COLUMBIA — Twelve years ago, Mark Richt almost found a home in Columbia.
Richt, who had been an assistant at Florida State from 1990 to 2000, interviewed for the head coaching position at Missouri in November 2000. As most Missouri fans know, the job eventually went to former Toledo head coach Gary Pinkel, with Richt settling in comfortably at Georgia.
More than a decade later, Richt returns to Columbia with 106 wins and two SEC championships under his belt. Georgia, which is ranked seventh in the country going into Saturday’s game, began its season with a 45-23 win over Buffalo on Saturday.
And while he has found success in Athens, Ga., over the past 12 years, this weekend’s game has led to questions about how different things could have been for the offensive-minded Richt.
Looking back on it, he hasn’t forgotten the things that attracted him to Columbia in the first place.
“I first of all wanted to know what kind of a town it was, because I was married, got young kids," Richt said during the SEC’s weekly conference call Wednesday.
"You want to go somewhere — especially away from Tallahassee, which was my wife’s hometown growing up and was a place we really loved — that we knew was a good community to raise our family in. I heard nothing but really good things about Columbia.”
Richt, who grew up in Omaha, Neb., about an hour away from the University of Nebraska’s campus in Lincoln, was no stranger to Missouri or its conference.
“I was born in Nebraska, lived in Colorado. I was around Big Eight football back in that time, and I knew about Missouri from way back growing up,” Richt said. “I knew it was a really fine program and it had a lot of potential.”
When his plane lands in Columbia this time around, though, Richt won’t be welcomed nearly as kindly. Missouri will play its first game in the SEC on Saturday, as it welcomes Georgia to Memorial Stadium in front of a sellout crowd.
Both coaches know what to expect.
"It's a very historic Saturday for the University of Missouri. Our fans have been waiting for this for a long time, regardless of who we're playing, just because it's the first SEC conference game in 'The Zou,'” Pinkel said. “It's a very historic game, and oh, by the way, a great football team like Georgia is coming in here."
As if there wasn’t enough buildup, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson added to the hype after his team’s 62-10 win over Southeastern Louisiana Saturday night, saying that Georgia plays “old man football.”
Richt laughed before dismissing the comments on Wednesday, saying he didn’t see the need to put the quotes up on a bulletin board in his team’s locker room before the game. With the speed in which news travels now, his team has undoubtedly already heard it.
“Everybody knows about it, everybody’s saying it. I’m sure everybody’s moms and dads are telling them,” Richt said. “My mom called me. She wanted to see what I thought about it, too. But that’s just kind of how it goes.”
So for Richt, a place that could have been home 12 years ago is now enemy territory. But he says that doesn’t change how he feels about Columbia. Looking back on what could have been, Georgia’s veteran coach has only good things to say.
“(My wife) Kathryn and I thought it could be a special place,” he said.