Molding 'Alabama East' in his own image, Kirby Smart is one win from fulfilling dreams
Just four sentences into his introductory press conference as the new coach at Georgia, Kirby Smart referenced the man he will square off with on Monday. In fact, Nick Saban’s name came up before Smart even mentioned his parents and wife.
“I would not be before you today were it not for him,” Smart said on Dec. 7, 2015, referring to the man who hired him for jobs at Alabama, the Miami Dolphins and LSU. They coached together for 11 seasons, including the previous nine straight in Tuscaloosa.
After all, it was the Saban influence that caused Smart to admit that staying at Alabama was a better path for him to a major head coaching job than going to a smaller school.
“I honestly feel my growth was better being in a large program, being around Coach Saban and learning how to manage a lot of the tough situations you deal with in the media,” Smart said.
Some things Smart modeled from Saban include condensing the message of the program to largely his voice. Assistant coaches and freshmen, like quarterback Jake Fromm, were off limits to the media during the season, at least until the Rose Bowl. Smart also declined to take live listener questions on his radio show, instead electing to answer from social media. He moved the weekly press conference to Monday from Tuesday. Subtle shifts that were more in line with Saban than his predecessor, Mark Richt.
Asked how he would initially implement what he learned at Alabama in his new job at Georgia, Smart referred to one word often associated with Saban.
“The process is hard work, that’s what it is,” he said. “It’s hard work through commitment and doing things the right way. A commitment to excellence on the field, off the field, in the classroom, and every social aspect we have for our players. The only way you achieve that is by getting a great organization, a great support staff, surrounding yourself with great people and great coaches. That’s what I hope to do here at the University of Georgia.”
In just more than two years, Smart has become what some call the greatest threat to Alabama, both on the field and in recruiting, as highlighted by the Bulldogs’ recent highly rated recruiting class. Smart’s recruiting pitch, at least publicly, like at this past summer’s SEC Media Days, is more about Georgia than Alabama. Mainly, he focuses on Georgia’s top academic ranking and Atlanta being the “hub of the South” and 60 miles away.
— John (@JohnHayes730) December 20, 2017
Smart has also delivered almost the identical start to a tenure as Saban did at Alabama. Smart was 8-5 in his first season, while Saban was 7-6. In the second season, Saban was 12-2, while Smart is 13-1. Smart’s done it behind a similarly built playbook using a pro-style run-first approach on offense and a defense where fundamentals are first.
Asked again how much he took from Saban and Alabama, Smart said his former boss is “process-oriented.”
“We’re different in a lot of ways, and my focus is on the University of Georgia and how we go about things,” he said at the July SEC Media Days, according to a video posted by AL.com. “Every step we take, we’ve tried to get more heightened awareness, that our coaches and our players understand the demands that we put on them.
“And that’s our big focus point, is how do we get each of our units to play better and more effectively together. The only way you can do that is have great relationships. The demands that we put on these kids nowadays, it’s more than ever before, so if you don’t have a good relationship with them … and building that relationship is off the field.”
Given Georgia’s recent results, Smart’s philosophy of delivering a disciplined team is a product of his attitude, Saban said on a media teleconference after the College Football Playoff semifinals.
“They’re playing extremely well, which is a reflection on his ability and his leadership to get everybody to buy in to doing things the way he wanted them done so that they could play at a very high level, and they certainly are,” Saban said. “They have a lot of good players, and they’re all playing at a very high level, and I think that’s a compliment to the coach and the coaching staff.”
Whether it be because of relationships they developed while on the Alabama staff, or simply their resumes, Smart has hired three former Alabama assistants to join him in Athens. New hire Dan Lanning from Memphis previously worked with Smart, Glenn Schumann and Mel Tucker, who have been on the Georgia staff, at Alabama.
During Saban’s championship tenure at Alabama, the Crimson Tide have become known across college football for developing a large staff with plenty of off-the-field analysts and other lower-level assistants beyond the traditional staff.
But with Smart at the helm, Georgia has expanded that support staff. The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that Georgia spent $4.48 million on support staff salaries in 2015-16, which was more than any other SEC school, including Alabama, which was second at $2.9 million. In 2016, the Orlando Sentinel surveyed SEC media guides and found that Alabama and Georgia had 29 support staff members, while other staffs included South Carolina with 25, Florida 23 and LSU 23.
At that first press conference shortly after he accepted the Georgia job, Smart was asked how close the Bulldogs were to competing for a national championship.
“That’s not a question that I like to answer, hypotheticals,” he said. “To answer that would be really difficult to say to put a pinpoint on a time on that. We want to develop a really tough, physical team. We want to get great recruits in here and do it the right way. That’s what’s important to me. Continuing on the foundation of integrity is of utmost importance for us here at the University of Georgia.”
On Monday, that hypothetical becomes a reality.