ALBANY -- Georgia football coach Mark Richt is used to fans rising to their feet when the Bulldogs make a big play.
On Thursday night at Albany First Baptist Church, however, they cheered because he hit a big milestone -- 50 years old. Hearing "Happy Birthday" from the crowd and receiving a Bulldog-themed cake, Richt came to realize one perk of being Georgia's coach: everywhere feels like home.
"I couldn't think of a better thing to do (Thursday)," said Richt, who was in Albany as the guest speaker for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' spring banquet. "On Sunday, we will have a family get-together in Athens. All of my side of the family lives there."
Richt, who has the longest current football coaching tenure in the SEC, looked rather calm and rested Thursday considering National Signing Day recently passed and the Bulldogs are trying to get acclimated to three new defensive assistants (defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, secondary coach Scott Lakatos, linebackers coach Warren Belin).
They replaced three coaches, including then-defensive coordinator Willie Martniez, who were fired after the upset win against Georgia Tech that ended the regular season.
This transition is taking place as the Bulldogs get ready for spring practice March 4. The spring game, meanwhile, is April 10.
"It's going good," Richt said. "We're installing the defense, mostly, with the coaches and our coordinator is making sure the coaches understand, and we're feeding it little by little to the players."
Grantham, who was the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line coach last season, appears to bring a new level of intensity to that unit, according to Richt. If so, it's possible that Grantham would fit the same mold as Brian VanGorder, who once was the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator and currently holds that same position with the Atlanta Falcons.
"We like a lot of things about (Grantham)," Richt said. "He's a great communicator and has got some presence about him that I think the guys will respect and enjoy."
There should be a strong local presence this spring, as well as the fall considering two former Bainbridge stars, Nick Williams and Darryl Gamble, are atop the spring depth chart at linebacker, according to Rivals.com. And according to the season-ending 2009 depth chart on the Bulldogs' Web site, ex-Seminole County star Bacarri Rambo will also enter spring atop the depth chart at safety.
Ex-Tift County star Israel Troupe is third string at receiver and ex-Colquitt County standout Vance Cuff is second string at cornerback.
"I think all of them can make an impact for us," Richt said. "Of course, in the spring, we're preparing for the fall. The true impact will be the games on Saturday's next fall. All of them are guys who can play and guys who are exactly what we are looking for. They are good people, good players and they can do great things."
One of the greatest things a Bulldogs player did last season was against Auburn when Rambo saved the game for Georgia by knocking the ball loose from the Tigers' Mario Fannin near the goal line to preserve a 31-24 win.
Rambo lay motionless after that play, but only suffered a concussion.
Last season was arguably a shaky one under Richt, who had coached the Bulldogs to SEC titles in 2002 and '05. In 2009, Georgia went 8-5, which was the most losses in a season under Richt. The Bulldogs, however, rebounded to beat rival Georgia Tech, 30-24, to end the regular season and beat Texas A&M, 44-20, in the Independence Bowl.
Richt, a devout Christian who also appeared in the movie, "Facing the Giants" by Albany-based Sherwood Pictures, said his faith got him through last season.
"It does, just like does every day," Richt said. "I just rely on God, that's all."
FCA area director Bill Cox, meanwhile, was just happy to have Richt around for a night.
"It's a blessing to have him here because he's the kind of coach our youth, teenagers need to look up to," Cox said. "He's a Christian coach whose relationship with Christ is first and foremost."