BOCA RATON — When they introduced Mark Richt as the keynote speaker at the 16th annual YMCA Inspiration Breakfast, they ran down his list of accomplishments — the number of games he has won, his coach of the year honors, how often his teams have finished in the top 10.
Then it was Richt’s turn at the microphone, and considering he was speaking at the Office Depot Global Headquarters, just up the road from his childhood home, the memories came rushing back of his long road to his current position as football coach at the University of Miami.
Only they weren’t exactly the kind of memories you’d expect.
There was the time he got fired from one job. And the time he got fired from another. And another and another, with each failure punctuated not with regret, but a self-deprecating wisecrack.
And that was just his efforts to find his place in the real world. As a quarterback, he always seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, cheated out of his dream by guys with names like Jim Kelly, John Elway and Dan Marino — or as Richt likes to call them, “Lucky.”
Why, it got so bad that at one point, even Richt’s agent wanted nothing to do with him.
“True story,” Richt said. “I was fired from my agent.”
That, too, drew laughs, with some in the audience undoubtedly wondering when he’d get to the part when, rather than making sure the door didn’t hit him on the way out, he was kicking it open on the way in.
It was about the time he was scrubbing down Rhett Butler’s bar in Delray Beach — the coveted 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift — that he decided to write to coaches asking for a chance. Florida State’s Bobby Bowden hired him as a graduate assistant, but not for the usual reasons.
“I found out later, because the arch enemy of Florida State is Miami, he figured I knew the Miami system and I might have a Miami playbook and if I came and brought my Miami playbook, maybe it could help them beat Miami,” Richt said. “So Coach Bowden, the first day I met him when I got on campus, he said, ‘You got that playbook, Buddy?’ I said, ‘No, sir. They don’t let us keep them.’ And he looked so sad. So I’m thinking I’m about to get fired, right now. I was thinking quick. I said, ‘Coach, I got it all right here,’ ” and pointed to his temple. “So I survived Day 1.”
Bowden later inspired Richt to become a born-again Christian, far removed from the “cocky jerk, truthfully,” he was at Boca Raton High. When Richt committed to the Hurricanes, he was certain he’d be starting as a freshman, would be a star within a year or two, and bolt for the pros. But one day he was in then-coach Lou Saban’s office and glanced at a newspaper that reported UM also was landing a Pennsylvania kid named Jim Kelly. He quizzed Saban, who had been assuring Richt that he was the only QB they were pursuing.
“He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Somebody’s got to back you up,’ ” Richt said.
“My whole life, my whole identity, was football. But what happened was Jim Kelly started living my life. He’s the one who started as a freshman. He’s the one that became All-American. He’s the one that became the first-round draft pick. … He was lucky.”
Richt ended up signing a free-agent contract with the Broncos. The ink hadn’t dried when Richt saw a news flash on the TV in his Denver hotel room.
“Here comes Lucky John Elway,” Richt joked.
Richt was so naive, he didn’t know what it meant when a few days into practice, he was told coach Dan Reeves needed to see him and he should bring his playbook.
“Dan Reeves proceeds to cut me and I broke down crying, I’ll be honest with you,” Richt said. “And then Coach Reeves started crying a little bit with me. I was the first guy that got cut that year. He goes, ‘I hate this part of my job.’ ”
Heading out of the elevator, bags in hand, “snot bubble still on my face,” Richt encountered veterans who were just arriving, one of whom looked in wonderment and said, “Dang, man, you got cut already?”
Thus began a recurring chore when he arrived home. He’d pick up The Boca News, check the want ads, and take the first reasonable thing that came along. The gig as an insurance agent wasn’t bad until the day he arrived to find crime tape lining the parking lot and his boss getting handcuffed and hauled off. “So that was the end of my insurance career.”
He sold gym memberships. Parked cars at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, which had him dashing to the parking lot to retrieve so many vehicles for $5 tips that he knew he was in great shape, so he managed a free-agent deal with the Dolphins.
“I hung around like a month,” Richt said. “It was amazing.”
Then Don Shula told him he’d rather have Marino, Don Strock and Jim “Crash” Jensen as his quarterbacks.
“What do you think I called Dan Marino?” Richt joked. “Lucky Dan Marino. I think I was the fourth-best quarterback in the world. I just never got my chance.”
He picked up The Boca News. Got hired as a bartender. Got fired as a bartender.
Finally, Bowden opened the door to a whole different world.
All Richt had to do was not get fired his first day.