolphins, but more often than not, their players come from other places. Miami football represents the skill level of South Florida. That's our grass roots."

So Richt came up with the plan -- not just to inundate the high schools in a desperate attempt to find players for the Class of 2017 but to build a bridge to the future. He's playing a long game.

That, too, is a statement. Richt had sworn he'd never coach anywhere after Georgia. Why would he want to? He'd put down roots. But when he was shown the door after a 9-3 season in 2015, Miami came calling, and the lure of his other home -- the place he grew up -- was strong.

"We're either in or we're out," he told Katharyn, "and if we're in, it's going to take a lot of juice."

Some observers wondered how much juice Richt had. At 56 years old, he'd already spent a lifetime in coaching, and a devout Christian, he had passions beyond football.

For Richt, there was no question. He wasn't riding off into the sunset. He wanted to build something again, and these park visits are a reminder he's in it for the long haul.

"I'd do this either way," Richt said of his park trips, "but in my view, it's building for the future. I plan to finish my coaching career [at Miami]."

It's been 33 years since Richt was "Boca." It's been 13 years since Miami won 10 games. And it might be 10 more years before some of these kids send their tape off to Richt, hoping he'll see enough talent to offer them a scholarship to The U. But who's counting?

The way Campbell sees it, Richt has always been a Miami guy, and The U has always been the place Miami kids wanted to play.

"It's more like a house with the lights off," Campbell said. "People know the house is there, but they don't know if anybody's home. Coach Richt is just cutting the lights back on."

***

Richt has plenty to do around Miami's football offices, to be sure. He's back calling plays, something he hasn't done routinely in a decade, and he's selling the program to boosters, too. Miami needs the money, needs improved facilities like the indoor practice field that will break ground soon. Richt donated $1 million of his own money to get that deal done.

But it's more than football for Richt. He's a man of faith and family and, here in Miami, he feels a little distanced from both. Two days after the Mills Pond Park visit, Richt's Hurricanes would travel to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech. Katharyn had gone early. Georgia, in so many ways, is still home. Richt's entire family still lives in Athens. During his first spring on the job at Miami, Katharyn was finishing a nursing degree at UGA, and Richt was living alone in an efficiency lent to him from former school president Donna Shalala. His kids, who'd been fixtures in the halls at Georgia during weekly "Family Night" festivities, are all grown, living their own lives now (though his oldest son, Jon, is on staff at Miami as QBs coach).

"There was nobody waiting for me at home," Richt said, "so I just stayed busy with work."

The church programs and charity work he'd prioritized in Athens hadn't lost importance to Richt, but now he's 700 miles away and has an entirely new community in need of attention.

One of the reasons youth football remains so popular in Miami is because those parks are the safest spots for so many of these kids. Just a few minutes after Richt arrived, Blades got a call on his cell phone. There'd been gunshots reported not far from the park -- probably nothing to worry about. The kids here are safe.

Tyler James has been playing youth ball for four years. He's already a huge Miami fan. Canes wide receiver Stacy Coley goes to his church, and he's given James a signed poster and encouraged him to stick with football.

"It's life skills, teamwork, partnerships," James' mother, Tiffany Warren, said. "His team looks out for him."

She's flipping through photos of her son's last game on her cell phone, a Miami Hurricane umbrella at her side. Football, for their family, means something.

Inside Mills Pond Park, it's easy to see why. Dozens of parents beamed with pride as their kids ran sprints and worked through drills. One mom sold pink "Hurricanes" towels in an effort to raise money for a breast cancer charity. As the clouds over the park cleared, a rainbow appeared -- stretching from one football field to the next, and Richt stopped and admired the beauty.

"He wants to point these young fellas in the right direction," Bain said. "Every time you turn on the TV here, all you see is shootings, and it's young guys who are involved. He's looking to do something to inspire them, keep them out of trouble."

In his speech to the kids, Richt did, in fact, preach the importance of grades. That was No. 2 on his list. First he wants to see the talent, then the grades. They'll need both.

"And what's the third thing?" Richt said, initiating a new round of murmuring from the assembled masses. "Did I hear someone say 'attitude?'"

"Attitude," one of the kids yelled out, as if it had just occurred to him.

This pitch is easy. The kids want to learn. They want to be inspired. Richt sees that.

In this crowd, one or two of these kids will grow up big and fast and strong. And just maybe, they'll remember the time Miami's coach came to visit them at the park, and they'll want to play for him. The rest of them -- they could be anything. Richt hopes they'll remember his visit, too. He wants them to be something that matters, not another name on the TV news when something awful happens in these neighborhoods.

Richt asks the kids to take off their helmets, wrap arms around their teammates and pray, and a number of parents shake their heads in approval and offer a smattering of "Amens."

At Georgia, all of this made Richt a divisive figure. Sure, he's a man of faith ... but visiting a park during a game week? Maybe he was just too nice a guy for the job, too concerned with things outside football. Those notions hovered over Richt's entire tenure in Athens.

Still, Miami fans here have faith -- in the Canes, in the neighborhood talent, in the guy who they believe has finally righted the ship.

The kids all line up around Richt and frame a "U" with their hands, just as cell phone camera flashes pop in all directions, the kids all yell in unison: "Go Canes."