Thanks to Kirby Smart and a bold decision, Athens is rocking again
“This town is crazy right now. It’s a fun time to be in Athens, Georgia.” On Georgia, an immortal season, and the man who made it so …
ATHENS, Ga. — No matter your football allegiance, you can somehow live vicariously through Georgia’s Kirby Smart. Maybe it’s because he’s young and seems like a “regular guy” — the kind of guy you might have had a beer with in college — that makes his story so relatable, so possible.
Last week, Smart turned the ripe old age of 42. Granted, he makes north of $3 million per year and is the head coach at one of the premier college football schools in the country. His home was recently featured in a swanky Atlanta magazine and his boyish presence emits a collegy, Greek-letters air that reeks of Coleman coolers and brawny pickup trucks. Yet there seems to be no smug way about him. Whatever vibe he seems to be giving off, it’s genuine. And even though you might not admit it, he’s the guy you can’t help but pull for, a guy who inspires us regular schmoes that anything is plausible in this world.
Smart floated into the college football cosmos when he was ordained as the defensive coordinator at Alabama in 2008. Though he had come from a rich pedigree and was an eight-year passenger on the coaching carousel, he was, at the time, a relative unknown.
The son of a high school football coach, Smart played safety and defensive back at Georgia under Ray Goff and Jim Donnan before following in his father’s footsteps into the florid and provocative world of coaching. His branches extended from the trunks of Bobby Bowden and Mark Richt, and later he became a disciple who relished the aroma of Nick Saban’s heel dust.
At Alabama, we admired him as he signaled and screamed and prodded, visor suspended on head, hair flopping, mouth agape, and we wondered when he would get the chance to run his own program. Everyone knew he wasn’t just another assistant poking around the circuit. It was only a matter of time. For eight seasons, the Prince waited for his own ceremony to commence, biding his time, flirting with other inquiries, enduring butt-chewings from the King, and soaking up the secrets to success like a sponge.
He finally got an opportunity in 2016 when his alma mater plucked him from Titletown and installed him authoritatively into the top chair in Athens. Now, with Smart’s team perched at 12-1, staring into the plains-weathered face of Oklahoma, all the training, the prayers, and the vitamins seemed to have paid off.
One thing is certain: Athens, Georgia, in the winter of 2017, is hotter than a nightclub in Drambuie.
“This town is crazy right now,” said Steve Bryant, a longtime trainer at Georgia. “It’s a fun time to be in Athens, Georgia.”
* * * * * * * * *
Yes, the shops are selling their paraphernalia, the diners are buzzing, and the first question everyone asks is “Are you going?” Folks are raiding haberdasheries and cute boutiques for outfits befitting for the California sun. One pastor at a church in Watkinsville, Ga., suggested that Christmas cards would read “Go Dawgs!” below the signature line. There is a bonfire of enthusiasm flickering over the college town tucked in the northeastern corner of the state, and not just because Georgia has had a good year. Georgia fans truly believe that The Man has arrived in Athens.
Since 1980, DawgNation has been hungry. That year, Vince Dooley marched his Bulldogs to the top of the college football massif, defeating Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl to secure UGA’s first national championship since Frank Sinkwich and Charley Trippi roamed the fields back in 1942.
Yet for the past 37 years, the narrative of Georgia football has largely been a story of almosts. Georgia almost won its third national title in 1982, but Joe Paterno put a stop to that. Georgia almost made it to Birmingham for the first ever SEC Championship in 1992, but Florida quelled those dreams. Georgia almost won the SEC East in 1997 but a sheriff named Manning flashed his badge and ran the pesky Athenians out of Knoxville. Georgia almost went undefeated in 2002, but got Zooked. Georgia almost toppled the defending national champion Alabama team in 2012, but McCarron-to-Cooper will forever be engraved into their nightmares.
Georgia is tired of almosts. Two years ago, athletic director Greg McGarity made a controversial decision to let Mark Richt go, and critics questioned how one could toss a guaranteed 10-win lifestyle into the dumpster. McGarity maintains his decision was based on the disparity between goodness and greatness, a Jim-Collins-like ideal. “These are tough decisions you have to make,” McGarity told SDS. “Georgia football had always been really good. The job Mark did here was outstanding, but I always felt like Georgia football could be great. So that’s the reason to make a change and allow Kirby to come in and get that job done.”
So far, Smart seems to have provided a salve for those still wounded by the ouster of Richt. After an 8-5 campaign in Smart’s inaugural year, Georgia in 2017 had a season for the ages. It all seemed to have started Sept. 9 in South Bend, where, in a compelling turn-of-events, Georgia walked away from the most historic coliseum in all of college sport with a 20-19 victory over the Fighting Irish. Not only did the Bulldogs win the game, Georgia Nation swept over the Midwest like a plague. Vince Dooley threw out the first pitch at the Chicago Cubs game and half of Notre Dame stadium was painted the same shade of red as Brian Kelly’s postgame face. It was a statement game that put America on notice: The Dawgs are here.
Then came Georgia’s hobnail march through the SEC. The first victim was undefeated Mississippi State — in a game that wasn’t close. Then the Dawgs made Tennessee look like Ned and the First Reader. Then they declawed Missouri. Then — oh my — they drained the Swamp (in Jacksonville). Then UGA let Will Muschamp’s team know what they feel about them.
During the process, the tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb brought their usual muscular bedlam, quarterback Jake Fromm unleashed his own brand of aerial helter skelter, and Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter were collective beasts. Then the polls came out and Georgia was No. 1 and everything was all right, all right in Athens.
Then it all came crashing down.
On the eerie night of Nov. 11, it didn’t take a brain scientist to determine who was the best team on the field when Georgia collided with Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The game was ugly. In the end, Auburn had, without question, shed its September mediocrity and elevated itself to one of the elite teams in the country, while Georgia came to understand the term “Heavy Lies the Crown.” The 40-17 woodshedding was bad, not just because of the wide divergence on the scoreboard. Stating cockily in a postgame gaffe that his team “whipped the dog crap” out of Georgia, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn rubbed salt in the wound. Whoa, Nellie. Georgia, in terms of making it to the College Football Playoff, was on the outside looking in, but still controlled its fate.
While the West was engaged in a proverbial street fight, Georgia was coasting, having already secured the SEC East, assured of a meeting with the West champion at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Dec. 2. Bryant, the trainer, said that it was about “50-50” on whom Georgia fans wanted to play in the championship. If it turned out to be Alabama, Georgia could gain redemption for the heart-wrenching loss of 2012. If it was Auburn, Georgia could gain redemption for November. After Auburn bested the Tide on Nov. 25, the Dawgs began slobbering for Round 2.
In terms of rematches, Smart had been there before. In 2011, he had felt the pain of a 9-6 loss to LSU while the defensive coordinator at Alabama. But in the month-and-a-half armistice between that loss and the rematch with the Bayou Bengals in New Orleans (how thick the irony) Smart understood what it took to flip the script in the sequel.
The week leading up to the Auburn game, Smart preached composure and physicality as if they were sacrosanct ideals. Auburn arrived in Atlanta confident but battered, as running back Kerryon Johnson had sustained a shoulder injury against Alabama and was a game-time decision. In the first quarter, Auburn struck first. After quarterback Jarrett Stidham paraded the Tigers down the field to make it 7-0, it seemed as though the Dawgs wouldn’t be able to stop the Auburn steamroll. But in the third quarter, Georgia blocked a Daniel Carlson field goal, and things started to unravel for the Tigers. The Dawgs reeled off 28 consecutive points to secure their first SEC championship in 12 seasons. As the confetti cascaded, Smart hopped on the platform and hoisted the wooden trophy over his sweat-sodden head.
Bryant, the Georgia trainer, believes the key to Georgia’s win stemmed from the quartet of seniors (Devin Bellamy, Michel, Chubb and Carter) who believed in themselves and absorbed the trickle-down mental fortitude of their head coach. “To take a fall like we did, what’s going to bring you out of that hole was the mentality that Kirby and staff provided, but also the mentality of those four seniors,” he said. “(Losing) wasn’t going to happen again.”
From a coaching perspective, Donnan was impressed with Smart’s ability to tweak. “I thought that was a real testimony to his coaching style, just the fact that they adjusted like they did,” Donnan said.
What a difference three weeks can make.
Georgia AD Greg McGarity
The Making of Kirby Smart
Smart has certainly garnered the respect of his former coaches and the power brokers in Athens, who were expecting two pair when Smart threw down a royal flush. Goff, who was the head coach at Georgia from 1989-95, still hovers around Athens but prefers not to interfere with the goings-on of the program. He recruited Smart after first seeing him at Bainbridge High School, where Smart played for his father, Sonny.
Though Goff cannot remember the exact details of his recruitment, he liked Smart because of his high football IQ and understanding what it was like to sacrifice and work — details that emanated from his coaching father. “He wound up being a really good player for us,” Goff said. “He had a great career. We were proud of the way he played. You ask me, would I sign him again? I’d absolutely sign him again because he made that much of an impact on us.”
Jim Donnan, the former head coach at Marshall, was hired as Goff’s replacement in 1996 and coached Smart for the last three years of his playing career. “(Kirby) bought in right off the bat when I came in here,” Donnan reflected. “He showed a lot of leadership, did a good job of playing up to his ability. He was a very smart guy on the field. Intelligent. He had good quickness and was a good tackler. He was very vocal in his belief in what we were doing.”
Smart was elected team captain his senior year, a testament to the respect he had commanded as a player and person. That year, he logged five interceptions, helped the Dawgs to a 9-3 record, and was selected All-SEC. Smart had 13 interceptions over his four-year career and was named to the conference’s academic honor roll four times.
He eventually signed a free agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts, but was released before he ever played a down.
Smart returned to Georgia in 1999 and endeavored to enter the pitiless arena of college coaching. He first served as an administrative assistant under Donnan, and the next year was conveniently hired as the secondary coach at Valdosta State under defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, Smart’s teammate at Georgia. When Muschamp was hired at LSU under Nick Saban, Smart was promoted to defensive coordinator at Valdosta.
More important, through Muschamp, he had a direct line to the King.
In 2002, Smart was tabbed as a graduate assistant at Florida State under Bobby Bowden, working directly under defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. There, he obtained his master’s degree and was as zealous a pupil on the gridiron. Muschamp continued to keep an eye on his friend and remained the key liaison between Smart and LSU. Eventually a meeting with Saban was set up at the Senior Bowl in Mobile. “I drove over from Tallahassee and met with him there,” Smart told Fortune magazine. “(Saban) said, ‘I like you. Let me see what happens.'”
Saban had grown weary of the turnover at the secondary coach position, and wanted to identify someone who was willing to stay and be groomed. He eventually found that person in Kirby Smart.
As one could imagine, Smart’s interview with Saban was a heart-pulsing affair. In Smart, Saban saw a hungry, youthful energy, but perhaps the tipping point was Smart’s connection with Lake Burton in Georgia. “He also has a lake house in Georgia, where my dad was the head high school coach,” Smart said, speaking of Saban. “So he’s at Lake Burton, which is in Rabun County. My dad was the head coach at Rabun County, so in the interview (Saban) was like, ‘Oh, your dad’s the head coach up there. That’s where my lake house is.’ So there was a connection there, and it just ended up working out real well.”
One year after Smart was hired at LSU, Saban bolted for the Miami Dolphins. Smart was offered an off-the-field position on Saban’s staff in Miami, but declined. Instead he joined Mark Richt at Georgia as the running backs coach. Later, when Muschamp was hired as the defensive coordinator at Auburn, Saban phoned Smart and said, “I want you to take Will’s spot.” This time, Smart didn’t hesitate and packed his bags for Miami.
Smart would caboose Saban for the next several years, eventually becoming his man Friday. When Saban shocked the world in 2007 by going to Alabama, Smart served as the defensive backs coach under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. After Steele left in 2008 to become the defensive coordinator at Clemson, Saban promoted Smart to run his defense.
Smart’s defenses at Alabama consistently ranked in the top 5 in total defense and developed a reputation for their unyielding fronts and discerning pressure. Bama became a defensive factory that mass-produced studs like Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower, Terrence Cody, Courtney Upshaw, C.J. Mosley, Landon Collins, and Marcell Dareus. In 2011, Alabama held opponents to 183.62 yards per game, the best average over a 23-year span, eclipsing even the vaunted 1992 Alabama defense and Saban’s ravenous 2003 LSU club.
From 2009-15, Smart oversaw the defense while the Crimson Tide placed four new championship trophies in their cases. Had it not been for Alabama’s defensive propensity, the Tide might not have won any of them. In the minds of some, Smart did not receive the credit he rightly deserved.
So when McGarity relieved Richt of his duties in Athens, he decided to make the Smart move. McGarity had once learned as the associate athletic director at Florida how tenuous the world of college coaching could be, and as AD at Georgia he didn’t want to make the mistake of being unprepared.
McGarity said that Smart was “always on the radar” of top assistant coaches, one whose progress he followed from afar. As McGarity vetted potential replacements for Richt, he was impressed Smart’s organizational skills, his passion for football, and his commitment to education. It certainly didn’t hurt that Smart had learned under the tutelage of two of the best coaches in the history of college football in Bowden and Saban.
“To be by coach Saban’s side for so long and to be able to thrive in that kind of environment allowed him to understand what it’s like to compete at the highest levels,” McGarity told SDS. “And when you get to certain games like SEC championships and where we are now, there is a level of comfort knowing we have someone leading our program that has been there and understands all of the dynamics that go into being successful at that level.”
McGarity stresses the uniqueness of having a coach who has excelled academically and athletically at the same institution. “We were very fortunate Kirby was able to have a head start on familiarity with campus,” McGarity said. “The learning curve was easier for Kirby, rather than someone who did not have that institutional knowledge. It doesn’t happen that often, and when it does, it’s a huge advantage.”
Embracing the burden to chase championships
Goff knows full well what it’s like to be a Georgia man and return to campus as a head coach after his playing days. In 1989, Goff, who played quarterback at UGA from 1974-76, was hired as the Vince Dooley’s replacement when Dooley retired in 1989. Goff’s pyramiding career reached an apex in 1992 when the team went 10-2, but the last three years were a downslope. Goff hopes his former player does not meet the same fate — “I’m behind him — one hundred percent,” Goff said.
Not only does Smart have pressure on him because he’s a Georgia man, he has had to assume the taxing responsibility of lifting Georgia to a higher plain.
“I think Kirby realized when he got here that there was a big burden on his shoulder to get this program back … not anything against Richt … but he felt the burden of DawgNation to try to do it ’cause it meant so much to so many of the people he knew,” Donnan said.
Both Goff and Donnan believe that Smart possesses the intangibles to become an elite coach. “I think he’s very tenacious,” Goff said. “He’s a go-getter. He works his rear end off in recruiting and coaching. And I would think he’s a players’ coach. He understands what those guys are going through because he’s been there, too. And he understands it especially in the state of Georgia because this is where he came from.”
Added Donnan: “He’s very organized and knows exactly what he wants as a football coach. He’s very knowledgeable about the game, he’s a relentless recruiter, he’s a good family man. He’s a good father to go along with being a coach that these players particularly relate to.”
Staying on the Mountain
It’s one thing to have success; it’s quite another to achieve sustainable success. Smart had a good year … great. But what about the long term?
To be sure, Georgia is not looking for the Dexys Midnight Runners of the coaching profession. They don’t want a one-hit wonder. DawgNation is thinking multiple championships. So what will it take for Smart to keep Georgia among the gods?
Perhaps the most important element is having recruiting success in his home state. Georgia is a unique state for recruiting because there is beaucoup talent but dozens of schools trying to scale the fort from all directions. Florida, Florida State, Auburn, Alabama, Clemson, South Carolina and Tennessee are frequent sightseers. “Everybody likes to go places where there’s easy access to the airport,” Donnan said. “A lot of schools you can hit quickly. In suburban Atlanta, you can spend a lot of time without traveling.”
Goff says that there is no way Smart could seal off the state of Georgia, but if he could get the right ones, he will have a good chance at success. “You are never going to say this is Georgia territory because you’re always going to have kids that come along that fantasize about playing for Florida or Georgia Tech or Auburn or Alabama. Kids are going to Tennessee because north Georgia is close to Knoxville. Columbus is 30-45 minutes away from Auburn. You’ll never seal off the borders. That’s never going to happen. Even Trump can’t do it.”
If December is any indication of Smart’s recruiting capabilities, Georgia fans have reason to pin a smile to their faces for a long time. Fans will mark Wednesday, Dec. 20 as one of the greatest days in Georgia recruiting history, as Smart hauled in an unprecedented six 5-star gifts to place under Georgia’s Christmas tree. Georgia’s current run has contributed to this climate, certainly, but Smart has gained further traction because the sociology of success is pointing to Georgia as the Golden State Warriors of college football.
“You don’t recruit on the level that Kirby has been recruiting unless the players here believe in what he’s doing, because they are the best sellers of their program,” Donnan said. “They are definitely telling everybody what it’s like to play for him.”
Retention was an important factor in Georgia’s 2017 run. After the eight-win 2016 campaign, players, hearing the operatic chants of victory and witnessing the well-oiled machinations on the recruiting trail, were firmly convinced that big things were ahead in Athens.
“Kirby instilled confidence in the team that they were going to win big, which had a direct effect on the Big 4 — two running backs and two outside linebackers — turning down pro opportunities to return for their senior season,” Dooley told SDS. “Which, in my opinion, is the most important factor in the great success of this team both from a physical and leadership standpoint. The back-to-back superior recruiting classes is a strong indication that Georgia will be competing at the championship level for years to come.”
Attacking The Day is the only way
Georgia must be careful not to get too big for its silver britches. Smartism 101 preaches “Attack The Day,” not looking too far into the future nor ingesting the famous rat poison served by the talking heads already prophesying that Georgia will dethrone Alabama as the nation’s top program. “I don’t think we pay any attention to that,” McGarity said. “Once you start thinking that you’ve arrived, I think that’s when complacency sets in. The one thing you cannot do is take your foot off the pedal. You actually have to work harder when you experience a level of success. So what’s important for us is to not listen to the pundits and everyone else that wants to pat you on the back.”
With all the excitement in Athens, once cannot help but summon the fond memories of a bygone era, and it’s natural for the dreams of 2017 to harken back to the nostalgic days of Dooley and Herschel. Steve Bryant says the frenzy in Athens is equal to that of 1980, but with social media and the more clever ways of making money off of the Georgia brand, it’s a different hype.
McGarity agrees, but would go one step further. “Well obviously after the SEC Championship Game and the win, the entire state — not to mention the campus — was energized with a level of excitement that we have not witnessed in many, many years. When the announcement was made that we were going to be traveling to the Rose Bowl, that kicked the anticipation up to a higher level.”
As in 1980, Georgia will be facing one of college football’s blue bloods, but one big difference between this year and Georgia’s historic run in ’80 is that in ’80, Georgia had the future Heisman winner. This year, they’ll have to beat the Heisman winner. And Baker Mayfield would like nothing more than to plant an Oklahoma flag in the midfield soil in Pasadena.
Donnan sees the Rose Bowl pitting two programs etched in tradition. “I feel like it’s going to be a matchup of their offense versus our defense,” Donnan said. “Georgia’s offense is going to have to do a good job of keeping them off the field. (Mayfield) is just an accurate quarterback … I feel like it’s going to be a heck of a matchup.”
With all of the hype surrounding the game, Bryant says that he hasn’t heard a peep about whom Georgia might play in the championship. “Nobody’s even mentioned that,” he said. “We are so focused on the Rose Bowl right now — and getting past Oklahoma.” Either way, if Georgia manages to upend the Sooner wagon, a traditional rival will be waiting in the wings.
Without question, Georgia fans are pleased with the results of the season, but still thirst for a championship. If Georgia loses to Oklahoma, fans will be disappointed but will feel that this season has exceeded expectations. They’ll be able to go on with life and not remain in a perpetual state of depression like their counterparts to the immediate west, for whom nightmares of losing to Clemson hauntingly remain.
In the future, if Georgia is to ascend to the level or have the gall to surpass Alabama, the bar must be raised and a brutal truth confronted. If anything, Saban’s success activated a dormant volcano of expectations that were emplaced by Bear Bryant, such that many of today’s Alabama fans consider a 12-2 season an embarrassment. Thus the mentality for Georgia — or anyone for that matter who wants to build a dynasty — has to be: Anything less than a national championship is a failure. Few programs are willing to expect such results.
Although Georgia isn’t thinking past Oklahoma, for just a moment wouldn’t it be fun to step outside the box and imagine the teacher and the student meeting in Atlanta for all the marbles? Wouldn’t it be fun to see if Smart could be the one assistant coach who finally had his day, or if Saban will banish him back to the long line of lieutenants who could not lick the old soldier?
As Ric Flair once said, “To be the man, you have to beat the man.”
Regardless of what happens from here, Kirby Smart has inspired us. His improbable rise from the boy who once wore navy blazers and Sebagos to BMOC evokes the thought that anything is possible if we set our mind to it. And in many ways he is us. He’s the guy who wallows around in a dingy fraternity room ogling over the Old Row Instagram page and dreaming of his high-digit portfolio. He’s the dumpy geek afraid to ask the beauty queen on a date. He’s the group-texting, Saturday-Down-South-reading thirty-something who’s one clever move away from “making it.”
He’s the musician playing honky tonks, the inspiring artist, the young boy sending squatting, two-handed set shots to a hoop high above a gravel court. He’s the married professional eyeing a better neighborhood across town. He’s the first downpayment, the courage to lean in for the first kiss, the initial trembling walk to the podium.
For in this country we dream of carving out worlds that are better than those who raised us.
After all, that’s what the American Dream is all about. Right?