The Columbus Dispatch
’Dogs get another crack at Tide
INDIANAPOLIS — Eighteen years ago this month, Nick Saban hired a 28year old Florida State graduate assistant to coach defensive backs for him at LSU.
His name was Kirby Smart. He joined Saban's staff just weeks after he won his first national title as head coach in the 2003 season.
Saban was 52 at the time and that championship came in his 10th season as a head coach and fourth at LSU. He was just getting started.
So was Smart on a career that has led him to a second national championship game appearance as head coach and another joint press conference with Saban Sunday morning the day before another rather significant game.
Smart's Georgia team will get another shot at Saban's Alabama behemoth on Monday night at 8 p.m. (ESPN) in the College Football Playoff national championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium. It's a long way away from their airport interview in 2004 in Mobile, Ala., during Senior Bowl week.
“He's done an outstanding job there of making that program what it is,” Saban said Sunday morning. “The players and people that are in that organization have made the program what it is.”
Smart at age 46 has built a program that can stand toe to toe with Alabama with a roster as talented as the one Saban has built, taking much of the structure and philosophy from his nine years under Saban at Alabama. Now Georgia is looking to push the Crimson Tide out of the way and secure its first national title since 1980.
“The goal was to have a successful program,” Smart said during the Zoom press conference that came after the two coaches posed for a photo with the championship trophy and before they did a sit-down interview with ESPN. “In the state of Georgia, the high school coaches and the support that you get in the state of Georgia for football makes it a very fertile area and you're always going to have a good recruiting base. We've been able to have that and if you recruit well, have good coaches, have good development, a good strength program, you're going to have a chance for success. That was certainly the goal from the outset.”
Saban, now 70, thwarted Georgia from winning it all in the 2017 season with his team's dramatic overtime victory. Four seasons later, Georgia and Alabama meet again for the national title.
“I don't remember much about 2017 anymore,” said Smart, finishing his sixth season. “It's amazing how fast these years go by and time goes by. I've got a staff of great coaches and I've got an organization that's full of good leaders and trust in those people maybe more now than in 2017 when I felt like I needed to micromanage and be over the top of everything. Probably not a little more comfortable delegating things out and trusting people to do their jobs and maybe impart a little bit of their personality into their parts of the organization. …The core beliefs in the way we do things, they haven't changed much.”
Saban is now 4-0 against Smart including a 41-24 win on Dec. 4 in the SEC championship game that dealt Georgia its only loss this season.
“They won most of those matchups across the board,” Smart said. “We've been trying to improve in areas since that game so that we can be at our best when our best is needed.”
He cited third down conversions (3 of 12), red zone scoring (3 of 5 with just 2 TDS) and forcing turnovers (0).
“Definitely beating Alabama would be an accomplishment, not only for me but for Coach Smart and everything,” senior nose guard Jordan Davis said
Saturday. “I've had three shots at Alabama and I haven't beaten them yet. So that's speaking for myself. As a team, winning the national championship, that's what we're grinding for, what we're working for all season. Of course it's going to be an amazing feeling.”
Smart helped Saban win four national titles as Alabama defensive coordinator and Saban won two more after Smart left for Georgia to give him seven total.
This is Saban's sixth CFP national championship game in the eight seasons of the playoff.
“He's been in this game an awful lot,” Smart said. “I know he doesn't take that for granted because I know the work and effort he puts into it to get his team here. I've been able to see that, I've been a part of that. I also know the work and effort we've put in to get to this point. It is not easy job to get to this part of the season through the SEC gauntlet, the championship game, the semifinals. It's a tough, rigorous season.”
Saban labeled Georgia an elite program “and just looking at the future probably will be for sometime in the future as well.”
Shortly after Smart and the Bulldogs arrived here Friday night, Smart was asked if he can feel how badly Georgia fans want this national title.
“I can't feel it, I can't say that I feel it,” said the former ALL-SEC UGA safety. “We work in a little bit of a bubble. We're in the work every day. I feel it probably more because of the people around my family and being a Georgia person and knowing and connected to those people. I can't say I actually feel it. I feel hot, cold, tired. Those are things I feel. I don't feel most of those others.”
He pretty much said the same thing when he was asked again Sunday morning if that championship drought is something he can sense.
“No, I do not.,” he said. “What I feel is how do we stop Bryce Young and how do we control their front and how do we run the ball, how do we throw the ball with efficiency, how do we convert third downs and stop them in the red area.”