October 2010 Jill Ewert
I thought about it all the way home from Athens. Usually I leave an interview feeling joy—praising God for what He’s done in an athlete or coach’s life and for allowing us to share it with the world. But this time was different. This time, all I wanted to do was cry.
The interview itself had been outstanding. Mark and Katharyn Richt had been so fun—absolutely gracious and kind, and a clear picture of two people in love with Jesus Christ. It had been a blessing to finally meet them after hearing great things about them over the years. Certainly I wasn’t sad, so why on earth was I fighting back tears?
As I stared out the window of the Delta jet heading back to Kansas City, I realized what was going on. My heart was responding to an encounter with love—true, Christ-centered, whole-hearted, committed love. And, because such a thing is rare, being in its presence can incite a powerful emotional reaction.
“Man,” I thought, “if I am this moved by watching them together for just an hour, I can’t imagine what God is doing in the lives of those who see them every day.”
As the head football coach at the University of Georgia, Mark Richt and his wife, Katharyn, are very much in the public eye. But they’re also in positions of leadership over a team of young men and a staff of coaches and families, and what they’re communicating through their relationship is a very clear message about the love of Christ.
After being married for almost 25 years, they still look at each other like newlyweds. They laugh together, sit close to each other, and genuinely enjoy each other. More than simply saying, “I love you,” they actually tell each other they “like” each other, too. There’s no disrespect in their words; only what is edifying and encouraging.
Today’s world is tough on marriages. Statistics aren’t good and in fact can be downright discouraging. Every once in a while, we all need to be reminded that God’s plan for marriage and family does work. Yes, it takes effort and strategy, but it is, without a doubt, the highest and best way to go.
As I sat in that window seat, I realized that I’d needed that reminder. Maybe you do, too. If so, take it from the Richts, who, this month, are sharing the lessons they’ve learned after more than two decades as husband and wife. Even in the chaotic world of sports, marriages can last, kids can turn out great, and the lives of the athletes and coaches watching can be transformed.
Love and Marriage
It all began with a blind date.
As a graduate assistant on the coaching staff at Florida State University, young Mark Richt, who had been striking out in relationships, expressed his desire to meet a “nice girl.” Overhearing his statement, the girlfriend of Richt’s roommate suggested that she might know the perfect woman for him: her own roommate, Katharyn Francis. Immediately she set up a time for the four of them to get together.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight for either Richt or Katharyn, a student at FSU, but it was enough for them to start a good friendship. In fact, even though they weren’t dating, the pair developed a relationship that was comfortable enough for them to share even the most shameful stories from their pasts.
“I pretty much told her everything—the good, the bad and most of the ugly,” said Richt, who lived the stereotypical partying lifestyle prior to making the choice to follow Christ. “If I’d known we were going to get married I probably wouldn’t have given her every detail, but it actually came in handy later when we did get married. When old buddies would come back and try to tell stories about me, I’d say, ‘Go ahead. She knows them all.’”
Not much time would pass, however, before Richt’s colorful history became part of a true redemption story. While standing in the back of a team meeting after the death of a player, Richt heard FSU Head Coach Bobby Bowden share the gospel and recognized his need for salvation. He prayed to receive Christ in Bowden’s office the next day.
Katharyn’s own spiritual surrender soon followed. She’d been raised in the church, so she had a fundamental understanding of the Christian faith. Soon, through her experiences with her husband at FCA Camps and their local small group Bible study, she also totally released her life to the Lord.
Looking back, the Richts know that those decisions were the most important ones of their lives and the key factors in their successful marriage.
“I find that if we are both pursuing God, we get closer together as a couple,” Richt said, using his hands to draw a triangle in the air. “If God is here at the top and we’re both getting closer to Him, we naturally get closer to each other.”
For the Richts, daily pursuit of Christ includes time spent in prayer and Bible study as well as in fellowship with other believers. Richt stays close to a group of prayer partners in the community, and Katharyn is active in an accountability group and, when her schedule allows, a local Bible study.
By maintaining the spiritual relationship first, both find that they are able to discern the Lord’s leading when it comes to interacting with each other.
“God is usually telling me what to do; I just have to be willing to listen,” Katharyn said. “Sometimes I try to shake Him off and tell Him I don’t want to do something, and that’s my pride. But if I obey and die to myself and realize that it’s not about me or Mark but about the Lord, then we’re usually OK.”
The Richts have come a long way since that first date. In more than two decades of marriage, they’ve watched their family expand from two to six.
“Having a strong marriage gives our kids boundaries and comfort. They know that Mom and Dad are together—that they really care about each other—and the reason for that is because they put Christ at the apex of their marriage. That is the greatest thing we can teach our kids.” – Mark Richt
First came two sons—Jon and David—who were followed by another son and a daughter the Richts adopted from Ukraine—Zack and Anya. And, just this summer, they received another addition in the form of a daughterin-law when Jon married his high school sweetheart, Anna.
Both Mark and Katharyn agree that parenting is both a blessing and a challenge, but that the level of difficulty is considerably lessened when they’re focused on Christ.
“I don’t know how people do it without Him,” Katharyn said. “Being a parent has certainly driven me to pray more. When the kids are younger you can teach them the basic things like respect, honesty and not to talk back. But, as they get older, you have to start responding to their questions and what is going on in their lives. I’m constantly laying them and their situations before the Lord and learning to respond prayerfully and thoughtfully instead of out of my initial reaction.”
According to Katharyn, setting a good example is a major part of parenting. In fact, it may be the most important element.
Through thoughtful responses, Katharyn is able to teach her kids how to better react to situations in their own lives. Both her and Richt’s personal pursuits of Christ can teach their children to pursue Christ on their own, and Katharyn’s model of submission and respect can teach them to honor others above themselves.
And, in Richt’s opinion, one of the healthiest things he and Katharyn can do for their kids is to stay strong as a couple.
“Having a strong marriage gives our kids boundaries and comfort,” he said. “They know that Mom and Dad are together—that they really care about each other—and the reason for that is because they put Christ at the apex of their marriage. That is the greatest thing we can teach our kids.”
Regarding spiritual development, the Richts intentionally look for teachable moments with their children. Those moments can both be created on their own—like when Richt asks his kids to read a chapter from Proverbs in the car as he drives them to school—or they can be unscheduled divine opportunities that arise from life, like in those rare occasions when one of Richts’ Georgia Bulldogs makes a “knucklehead move” off the field and gets in trouble. Those are the times when he and Katharyn openly engage their kids in conversations about real life.
“When one of our players makes a mistake, we don’t hide it from our kids,” Richt said. “We don’t have any bad guys on our team, but once in a while one of them will make a poor decision, and we’ll use it as a teachable moment. We tell our kids what happened and that there are consequences for the player’s actions. We tell them that we’re going to punish him, educate him and love him, just like we would with them. Once we communicate with them about it, we hope they put it in their memory bank for the future and that it helps them when they’re faced with similar choices and decisions.”
As a public figure, Richt finds that additional teaching material can also come from his role in the spotlight.
Many times during the season, the coach must face criticism and negative comments from, among other sources, the media. When that happens, the Richts again open the lines of communication with their kids.
“We tell them that it’s part of the job,” Richt said. “When you’re in a leadership role, you’re going to be criticized; that’s all there is to it. But you can’t shy away from leadership because of what people might say. That even goes for parents, who are automatically in positions of leadership. Katharyn will make decisions on a daily basis that all of our kids will like, but she’s not going to shy away from making the right decision just because she’s afraid somebody’s not going to like it.
Instead, she’s going to make the decision based on what is in the best interest of the children. And I do the same thing with our players and our program in general.”
On the Job
UGA’s Team United
Team United (L to R): Leon McKenzie, Ray Lawrence, Scott Shepherd, Kevin Hynes, Jill Perry, Emily Deans, Alli Townsend and Thomas Settles
|The athletic ministries at the University of Georgia are setting a clear example of Christ-centered unity. In order to maximize the impact and minimize the competition, FCA, Athletes in Action and Georgia Athletes Outreach have pooled their staff and resources in order to reach the school’s athletes through a comprehensive ministry called Team United. |
“Team United exists to ignite a movement of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the athletic community at the University of Georgia,” said Kevin Hynes, who serves as the FCA campus director. “It is an incredible testimony to be unified for the sole purpose of building the Kingdom.”
To find out more about Team United and what God is doing through the ministry, visit uga.edu/teamunited.
When it comes to being a coach, Richt is able to draw wisdom from what he’s learned as a father, as the roles are strikingly similar.
“When I first started coaching, I was drawn to it because of the strategy and competition, but the more I’ve coached, the more I realize how great a responsibility we have for the young men God has put us in authority over,” Richt said. “I take that part very seriously. I want to help these guys grow into good, godly men.”
In a public university setting, Richt knows his limits, which is why all spiritual development activity is voluntary. But as the head of the program, he can and does make those opportunities readily available.
Enter Team United—a group of three sports ministries on the UGA campus that have combined to reach the university’s athletes under one umbrella. Composed of FCA, Athletes in Action and Georgia Athletes Outreach, Team United and its staff focus on working together in ministry instead of competing for the athletes’ attention and loyalty.
“When I first got to Georgia, I told them all, ‘I would love for you to minister to our guys, but I would love to do it in a spirit of unity,’” said Richt, whose FCA chaplain, Kevin Hynes, is also his brother-in-law. “We don’t want to confuse guys; we just want to love them. So, we encourage them all to grow spiritually, but we don’t cram it down their throats.”
Regardless of legal limitations, as a Christian, Richt can impact his team for Christ simply by being who he is. And, according to Katharyn, that is the most dynamic statement her husband can make.
“Mark is a positive male figure for them to look to,” she said. “Many of them didn’t have dads in their homes, so they can see how Mark treats me and how he treats our children. He can model for them the picture of a good father and husband.”
While the majority of team development falls on the coach himself, as the coach’s wife, Katharyn has found ways to positively impact the athletes on her husband’s team as well. There are the obvious ways of praying for them and being an encouraging voice, but one thing for which Katharyn Richt is famous in the state of Georgia is in her role as an official UGA team watergirl.
Soon after her husband took over the program, Katharyn gave up her seat in the stands and headed to the sidelines as a way of being involved in the game and serving the players.
“When our children got older, I found that I was less involved with the players, so I wanted to find a way to connect with them,” Katharyn said. “When I’m on the sidelines, I feel like I’m giving back to them. Plus, it keeps me busy, which is huge. I don’t like to sit there and think too much during games.”
Mark and Katharyn Richt don’t claim to have it all together. Just like every couple, they have their share of conflicts. But through their faith in Christ and daily pursuit of Him, they know He will keep them strong in their marriage, in their family, and in their roles as a coaching couple.
“My relationship to God has got to stay No. 1,” Richt said. “And then, like it says in Ephesians, I need to love her like Christ loved the church, which is a sacrificial love. Not many guys want to think of it that way, but it is. If we go back to the Word and use those principles, the Lord will bless us.”
They know from example. They’ve seen it in their lives. God’s design for marriage and family does work.
And, as it says in Matthew 19:6, what God joins together, “...let man not separate.”
|Bringing it Home...|
Few words better describe a Christ-centered, loving marriage than “beautiful.” A man who loves his wife so deeply that he would die for her. A woman who honors, respects and supports her husband with equal love and sincerity. A bond so tightly held by God that nothing on earth can destroy it when His power is invoked.
Did you know, though, that there’s a love that goes even deeper than that, and that it’s available to you whether you’re married or not? It’s true. In fact, marriage was actually designed by God to be an example of the great love Christ has for His body of believers here on earth.
In John 15:13 (NIV), Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” and that’s just what He did. Just as a husband loves his wife so much that he would give up his own life for her, Jesus loved all of us enough to give up His life for ours.
The Bible is clear that all of us have, through sin, fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and, because that sin comes with a penalty, we all deserve death and eternal separation from God. But because God loves us, He provided grace to cover all of our mistakes by sending His own Son, Jesus, to die for us. Through His death, we can be forgiven and live with God in eternity.
We don’t have to pay for it or earn it. We can only receive it by accepting Christ’s sacrifice in our place and acknowledging Him as Lord. Once we do that, we can begin a personal relationship with Him through the Holy Spirit, who will come into our hearts. As we grow in relationship with Him, we will then experience the greatest love available—one that goes even deeper than the incredible bond between a husband and wife and is so great that absolutely nothing can come against it (Romans 8:38-39).
If you want to experience the greatest love of all, turn to Jesus Christ in prayer and ask Him to forgive your sins and come into your life. Receive His free gift of grace and live in the most beautiful marriage you’ll ever know.
For more information, visit morethanwinning.org or call FCA’s National Support Center at 1-800-289-0909.
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Courtesy UGA Sports Communications, Jill Perry