Ge­or­gia coach needs to live up to his name

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - WALLY HALL

HOOVER, Ala. — Kirby Smart’s name fits.

The Ge­or­gia head foot­ball coach got his de­gree in fi­nance and his mas­ter’s at Florida State Univer­sity.

He re­sisted jump­ing from be­ing an as­sis­tant to just any head coach­ing job. His name came up with al­most ev­ery head coach open­ing since win­ning the 2009 Broyles Award as the na­tion’s top as­sis­tant foot­ball coach.

Smart waited un­til the right job in the right divi­sion opened and he rushed into Ge­or­gia, his alma mater, with ev­ery­thing but a band and a pa­rade.

He grew up in Ge­or­gia, played de­fen­sive back for the Bull­dogs, earned All-SEC sta­tus his se­nior year and was on the SEC All-Aca­demic team four years.

He was a rock star hired to play a lo­cal gig in his adopted home­town.

Yet, he was hired to fill big shoes af­ter Mark Richt went 145-51 over­all and 83-37 in SEC play over a 15-year run. Richt was fired af­ter a 9-3 2015 sea­son, and the movers and shak­ers at Ge­or­gia went for Smart like Pres­i­dent Trump has the world of Twit­ter.

Richt landed in Mi­ami and went 9-3 his first sea­son and the Hur­ri­cane Na­tion loves the a guy who knew the im­por­tance of re­la­tion­ships, even with the me­dia. He even en­cour­ages his play­ers to be in­ter­viewed.

That was the first big dif­fer­ence.

Smart has been Sa­ban­ized af­ter spend­ing 10 sea­sons work­ing for Alabama’s Nick Sa­ban.

A year ago, dur­ing his first SEC foot­ball me­dia days, Smart was as ner­vous as a long-tailed cat at a rock­ing chair con­ven­tion.

He read from a pre­pared state­ment be­fore open­ing the floor to ques­tions from the 250 re­porters on hand, and he looked like he’d rather be putting on a blind­fold in front of a fir­ing squad.

Ap­par­ently he car­ried that at­ti­tude over to the reg­u­lar sea­son, keep­ing the me­dia at arm’s length even though the sea­son went noth­ing like was an­tic­i­pated.

The Bull­dogs went 8-5. Richt av­er­aged win­ning 9.6 games per year at Ge­or­gia. He was 10-5 in bowl games.

Ge­or­gia foot­ball has al­most al­ways been good and much is al­ways ex­pected.

The state pro­duces 40 to 50 FBS play­ers ev­ery year. It is a state that gets vis­ited reg­u­larly by Sa­ban and all the other coaches who re­cruit the best play­ers in the coun­try.

When the Bull­dogs ended up in the Lib­erty Bowl last sea­son, the fans stayed away in droves.

On Mon­day night, at an SEC re­cep­tion, it was sug­gested to a re­porter who cov­ers Ge­or­gia that some­one needed to whis­per in Smart’s ear to lighten up a lit­tle.

“Good luck with that,” the re­porter said.

This year at SEC me­dia days, Smart once again had his notes or­ga­nized and he cov­ered them quickly and ef­fi­ciently. And when he threw the ses­sion open for ques­tions, he was more re­laxed, more con­fi­dent and a lit­tle more sea­soned.

He wasn’t to­tally a copy of Sa­ban, who makes re­porters feel like id­iots if they ask a ques­tion that has an er­ror in it. Un­der­stand, that for some rea­son, some me­dia mem­bers here al­ways state some sort of fact be­fore ask­ing a ques­tion.

Like one re­porter who asked Smart about ex­pec­ta­tions with 21 starters back.

Af­ter a slight pause, Smart said that math didn’t add up — Ge­or­gia has three starters in the of­fen­sive line back — but he never said how many starters he does have back.

It is 18, still a huge num­ber, es­pe­cially when it in­cludes Nick Chubb, a great run­ning back who opted to play his se­nior sea­son. But as Les Miles found out at LSU last sea­son when he had 17 starters back, it is what you do with the tal­ent.

Smart said Ge­or­gia foot­ball is about win­ning cham­pi­onships, and to do that you have to get to At­lanta for the SEC Cham­pi­onship Game and find a way to beat Sa­ban, his men­tor.

He’s smart enough to know nei­ther is easy.

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