Mark Richt on his way to restoring Miami to its former glory

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Mark Richt stands in what will soon be his old office at Miami’s Hecht Athletic Center and gazes through the window as construction workers bring to life what might as well have been a dream when Richt returned to his alma mater as head coach in December 2015.

The Hurricanes’ new $34 million indoor practice facility and football operations building are scheduled for completion in August. Richt still recalls what longtime Miami baseball coach Jim Morris, who will retire following this season, told him at the groundbreaking ceremony.

Morris looked at Richt and said, “You don’t understand. This is a miracle, what’s happening right now.”

The Hurricanes, who have long lagged behind in the facilities arms race, are finally getting up to speed, and it’s no accident that $28 million of the total cost was raised in nine months after Richt got the job. Not only did Richt play a leading role in the fundraising effort, helping to secure the $14 million lead gift from Carol Soffer and her family, but he also ponied up $1 million of his own money.

This is home for Richt, and so was Georgia before he was pushed out in November 2015, and he’s very clear about why he’s back where it all began for him in college 40 years ago as a backup quarterback to Hall of Famer Jim Kelly.

“I keep telling people that I didn’t come here just because it was my alma mater,” Richt told ESPN. “I came here because you can win. If you do things right and get the support you need, you can win. It’s been proven. The players have always been here. You just have to make sure you get the right ones, and a lot of the other things they used to ding us on, our facilities and things like that, they’re not going to be able to do that anymore with this brand-new building and the improvements to Hard Rock Stadium.”

Richt turns casually to the shelves on the wall behind his desk and points to some of The U’s most cherished memorabilia from the glory years.

“There’s five national championship footballs signed by the national championship coaches here,” Richt said. “It can be done again, and that’s what we’re working toward every day: to bring this program back to where we all expect it to be.”

In just two seasons, Richt has Miami racing in that direction. The Hurricanes won 10 games last season for the first time since 2003 and captured its first ACC Coastal Division title. The finish to the season wasn’t what Richt or anybody in these parts wanted. The Hurricanes lost their last three games, including a 38-3 blowout loss to Clemson in the ACC championship game. But Miami climbed as high as No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings, signaling to the rest of the college football world that The U is indeed relevant again for all of the right reasons.

The challenge now is going from relevant status to championship status.

“We limped into the end of the year,” Richt said of last season’s disappointing finish. “Our three best offensive players got hurt, and we don’t have a lot of depth still, dudes that can step right in there and play championship ball. That’s where we need to catch up.”

The good news is that the returns on the recruiting trail have been promising. Miami finished No. 8 nationally in ESPN’s recruiting rankings for the 2018 class, ahead of in-state rivals Florida State (11th) and Florida (13th) and just a couple of notches below the teams that have accounted for the past three national titles, Alabama (sixth) and Clemson (fifth).

Richt is equally encouraged by the way the 2019 class is coming along. The Hurricanes already have 12 commitments, 11 from the state of Florida.

“If we recruit like we’ve been recruiting for four or five seasons in a row, then we’ll have that kind of depth, the kind you see at Clemson and Alabama,” Richt said. “At least we’re battling Florida, Florida State, Clemson, Georgia, Alabama and Auburn. Everybody is down here in South Florida trying to recruit players, so if you get your share of the local kids and the kids in the state, you’re going to have a team that has the ingredients to win championships.”

As much as anything, Richt offers stability to a Miami program that has sorely lacked it, be it a result of coaching turnover, NCAA sanctions stemming from the Nevin Shapiro scandal or a roster in flux.

“When I got here, Miami was still on probation,” Richt said. “We still haven’t gotten our [scholarship] numbers up to 85. Last year we were at 73 but could have been higher. It just takes time to get your numbers back. You have a max in any given year, and that can only get you so far, and then you have attrition. You can’t make it up in one year. We lost kids to the NFL, lost kids who knew they weren’t going to play here and wanted to go someplace else and play, which happens everywhere.

“You will also have some discipline issues: not guys who were bad guys, but guys who weren’t going to do what they were supposed to do -- go to class, be prepared, be respectful and do your best. That’s really all I’m asking.”

In return, Richt, 58, is promising that he has put down roots, despite who else might call. Like in his 15 seasons at Georgia, Richt had inquiries this offseason about other jobs.

“But I never let it get to a point where I talk to them about the job,” Richt said. “It’s happened my whole career. I never once have tried to leverage another job for more money. I don’t think that’s right. The day we took the job, my mentality has always been, ‘If you’re the head coach, too many lives depend on you.’ If I just say on a whim, ‘You know, I think I’d rather go here,’ well, all these recruits you said something to, all these coaches you said something to, what about them?

“Every time you hire a coach, you’re taking the coach, his wife and his kids on an adventure. They’re trusting you and believing in you enough to become a staff member. I don’t want to just walk into a room and say, ‘Hey, guys, thanks for helping me get to where I really want to be.’ It’s the same thing with these kids. They’ve had enough disappointment, enough men leave their lives. You’re trying to build trust, and then you bolt on them because of money or because of whatever? I’ve just never been able to get past that part of it.”

Richt isn’t judging. He certainly understands coaches “wanting to stay ahead of the chopping block” if they’ve been somewhere for a while and there’s a push to get rid of them. He was well aware that he was on that “chopping block” at Georgia, but he had other priorities that were more important to him than getting out of town before he received a pink slip.

“I got to raise my kids in one city for 15 years,” Richt said. “My daughter, Anya, went from pre-K to graduating high school in the same school. You can’t put a price on that.”

Although he never would have left Georgia had he not been fired, Richt is grateful for his time in Athens and equally grateful to be back coaching at a place that means so much to him.

“I spent 15 years of my life at Georgia. It was great. We embraced it and poured our lives into it. But when it was time to go, it was time to go,” Richt said. “We really do trust God with what’s going on. There have been so many awesome things that have happened here at Miami. It’s been incredible. It’s a time in our lives when [my wife] Katharyn and I are empty-nesting. We live in Coconut Grove and are having a ball, and I’m also getting a chance to help my alma mater. Even this new building right here, whenever I’m gone -- whether it’s a year from now or 10 years from now -- we would have made some kind of impact on the program in a big way.

“Everywhere you go, there are people who need you.”

Well, Miami needed Richt, too, and he and the Hurricanes are building back to the future.