In eight seasons at the helm of the University of Georgia football team, Mark Richt has earned repute among the greatest recruiters in the college game. He has culled classes ranked in the top 10 nationally dating back to 2002, landing such big names as Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno. On signing day last month, the Bulldogs boasted the eighth-best class in the country, according to Rivals.com.
Pundits have long attributed Richt's success in attracting blue-chip talent to his likeable demeanor and sincerity. Turns out, prayer might play a role, too. In a recent interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the 49-year-old coach said recruiting is among the many facets of his life for which he prays: "I put a lot of things to prayer, and this is one thing I put to prayer. I ask the Lord to 'Give us the guys that belong at Georgia. The ones that don't belong, work it out.'"
Such devotion should come as little surprise to those familiar with Richt's career. From his hiring at Georgia in 2001, he has consistently cited his Christian faith as central to his coaching style and work ethic. He even made a cameo appearance in the evangelistic film Facing the Giants, a small-budget enterprise produced by a local Georgia church. That public faith has played out privately, too, in the adoption of his two youngest children from the Ukraine, one with a rare congenital disorder termed Proteus syndrome.
Despite that exemplary congruence between what he says and what he does, Richt's admission of praying over his recruiting efforts did not go without scorn. Internet commenters scoffed: "Do you honestly believe god cares about Georgia football? Or any football for that matter? Nothing fails like prayer." "Pray for something that matters, not 18 year old recruits. Tell Richt to flip a coin next time, it works just as well."
Why the vitriol? Why such animosity for a man's private devotion? The intersection of faith and athletics is one routinely crowded with such ideological collisions. Post-game deference to a creator often triggers similar derision. Need belief be so offensive?
Of course, not all found news of Richt's practice worth mocking: "Whether Richt's prayers help or not, it definitely doesn't hurt." "I strongly support coach Richt and I am thankful he is humble enough to admit he needs the Lord's help, guidance and wisdom. He cares about each member of the team as much as he does winning."
More blue-chip players than not seem to agree.
Jimmy Albright, an 18-year-old senior at El Toro High School outside Los Angeles, is exceptional both as a 4.0 student and starting center for a league champion basketball team. The fact that he's legally blind hardly seems to matter.
Albright was born without irises, a rare condition termed Aniridia. His eyes appear as large pupils, rendering his world far too bright at times. Objects are difficult to make out at any distance. Nevertheless, he has learned to read, shoot hoops, and even drive, inspiring teammates and classmates around him.
Says mom Trisa Albright: "Jim is so talented in so many ways that God kind of balanced it by taking away part of his eyesight."