Richt is coaching through pain as SEC East title nears

Mark Richt has been coaching through pain of a hip that requires surgery. (Bob Andres/AJC)

Mark Richt has been coaching through pain of a hip that requires surgery. (Photo Bob Andres/AJC)

ATHENS – Over the past several weeks, Georgia has lost three senior starters to season-ending injuries, accumulated various ailments that left other players without a full-set of functioning body parts and played four games without its projected starting defense because of four player suspensions.

As it turns out, Mark Richt also has been playing – or coaching – hurt.

Richt, a few days away from coaching his potential second straight SEC East-clinching game at Auburn, likely will have hip-replacement surgery after the season. He is often in excruciating pain, particularly after standing and pacing on the sideline for three-plus hours on game day.

The injury is something Richt has managed to keep quiet for the past year. Even athletic director Greg McGarity wasn’t aware of his coach’s condition until last week, and McGarity only became aware of it because he was trying to schedule postseason meetings with Richt and he needed to check on his availability.

There are two reasons Richt wanted to keep this quiet: 1) No coach wants to draw attention to himself when it’s a health matter, particularly when a “play hurt” mandate is stamped on every player’s forehead; 2) The genesis of the injury is rather embarrassing.

An old football injury?

“No,” Richt said. “ I think it’s a swing set injury.”

When asked to tell the story, he initially balked, then said, “I might as well,” in that I-know-it’s-going-to-get-out-anyway tone.

It was a Richt family picnic in Indiana. Richt said he was in his mid-20s. His wife, Katharyn, recalls it being in the early 1990s, which would put Richt in his early 30s.

We’ll side with Katharyn. She has no football or swing set injuries, therefore is less likely to have a concussion.

Richt was “trying to show off” for his wife.

“I was trying to show her what a good swinger I was,” he said. (For most people, that comment would have a completely different context.)

“I was swinging really high on a big heavy swing set with those big heavy chains. Sometimes if you go super high, on the way back you get a little bit of that lag. You’ve got those big S-hooks on top, and you’re swinging, and I swung enough to where the one on the left came out. So it comes out, but I didn’t know. I’m still on the swing. So when I come back down, the chain on [on the right] stayed taut and the other one just goes. I turned sideways and the first thing that hits the ground is my left hip. Just smashed it.

“It was traumatic. I mean, when I hit I was like, ‘I think I broke it.’ I couldn’t hardly breathe. Sometimes with an injury like that you get a full-body sweat and a little nauseous. But the pain kind of went away and I went about my business, until about a year and a half ago.”

When asked if the pain just suddenly came back, Richt paused before answering. (More humiliation coming.)

“P90x,” he finally said, referencing the DVD set of workouts. “I thought I just had a hip-flexor injury. But I said if I quit now I’m just going to get fat. So I just kept doing it.”

The pain grew. Richt couldn’t sleep at night. He finally went to a doctor and was presented with a surgical option: “They said to just go as long as you can stand it, and when you want you can get a new one.”

The story is still a source of humor in the Richt house. Katharyn Richt laughs every time she tells it.

“That was typical of him,” she said. “Mark always has to win at something. Even swinging became a championship pursuit.”

The Bulldogs have been on such a pursuit. Since starting last season 0-2, they are 18-1 in regular season games (13-1 in the SEC). They followed last season’s 10-game winning streak with an SEC title game loss to LSU. Should they beat Auburn as expected Saturday, they will be underdogs to Alabama in a few weeks in the Georgia Dome.

The regular season success has been helped in part by a schedule devoid of Alabama and LSU. But a team still has to win games, and Georgia has. Players still have to overcome adversity, and they have. A coach still has to be doing something right, and Richt has. And he has done so with a hip in need of replacing.

Those swing set injuries just don’t go away.

By Jeff Schultz

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