ATHENS, Ga. --
Mark Richt started jogging off the field, then made an abrupt U-turn. He jogged back toward the student section, both fists raised in the air. Just when we had him in our sights, he made another U-turn and headed to the east end zone stands and thrusts his fists in the air again. Then he darted away again, this time toward the home bench. He was harder to chase down than Johnny Manziel, and more exuberant.
Then Richt found his favorite water girl and, I kid you not, smacked her with a big kiss.
Right on the lips.
The water girl, Katharyn Richt, embraced her husband to the thunderous applause of the Georgia fans.
This special occasion was Georgia's 44-41 win over LSU. But this was much more than just another foot
ball victory. Oh, so much more.
Richt had celebrated many big wins with fans before. But there was something noticeably different about him this time. His face seemed to shake with tension. His bottom lip quivered.
This was the culmination of one of the most bittersweet weeks of Richt's coaching life. The game itself was huge enough. LSU came into Athens ranked No. 6 in the country in both major polls. Georgia was three spots behind at No. 9. A loss for the Bulldogs would severely hinder their hopes of winning the SEC Eastern Division. It would all but wreck their dreams of a national championship.
A huge game, yes.
But that wasn't all. One of his former players, Zach Mettenberger, is the LSU starting quarterback. Four years ago, Richt had to make the painful decision to dismiss Mettenberger from the team after an incident at a bar. Richt has continued to follow Mettenberger's career with sincere interest.
But that still wasn't all. In the midst of preparing for this monumental game, Richt received one of the most heart-breaking phone calls ever. One of his former Georgia players, Paul Oliver, had committed suicide.
"I don't usually get as emotional as I did after this one," Richt said. "But there are some other things that go on in life, that everybody knows about, but I don't want to get into."
The private celebration in the dressing room under the east stands was more emotional than normal. The contents of ice buckets dumped out on the floor provided some evidence.
"It was crazy," said linebacker Amarlo Herrera.
"I think it was the best celebration we've had since I've been at Georgia," said wide receiver Michael Bennett, a fifth-year senior.
Some of the players, the veteran in particular such as senior defensive end Garrison Smith, knew how special this win was to their coach.
"They lifted me up," Richt said. "They lifted me up when I needed it."
Even from a football standpoint alone, this was a huge game for Richt. Just as there are no ties any more, there was no neutral outcome for Richt in terms of public perception. That "can't win the big one" label is hard to shed. A loss to LSU with the nation watching would have affirmed his critics' doubts.
"People are always trying to say Georgia and Coach Richt can't win the big game," said Smith. "During the week, I told Coach Richt we were going to play grown man football. We wanted to win this game and get the monkey off Coach Richt's back."
Make no mistake, it's still there. But this was the kind of game the Bulldogs had developed a habit of losing. And all too often, they lost these big games by creating disastrous mistakes. Critical turnovers. Special teams melt downs. Excessive penalties.
Saturday's game was not without those heart-stopping moment. Aaron Murray tried to dump a pass to Keith Marshall but didn't see defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, who intercepted it at the Georgia 33. Seven plays later LSU scored its second touchdown on as many possessions. Murray fumbled twice. But he jumped on one of them, and the other was negated by a false start penalty. There's some irony, huh? The Dogs committed only five penalties, and one of them was actually beneficial.
It seemed like calamity would strike again. Georgia led 37-34 and had LSU pinned back on third-and-22 at the 13. But Mettenberger found Odell Beckham for 25 yards, and six plays later LSU took the lead, 41-37, on Jeremy Hill's run.
But here's where the big moment script would be revised, both for Richt and for Murray. The Dogs had 4:14 left. The HAD to score.
Murray calmly drove Georgia right back down the field - 11 yards to Justin Scott-Wesley, nine yards to Arthur Lynch. After Marshall ran for a first down, Murray hit Lynch again for 10 yards to the LSU 43. Then freshman J.J. Green, playing because Todd Gurley missed all of the second half with a sprained ankle, popped an 18 yard run to the 25. Then Murray found Scott-Wesley open on the right sideline for a touchdown.
The defense, which had been picked apart by Mettenberger in the second half, made it's only stop of the second half. After Mettenberger's final pass hit the grass, the Bulldogs were flagged for their final penalty - excessive celebration. But that was nothing compared to the celebration that would follow.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org