CORAL GABLES — If a Hurricanes quarterback behind newly named starter Malik Rosier wants to transfer, Mark Richt won’t be happy.
But he will understand.
Richt once planned to do so himself, before thinking better of it and resuming his role as Jim Kelly‘s backup.
“It’s not easy being No. 2,” Richt said Tuesday, after explaining why he tapped Rosier, a redshirt junior, to start the season-opener against Bethune-Cookman in 11 days.
As an upperclassman stuck behind Kelly, with whom he enrolled in 1978, Richt grew frustrated and went home to Boca Raton. He didn’t have a plan, he just knew he wasn’t happy. For a week, he groused.
“I didn’t like how it felt,” he said. “I felt like a quitter, and I didn’t want to be a quitter. I groveled and went back to coach [Howard] Schnellenberger and asked him if I could come back on the team. When I said I was leaving, it was after spring, something like that, after the spring game, and he said, ‘If you change your mind, let me know.’ He did open the door for me.
“Within a few days, I was like, ‘This doesn’t feel right. I love this place. I love my teammates. I’m not leaving.’”
Richt’s college career was unremarkable. In 44 games as a backup, he completed 45 percent of 229 passes. More of them went for interceptions (17) than touchdowns (nine).
“Did I play a lot of ball here? No,” he said. “But God blessed my decision to stick it out and try to do what was in the best interest of the team.”
After spring ball, UM lost former four-star recruit Jack Allison, who decided to transfer to West Virginia. Richt said he doesn’t expect Evan Shirreffs, a redshirt sophomore who is now Rosier’s backup, to leave. Same goes for true freshmen N’Kosi Perry and Cade Weldon.
“Everybody has to make choices in life,” Richt said. “But I’d be shocked if Evan did that, or any of them. I’d be shocked. They all know they’re learning, they all know they’re growing, they all know they’re getting better.
“They understand there’s competition everywhere you go. You can go somewhere for greener grass, well guess what? They got a bunch of dudes there too. They know the system. You’re going to be behind the 8-ball if you go somewhere else. I’d be very surprised.”
Richt also knows how a backup’s fortunes can change. In 1982, his senior year, the Hurricanes’ quarterback room included Richt and three future first-round NFL draft picks: Kelly, Vinny Testaverde and Bernie Kosar, along with Kyle Vanderwende. When Kelly separated his shoulder in the third game of the year, Richt finished the year and went 71-of-149 for 838 yards, with four touchdowns and nine interceptions. Until he became the program’s 24th head coach in Dec. 2015, his only appearance in UM’s record book was on a list of “yearly passing yardage leaders,” for 1982.
“It wasn’t really that big of a competition,” Richt said of the quarterback battle. “Jim Kelly, I always used to call him ‘Lucky Jim,’ because the guy was lucky. I can probably truthfully say he was better than I was. My mom still will not admit that.”
Neither would Richt, for many years, until he found peace with how his playing career ended. Richt spent time in 1983 with the Denver Broncos, but never made it out of training camp. Blocking his way: No. 1 overall pick John Elway.
Two years later, Bobby Bowden gave him a chance to be a volunteer coach at Florida State. He was part of many a quarterback competition in Tallahassee — and had the final say in the ones at Georgia from 2001-15. But he’ll never forget the years he tried and failed to win over Schnellenberger on Greentree.
“He would be kind enough to say I’d probably start on 50 percent of the other teams in America, or something like that,” Richt said, smiling at the recollection of his youth. “He would make grand statements like that until I threw a pick-six here and there.
“It was a great experience for me. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”