I was skeptical, and frankly, I don’t think I was alone.
Georgia had just fired Mark Richt as head coach after he spent 15 successful seasons in Athens. The Bulldogs earned double-digit wins nine times, they won six division titles and they finished in the Associated Press top 10 on seven occasions.
The feeling, of course, was that Georgia reached its ceiling under Richt. He wasn’t going to beat Nick Saban, so Georgia had to find someone who could. I was skeptical when the Bulldogs turned to Saban’s right-hand man, Kirby Smart.
It wasn’t that I doubted Smart as a defensive mind. The work he put together at Alabama spoke for itself. Between Jimbo Fisher, Mark Dantonio and even Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, Saban’s disciples have done just fine.
But I was skeptical because Smart had zero head coaching experience.
Taking over a powerhouse program like Georgia isn’t something that first-time coaches do often.
As any first-time head coach will say, there are basic things that are significantly more challenging than being a coordinator. Head coaches must manage practices, oversee all recruiting, deal with boosters, handle media obligations and be accountable for everything that happens on your team. It’s just different.
Just 19 games into his head coaching career, Smart is already showing why skeptics like myself had nothing to worry about.
Nobody is discounting Smart’s resume. Would he really be a better coach if spent a few years at Central Michigan?
That’s my last Butch Jones joke. I promise.
Smart’s rise, in the modern era of college football, is atypical. Look at the coaches at elite programs.
Nick Saban was the head coach at Toledo and Michigan State before he got the LSU or the Alabama gig. Urban Meyer was at Bowling Green and Utah before Florida gave him a call. Even Gus Malzahn had to spend a year at Arkansas State before Auburn brought him back to take over for Gene Chizik.
Smart didn’t have to turn around some Group of 5 program and beat a Power 5 team in a bowl game. All he had to do was learn everything he could from Saban and prove that he was the right man for the job.
Maybe that’s the common denominator for first-time coaches to inherit big-time programs. It worked for Fisher at Florida State. Will Muschamp got the Florida gig despite never having served as more than a coordinator.
But other than those three (including Smart), how many big-time programs have gone that route in recent memory? Lincoln Riley got the Oklahoma job, but that was after Bob Stoops suddenly stepped down over the summer. Clay Helton took over at USC, but he got a trial run of sorts as the interim coach last year when Steve Sarkisian was fired.
Other than that, though, first-time coaches at powerhouse programs like Smart are few and far between.
One could debate whether Clemson was a powerhouse when it hired Dabo Swinney or if Stanford was a powerhouse when it promoted David Shaw. Both have had their fair share of success, though I’d argue that none of them got as sweet of a gig as Smart.
And let’s be clear. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy job. It just means that given the resources, the recruiting ground and the fan support, Georgia is in ideal position to sustain success.
To his credit, Richt did that. But after 15 seasons, Georgia elected to go in a different direction. It wasn’t afraid of the criticism it would take from people like me for hiring a first-time head coach. All that mattered was that Smart was the guy Georgia believed could win championships.
He has a long way to go, but Smart is making me eat my words, one blowout victory at a time.