The Curious Case of Mark Richt

My alma mater fired the second most successful coach in its history yesterday, ending an historic run in the history of University of Georgia athletics.

Sadly, it was the lack of significantly historic moments that led to the downfall of Coach Mark Richt. As I learned during lunch yesterday afternoon, the University has decided to move on from Coach Richt and look for someone else to lead one of the best programs in the SEC.

I come away conflicted. I was one of those who called for CMR’s tenure to end. I felt that this year exhibited definitively one of the greatest weaknesses of Coach’s tenure: that when the biggest moments for success came, UGA was often not only unprepared, it was woefully so. Alabama destroyed us. The Florida game was a Gator fan’s dream scenario. I don’t even want to talk about Tennessee.

But I also understand that Georgia is where we are today because of Mark Richt. His vision, his passion, his leadership — all of these things helped restore the glory, glory to ol’ Georgia. The fact that the failure to win a national championships (or more than two SEC championships) was cause for dismissal just tells you how much Richt did for our program. Georgia had been out of the conversation since the late 80s; Richt propelled us back into the spotlight.

In a way, CMR was a victim of his own success. His teams created a fanbase that was wildly divided between irrational fans who expected a championship every year and fans who were willing to accept the status quo because of Richt’s character — and, more specifically, because of his religious beliefs.

Like a lot of things these days, the polarization became a contest of egos, and in the big business world of college football, winning wins every single time. Character, as much as I hate to say it, is an additional feature to collegiate sports, kind of like leather seats in a new car.

The easy narrative to follow would be criticizing the win-at-all-costs mentality in college football. But that’s not the curious thing to me in this case.

The curious case of Mark Richt lies in the fact that there were thousands of fans happy to let him go on coaching simply because they believed he was a good man and a great Christian. I’ve heard from a lot of fans who didn’t care that CMR’s teams had tapered off on the field; they were prouder of his legacy of integrity and character values.

They were truthfully prouder of him being a vocal Christian in a high-profile job who was enjoying a high-level of success without “selling out” his beliefs. This to me is the more interesting angle to all of this, so much so I’m not even sure what to make of it or where I stand.

I felt like CMR’s teams were clearly not as well coached, well prepared, or well staffed as they should be after such a run of success. I’ve been around enough organizations to know that when the results don’t match the rhetoric, trouble is afoot. That doesn’t mean CMR isn’t a good man, or that he’s a subpar Christian, or even that he’s not a good football coach; it simply means that there were signs of problems within his world at Georgia and it was time to move on.

To me, that’s the bottom line. The culture at the University of Georgia was no longer conducive to Coach Richt. It was time for everyone to shake hands, part ways, and head to the next phase.

Every leader experiences times like that. Sometimes you can right the ship; other times, you have to step back and let someone else take the wheel. Change in leadership is never easy. But it is necessary, which is why I’m intrigued and saddened by the number of Christians who can’t see the need for it in this case. They would rather embrace mediocrity than go through change, all because CMR’s beliefs match theirs and he was able to use his platform to promote those beliefs.

Maybe there’s a happy ending. Maybe CMR goes on to follow in Vince Dooley’s hallowed footsteps by becoming the next Athletic Director, and continues building the legacy of Christian character and integrity so many fans appreciated.

If so, I hope folks continue to support him as much when he’s not in the spotlight as they did while he stood in its center. Mark Richt, by all accounts, seems to be one of the most genuine and authentic believers you’d ever hope to meet. Heck, even Nick Saban said as much.

I guess what I’m experiencing is buyer’s remorse — that feeling you get when you get what you wanted only to discover you’re not so certain it’s what you really wanted after all.

 

Keep the Train Rolling

This week I’m participating in Seth Godin’s #YourTurnChallenge. My goal is to blog everyday this week (Mon-Sun) here on my site as well as on the challenge’s official Tumblr blog. Here’s my Day 4 submission.

Today is my 39th birthday. One year away from 40.

I wrestle most days with feeling like a failure. The definition of success I learned growing up (marriage, family, steady job, plenty of money) hasn’t played out in my life. I’m almost 40 and still starting over in so many ways.

But then I stop and think:

  • I am a husband to a wonderful wife, Rachel.
  • I am daddy to two beautiful children, Ella and Jon, and a third, Ruthanne, who waits for me in heaven.
  • We have a beautiful home.
  • We have nice cars.
  • I have a wide and wonderful assortment of friends.
  • I rock Twitter.
  • I get paid to do what I do best: communicate (both written and verbal).
  • I’ve recorded and released an album with two of my closest friends.
  • I’ve written over 365 radio programs that still air to this day on 1700 radio stations worldwide (not to mention podcast downloads).
  • I’ve written and directed three short films, and won a Telly award for one of them.
  • I’ve written and published 5 books.
  • I’ve started three blogs, two websites, and one company.
  • I’ve pastored a church that was dying, and helped it not only die with dignity but give over $300,000 away to deserving causes as a last act.
  • I’ve performed over 30 marriages, many of those being the marriages of students who sat under my teaching and mentoring.
  • I’ve been privileged to write for a Fortune 500 company, a multi-national leadership firm, one of the nation’s largest churches, one of my community’s finest charities, and countless other people whose vision deserved to be shared.
  • I’ve interviewed entrepreneurs, civic leaders, spiritual leaders, and other interesting people and been privileged to share their stories with the public via magazine articles.

All of that by 39. Sure there are folks who’ve achieved more–but there are those who’ve achieved less. It’s not a competition anyway.

But more than all I’ve achieved, I’ve come to realize what I’m proudest of is that we–my wife, my kids and myself–keep looking for the next thing. The next step. The next challenge. We may fail, but as my wife is fond of saying, “We’re going to keep the train rolling.”

We don’t know what tomorrow holds, but we know this: if we win today, tomorrow will take care of itself.

It’s taken me 39 years to understand just what that means. Here’s to another 39 (and more) to keep living it the best I can.

What Was the Beaver Thinking?

This week I’m participating in Seth Godin’s #YourTurnChallenge. My goal is to blog everyday this week (Mon-Sun) here on my site as well as on the challenge’s official Tumblr blog. Here’s my Day 3 submission.

What was the beaver thinking?

That question has haunted me the last couple of days. My family went for a walk at a local park, and my son took us off the trail so we could see his secret spot – a place near the lake’s edge where he and I had walked before. There’s a tree there that looks like a beaver or some other animal invested a great deal of time in attempting to bring said tree down.

Only at some point, the beaver (or whatever) stopped.

It’s so odd, so strangely beautiful, that I took a picture of it. Here it is:

IMG_0284

I’ve had that picture – that tree – on my mind since then. What was the beaver thinking? Did he get bored and give up? Did she decide the tree was going to fall the wrong way and endanger lives? Did he simply lose faith in his ability to bring the tree down?

What was the little furball thinking?

I realize I’m anthropomorphizing the beaver, but even if the beaver wasn’t actively thinking, something made her stop.

And it’s been driving me insane.

What was it? What did the beaver see/feel/intuit to bring a fairly advanced project to a screeching halt?

I will never know. But it’s taught me a ton about perspective.

It’s easy to look at the tree and assume something negative. The beaver was killed. The beaver was lazy. People (or in this case beavers) don’t just leave projects unfinished unless something bad has occurred.

And I’ll admit – those were my first thoughts.

But something inside me called for another point of view, called for me to actually think about the situation instead of just snapping into my regular mindset. So I came to believe the beaver walked away. Likely because walking away was the best – the wisest – decision, even if it meant the invested time ultimately yielded no reward.

The power of perspective can make a radical difference between seeing an unfinished project as a failure or as learning space. I can’t say what the beaver was thinking, but I can say this:

Whatever his thinking, he certainly challenged mine.

Back to the Future for a Great 2015

It’s officially 2015. For a moment, set aside that this is the fictional year to which Marty McFly time-traveled in Back to the Future II and gather ’round the fire to listen to your friend, Jason.

Forget about the endless barrage of “It’s a new year – so make it a good one” blog posts you’ll see today.

Don’t sweat the “16 resolutions you can actually keep” posts.

Ignore the parade of “Make This Your BEST YEAR EVER” links.

Just concentrate on this one simple truth: You’re alive, and anything is possible. After all, this is the year the Cubs win the World Series.

Hope your 2015 is equally as amazing.

Into The Deep Blue

deep blueYesterday afternoon, I considered that my opening line for a talk to some at-risk students at Project LIFT might just be throwing up on the lovely blue carpet. It was a deep blue, like the far-out part of the ocean that people always warn you to avoid unless you’re an expert swimmer or have a boat. I’ve always been one to get nervous before speaking – and it’s probably more akin to anxious excitement than nervous dread – but I was especially amped up yesterday because it was a new experience for me. Sure, I’ve spoken to hundreds of youth over the past 15 years, but it was almost always within a church context, almost always on a passage of Scripture. This was different. This was me speaking to a theme, trying to inspire kids with tough backgrounds and even tougher realities to overcome the hardships before them and aspire for something more.

Sure, we were meeting in a church, but I was doing something new. And I knew I would either nail it or fail miserably.

I decided that nailing it was the preferable option. So I pushed my anxiety aside, kept my Whatchamacallit candy bar in my stomach where it belonged, and I started telling a simple story about a boy, his kinship with a pencil, and the journey of discovery they made together. (If you’re interested, here’s the PDF: Project LIFT – The Boy)

If you’ve ever spoken to teenagers before, you know they can be a tough sell. They’re smart, they’re savvy, and if they think for a second that you’re flim-flamming them, they’ll shut you out and move on. The students I spoke to yesterday were no exception. But as I went along with the story, trying my best to weave in humor and add in improvisational moments based on their responses to me, the most amazing thing happened.

They stayed with me.

Now, here’s where years of youth work comes in handy. To the average person, a teenager who is “staying with me” might seem a lot like a distracted, disinterested person. They rarely keep eye contact, they tend to shift in their seats, and every so often they’ll look up or down or around the room to see if maybe a magic fairy has flown in to grant wishes. It can take some getting used to. In fact, you really have to simultaneously speak to them and look for the cues that they’re with you: a smile, a subtle nod of agreement, leaning forward in their chair at a crucial point, tapping their neighbor on the shoulder and gesturing for them to pay closer attention. All of those signs were present yesterday afternoon, even as my talk soared past the fifteen minute mark.

I wrapped it up after 25 minutes, and the best thing in the world happened.

They wanted to ask me questions. Which means they had listened and heard something that piqued their interest. I even got asked two of my favorite questions: Have you ever thought about being a teacher? and Have you ever thought about doing stand up comedy?

(In case you’re wondering: yes to the first and no to the second.)

Afterwards, the folks who invited me to speak (without ever hearing me, might I add – brave folks) told me that it was the first time they could remember that the kids had ever sat through a presentation without having to be redirected.

“That never happens,” one worker said. “They actually listened to you.”

Yesterday, I took step beyond the familiar boundaries I’ve always known, and the ground beneath my feet was just as firm. I’ve always been told – and believed – that I was a good preacher; yesterday was the first time I’ve been told I was a good speaker. There may not seem to be much difference, but for me, there is. And since you might be asking yourself, “Self, what is the difference?”, I’ll tell you:

A preacher comes with a built in audience. A speaker has to earn one. God has always been gracious to me because He’s always provided me with a platform to speak from and people to speak to. I’ve never taken it for granted, but it’s always been built in for me because of my involvement with a church. Yesterday He showed me that he could open doors beyond a church (never mind that I was physically inside a church) and that I could earn the right to be heard. He showed me that He could do more with me than I’d imagined.

The best part of the day, however, the part that just made me fresh-from-the-oven-chocolate-chip cookie gooey inside, was when I got into the care with Rachel to leave. She silently grabbed my hand and said, “Good job.” I kissed her hand and said thanks. But then she added this, and I knew things were going to be okay:

“I loved hearing you speak like that. You really seemed to be in your element. It was awesome, and the kids really enjoyed it.”

One journey ending, another beginning. Into the deep blue we go.