Kirby Smart: Rising Star in Athens
By RICH CIRMINIELLO
Getting over the hump. Raising the bar. Scaling new heights. It’s one of the toughest things to do in sports, blasting past expectations and erasing the tired standard that creeps into a program’s psyche. Shifting the dynamic and renovating a culture often mandate a bold change in leadership. For Georgia, one of college football’s historic bluebloods, the hiring of Kirby Smart on Dec. 6, 2015 marked the beginning of a new era that has already produced substantial dividends in Athens.
Less than two years. That’s all it’s taken Smart to redirect the course of the Dawgs. Sure, Georgia was a perfectly fine program under the previous regime, finishing ranked in 12 of the prior 15 years before a change at the top was made. Perfectly fine, though, was not enough for the administration or the fan base. Nor were Capital One or Outback Bowl invitations and a decade in between SEC championships. The Bulldogs wanted more. They demanded more. They’re now celebrating more because of the decision to pry Smart away from Alabama.
Many talented programs are the right coach away from turning the corner. Smart has been that difference-maker at Georgia. The son of a high school football coach and former Bulldog defensive back methodically worked his way through the ranks since graduating from Georgia two decades ago. Each stop along the journey, he learned something new and grew as a top defensive coach. But his boundless energy and passion for coaching kids, two trademark Smart characteristics, remained constants at each outpost.
“My dad was probably the most influential figure in my coaching career,” admits Smart. “I’ve always been mindful of the way he treated his players and the family values he taught me. But I’ve really been around some great coaches and staffs over the years. Joe Kines at Florida State, the LSU staff, Jason Garrett and Mike Mularkey with the Dolphins and of course nine great years at Alabama.”
Before getting the offer to return to his alma mater, Smart was best known for that decorated stint in Tuscaloosa as Nick Saban’s right-hand man. With Smart as the defensive coordinator of the nation’s nastiest D, the Crimson Tide won four national championships and never allowed more than 20 points a game in a season. Interest in the young coordinator predictably spiked, but no one knew for certain how his skill set would translate to a head coaching position. No one really ever knows how any coordinator will handle a high-profile promotion.
“The toughest thing for me in the early going was time management,” says Smart about his debut season at Georgia. “I had to figure out how to best handle my time and commitments. We all have only so much energy, so it’s a balancing act that probably needs to be tweaked from year to year.”
Smart’s debut as a head coach in 2016 was rocky. The Bulldogs lost five games and finished in a three-way tie in the SEC East. Then again, they were breaking in a first-year staff and a rookie quarterback, ballyhooed recruit Jacob Eason, so it was hardly a letdown. In retrospect, it wound up being a table-setter for what would become one of the most memorable seasons in Georgia history.
The ground floor down, Smart and his staff proceeded to systematically build on it in 2017. From recruiting and conditioning to attitude and execution, Smart was determined to upgrade every facet of the program. And it showed, from the moment the season began with a 31-10 defeat of Appalachian State.
The Bulldogs were a noticeably different team in 2017, the residue of a hands-on coach who tirelessly hunts for competitive edges. They were more physical, mentally tougher and unrelenting in their pursuit of a higher level of success. In other words, the players had not only bought into what Smart was selling, they’d adopted the central characteristics that helped make the coach so successful throughout his career.
“Kirby is relentless in his pursuit of excellence,” states Mel Tucker, Smart’s defensive coordinator in Athens. “He’s always looking for new ideas, new ways to get an edge on opponents, and it rubs off on the players. In 2016, we lost heartbreakers we could have won. But we drove home the idea that we have the talent and the winning formula to get this program to another level, provided the players were willing to grind like never before.”
The Dawgs bought in. The culture began to change. And those crushing 2016 defeats miraculously shifted into the win column last fall. New-look Georgia’s first national statement occurred in Week 2 at Notre Dame. Despite being forced by injuries to use another true freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm, in a hostile environment, the Bulldogs rallied for a 20-19 victory that altered the season’s trajectory.
“I thought in camp that we might have something special, particularly with all of our veteran leaders,” says Smart. “The seniors took it upon themselves when we went to Notre Dame to really rally around our young quarterback and put him in the best possible position to succeed. That game in South Bend showed me a lot about the potential of that team.”
Georgia used the Irish upset as a springboard to national title contention. After Week 2, the team reeled off seven consecutive wins by at least two touchdowns to ascend to No. 2 in the polls. The staff had effectively addressed every offseason worry, from youth at quarterback and a rebuilt O-line to pass defense and special teams. The Dawgs were cruising until the Nov. 11 trip to Auburn, where they were throttled, 40-17. But while the perfect season ended on the Plains, title dreams did not. Smart made certain of it.
“That Sunday following the Auburn loss, we took a critical look at every aspect of our schematic structure,” says Tucker. “We saw what we could do differently, put in a preliminary gameplan for Auburn in the event we saw them again in Atlanta and then put it away. The mentality in our locker room after the first loss was that a lopsided game like that would never happen again. It was tough, but those kids never lost confidence or hung their heads.”
Bowing to Auburn wound up being a mere pause on the path to that long-awaited title. Georgia resumed dominating, first Kentucky to get back on track and then Georgia Tech to avenge a loss from the previous November. And just as Smart, Tucker and the rest of the staff drew it up, the Dawgs flipped the script in Atlanta, avenging the Auburn loss with a 28-7 suffocation that secured a league crown and a playoff berth opposite Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.
Georgia used halftime adjustments and a downhill running game to rally for an epic 54-48 double-OT win over the Sooners that set up a national championship showdown with Saban and the Tide. Mentor vs. student. The standard among college coaches vs. the future at the profession. The Dawgs needed an extra session again, but fell short this time, 26-23, on a walk-off touchdown strike that’ll likely serve as motivation throughout the offseason.
Even in losing the national title game, the Bulldogs dispatched notice that they’re indisputably back … and way ahead of schedule. In 2017, Georgia captured its first SEC championship since 2005, won 13 games for just the second time in school history and finished as high as No. 2 in both major polls for the first time in 37 years. By upgrading every phase of the Bulldog program in less than two years, Smart has earned his George Munger Collegiate Coach of the Year Award. And by the looks of Georgia’s recent recruiting hauls and facilities upgrades, Smart is poised to become an annual fixture in the race for college football’s top coach.
Rich Cirminiello is the Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, and someone who revels in the opportunity to tell each award winner’s unique story.
Winner: GEORGE MUNGER AWARD -University of Georgia