From recruitment all the way to graduation, Georgia coach Mark Richt asks his players a lot of questions. But one question he always asks might surprise you.
"If football didn’t exist, what do you like to do?" Richt says to players, current and prospective. "What do you think you’d be interested in?"
As a mentor, a coach and a friend, Richt said he believes in a balanced, well-rounded life for his players. Does he want them to succeed at football? "Absolutely." But there is more to life than football for Richt, and it’s his goal to show his players that same mentality.
"I try to help our players understand… I want them to be cautious about what they do," he said. "If their identity is only what they do, it’s a dangerous place to be. It’s like if you’re a doctor, and something happens where you can’t use your hands anymore, then what? I think a lot of people can get tied up in what they do as their total identity rather than who they are as a person."
Richt’s 15-year career at Georgia is scattered with players who have made it to the NFL, and those who have not. And among the thousands of players he’s coached, many have explored hobbies outside of football. Most recently, senior wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell wrote a children's book over the summer. The year before, wide receiver Chris Conley produced, filmed and starred in a 20-minute Star Wars film.
One former player, Ray Drew, even married couples as an ordained minister during his days as a defensive lineman from 2011-2015.
And through it all, Richt has been there to support his players. He made a brief appearance in Conley’s film and wrote the foreword to Mitchell’s book.
"Guys are going to spend their time on something besides football," Richt said. "So I’d rather have them be spending time writing a children's book or making a Star Wars flick than doing something destructive. You can use it in a real positive way or you can waste those moments."
Mitchell, Conley and Drew are only the most high-profile examples. Quincy Mauger, a junior safety for the Bulldogs, produces UGA hype videos with Athens legend Frank Martin. Countless other Georgia players, old and young, contribute in other ways, whether as public speakers or community service workers. And at the end of the day, it all comes back to what Richt told them.
"He makes the players get out and stretch their legs," Chris Conley, who played for Richt from 2011-2014, said. "There’s constantly community service work, there’s constantly times where he’ll bring in people from the community that may have played football at one time or another who now do something different. He brings those people around and has them mentor players. And also, he kind of makes it apparent, he reinforces it that, ‘Hey, we all love this game, but this game isn’t forever so you need to get your degree.’ "
Conley and others echo their coach’s sentiments, and the ones lucky enough to make it to the next level appreciate Richt’s supportive and encouraging nature now that they’re away from the friendly confines of Sanford Stadium.
"It means a lot to me specifically because I know how short-lived a football career can be," said Conley, who was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft. "I’m one of those people blessed to continue playing after college, but a lot of the guys that I came in with didn’t get opportunity, so when I see that he continually reinforces that."
Before every Thursday practice, Richt breaks up the team into groups with different coaches to talk. That’s not an uncommon practice by any means, but the topics of discussion for each group are completely unrelated to football.
Aaron Murray, a quarterback for the Bulldogs from 2009-2013 and now also with the Chiefs, remembers those weekly meetings well during his senior year, where he and the rest of the seniors spoke with Richt.
"We’d often have a discussion about getting jobs and being a good father and a good husband and focusing on some of the more important things in life, becoming a man," Murray said. "Those sessions -- most teams don’t do it. You just show up to practice all week and you play. He wanted to make sure that every week that he had the opportunity to teach us about what it was like to become a man, take care of your family, put God first, those sorts of things."
Those discussions extend past practice, as Richt has an open door policy and is always available to speak to players about anything.
"He’s all for guys being diverse and not focusing solely on football," Murray said. "He really preached to us that there’s more to life than football and the more well-rounded you are, the better person you’re going to be."
Mitchell and Conley knew they wanted to be football players before they arrived in Athens. But with the help and encouragement of Richt, their eyes were opened up to a world outside the football field.
"Guys get lost, and I think that’s why a lot of athletes struggle with that transition from football to life," Richt said, "so I just encourage them to have balance in their life."
The Bulldogs have produced several NFL players during Richt’s tenure, and that’s no small feat. But take it from an author, a filmmaker and an ordained minister: Georgia football, and life, is about so much more than pigskin and a field of grass.