ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Mark Richt stepped down as Georgia's coach Sunday, leaving stunned players with one final bowl game with the man who ranks second in wins in school history.
Georgia announced the move as a ''mutual'' decision, but it looked like a firing.
Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity announced the decision after meeting with Richt on Sunday morning.
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McGarity said in a statement released by the school the two ''mutually agreed that he would step down as head coach and would have the opportunity to accept other duties and responsibilities at UGA following the bowl game.''
Richt met with his players Sunday night. The meeting lasted less than 30 minutes.
''I wish the best for him,'' said senior fullback Quayvon Hicks before the meeting. ''I enjoyed my four years here with him. … We have to understand it is part of the business.
''We've got to make sure we stay together and our minds are right. It's bigger than us.''
Another senior, defensive end Josh Dawson, said ''We will all miss him. He's a great coach. … The older guys, the younger guys, we all love coach Richt.''
Several players declined comment following the meeting.
Fans set up a small tribute for Richt outside the team's football facility. The words ''Thanks Coach Richt'' were written on a white poster board, situated near a burning candle. A smaller sign said ''Fire McGarity.''
Georgia (9-3) ended its regular season with Saturday's 13-7 win over Georgia Tech. It was clear following the game Richt had no plans to step down. He said he planned to begin recruiting ''and getting prepared for the future at Georgia.''
Richt had only a short statement in the announcement released by Georgia.
''I appreciate the opportunity of serving the University as well as considering any other options that may present themselves in the future,'' Richt said.
There has been speculation about Richt's future since losses to Tennessee, Alabama and Florida ended the Bulldogs' hopes for a Southeastern Conference championship. Georgia closed the regular season with four straight wins, but that was not enough to make up for failing to land a spot in the title game. The Bulldogs were the preseason pick in the SEC East.
Richt, 55, acknowledged Saturday the team ''came up short of our goal'' to win the SEC championship.
''That's the standard here,'' Richt said. ''Win the SEC and hopefully go beyond that. From that point of view, we fell short of our goals.''
The news was a surprise to one of his former players, Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, who learned before Sunday's game at the Atlanta Falcons that Richt was out.
''That's really unfortunate,'' Walsh said. ''He's such a great man, a man of integrity and character and somebody that helped shape me into what I am today. I feel for him and his family but I know if decides to keep coaching he's going to get a job here at any point he wants.
''I love him and I'll miss him at Georgia.''
Alabama coach Nick Saban reacted to the news with shock.
''I don't know what the world's coming to in our profession,'' Saban said. ''Mark Richt's been a really good coach and a really positive person in our profession for a long, long time. I think when you win nine games, that's a pretty good season, especially with the body of work that he's been able to put together there for however many years he's been there.''
Richt is 145-51 with two SEC championships. Only Vince Dooley (201) won more games at Georgia.
McGarity thanked Richt and Richt's wife, Katharyn, ''for 15 years of remarkable service to the UGA community, hundreds of our students and staff, and to college football.''
''Mark's record on the field was outstanding; however, his impact on college football goes well beyond the gridiron,'' McGarity said.
Richt, strongly religious, was respected for his integrity but criticized for failing to keep pace in the SEC's recent string of seven straight national championships. Georgia's last SEC championship was in 2005. Its last national championship, under Dooley, came in 1980. The Bulldogs lost in the 2011 and 2012 SEC championship games.
This season, Richt earned positive reviews for his personal role with Southern wide receiver Devon Gales, who suffered a serious neck injury in a loss at Georgia. Gales said on his Twitter account Sunday that Richt ''understands that football is about more than winning. It's about shaping and molding the lives of young men.''
Georgia has planned a Monday news conference.
A leading candidate in Georgia's search could be Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, a former Georgia safety and assistant coach under Richt.
If Georgia chooses to pursue a current head coach, a possible candidate who has a history with McGarity is Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. When McGarity was an associate athletic director at Florida, Mullen was an assistant coach for the Gators.
Georgia also might contact Colorado State coach Mike Bobo, who left as the Bulldogs' offensive coordinator following the 2014 season, when Georgia led the SEC in scoring. Bobo is 7-5 and won his last four regular-season games in his first season at Colorado State.
Houston coach Tom Herman is another possible candidate.
McGarity said if Richt chooses to remain at Georgia, he would ''be heavily involved with outreach programs for our former football lettermen.''
University of Georgia president Jere Morehead said he asked Richt to accept ''a new leadership role'' that apparently would include fundraising.
''I look forward to hopefully working closely with him as we advance our capital campaign at the University of Georgia,'' Morehead said.
AP college football website: collegefootball.ap.org