How Kirby Smart built Georgia into another Alabama

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  • Mark Schlabach

    CloseESPN Senior Writer

    • Senior college football writer
    • Author of seven books on college football
    • Graduate of the University of Georgia
  • Alex Scarborough

    CloseESPN Staff Writer

    • Covers the SEC.
    • Joined ESPN in 2012.
    • Graduate of Auburn University.

IT WAS FINALLY over. Staying on as Alabama’s defensive coordinator for a month after becoming the head coach at Georgia was more stressful than Kirby Smart had imagined. But a promise was a promise, and he kept it, reminding himself during sleepless nights that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. And it wasn’t a train, it was a jubilant Crimson Tide locker room in Arizona, having just beaten Clemson to win the national championship.

Smart’s hair was still wet from a postgame shower when a group of reporters crowded around him after the 45-40 victory on Jan. 11, 2016 — a 40-year-old getting ready to tackle his first head-coaching job, which happened to be at his alma mater. A bus was waiting. A private plane would take him to Athens, Georgia, early the next morning. He looked exhausted, happy and anxious all at once. It wasn’t a perfect ending, as one reporter suggested. “It would have been perfect if we shut ’em out,” Smart said.

His boss, Alabama coach Nick Saban, had the same fundamental aversion to satisfaction. For two former defensive backs, allowing 40 points was a mortal sin. But a win’s a win, and no one turns down a trophy. It was poignant, too. This was the end of 11 long years together. Smart seemed in awe of his mentor, specifically a “hell of a call” to go for an onside kick with the game tied in the fourth quarter, but more broadly what it took to win four championships since arriving in Tuscaloosa in 2007. “Nobody realizes how much mental effort, execution and ideas this guy puts into it,” Smart said. “He lives, sleeps and breathes football.”

Smart said he’d take wisdom from Saban. He’d also take the secrets to evaluating and recruiting at the highest level. In a word, it was everything.

Although it might have been stressful to pull double duty at Alabama, Smart said he thought winning a championship would help Georgia with national signing day rapidly approaching. Being on TV was valuable exposure. It creates momentum, he explained. “But at the end of the day,” he said, “you have to build your own [momentum]. You have to win yourself and you have to get good players and we have to build a good program.”

Saban could have his so-called 24-hour rule, enjoying the championship for one day before flushing it and moving on. Smart said he was giving himself only five hours before he moved on to the full-time job of turning Georgia into a playoff contender. Michail Carter, whom Smart visited days later, picked Georgia over Alabama, and the Bulldogs signed the No. 7 class in the country — a culmination of an all-out effort that began the moment Smart took the job. At his introductory news conference, Smart told reporters he wanted to use every minute he had toward recruiting. He then looked down at his watch and said, “As a matter of fact, I’m ready to go right now.”

Smart took what he learned under Saban, put his personal spin on it and created a powerhouse underpinned by toughness, competition and top-shelf talent. Fittingly, Georgia beat Alabama to win its first championship under Smart this past January. Fifteen players were drafted off that team, including a record-setting five first-round picks on defense, and nothing changed. The Bulldogs went undefeated during this year’s regular season, beat LSU by 20 points in the SEC championship game and advanced to play Ohio State in Saturday’s College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

With Saban and the Crimson Tide sitting at two losses and outside the playoff, Smart appears to have built the sport’s next budding dynasty. One that is looking more like vintage Alabama than Alabama does right now — physically imposing, stingy on defense and possessing a relentless attitude that’s a reflection of its head coach.

Smart said players could expect a culture shock once he took over. He delivered that and so much more.

“We hit,” Kirby Smart said. “We promote toughness. And it’s not just by me. It’s done by the leaders on the team.” Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

GEORGIA ATHLETIC DIRECTOR Greg McGarity didn’t need a primer on Smart when he was looking to replace Mark Richt as head coach late in 2015. They were already acquainted, and not just because Smart had gone to school at Georgia and was a running backs coach there in 2005. “I knew when he was recruiting against Georgia, for years and years the best players in the state were going to Alabama,” McGarity said. One of the top recruiters in the country, Smart had signed about two dozen players from his home state, including future NFL running backs Kenyan Drake and Alvin Kamara.

Beyond Smart’s connections, McGarity was impressed by his résumé — specifically how long he lasted working for the famously demanding Saban. While the Alabama staff was in a constant state of churn, Smart was a fixture for nine years.

When McGarity and Smart finally spoke face to face after the SEC championship game that December, there weren’t many unknowns. The meeting was more about determining fit, hearing Smart’s vision for the program and understanding the commitment it would require. “He knew what he needed,” McGarity said, “and it was our job to make that happen.”

At one point, Smart handed McGarity a flowchart containing all the positions and reporting responsibilities within the organization. The recruiting department would roughly double in size. The chart was so big and complex that it couldn’t fit on McGarity’s tablet. Positions were color-coded to distinguish salaried from hourly employees.

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McGarity wasn’t put off by the dollar figures, though, not even when they lured offensive line coach Sam Pittman away from Arkansas by giving him a $525,000 raise and paying a $250,000 buyout. McGarity said he was determined to empower Smart, rather than being a “helicopter” AD questioning him at every turn. But he does remember looking over the flowchart and wondering, “What are all these people going to do?”

“Once you saw a recruiting weekend in action, you said, ‘I get it,'” McGarity said. It wasn’t just the number of people required to pull off Smart’s vision of an official visit that impressed McGarity but also the coordination that took place, all the way down to the janitorial staff. From the moment a player set foot on campus, he and his family had a Georgia representative with them the entire time — a driver, a tour guide, a coach. There were no large groups where someone could get lost or let their mind wander. Everything was personalized.

“I’m always going to have a presence because I think it shows the players, it shows the people in the organization, that everything we do is important,” Smart said. “And if you’re not there and you’re not relevant, you know, what does that say you’re saying about that part of the organization? And I just think it’s too important to be involved.”

And everyone was called upon to pitch in. Jere Morehead, the school president, would give up his Saturday mornings to come talk to recruits. When Morehead couldn’t make it, McGarity, who retired in 2020, would step in.

Smart was a constant presence, displaying an outgoing personality that doesn’t often show up in interview settings. A former staff member said Smart has an uncanny ability to connect with players. A prankster, the staffer explained, “He’s messing around with everyone, all the recruits and their parents.”

Given a full year to forge relationships, in 2017 Georgia signed the No. 3-ranked class, according to ESPN, including future first-round picks Isaiah Wilson and Andrew Thomas. A year later, Smart and the Bulldogs finished No. 1. And it’s no coincidence that, since Smart’s arrival, no team has assembled a slate of mammoth defensive linemen like Georgia has.

Smart recalled going to the NFL combine as an assistant with the Miami Dolphins in 2006 and being told by Saban, “I want you to come here and sit by Bill.” To which Smart asked, “Bill who?” It was Belichick, whom Saban had worked with as defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns. Saban said to listen and learn. But as they followed Belichick, positioning themselves behind the defensive linemen getting ready to run the 40-yard dash, Smart was confused. “Why are we here?” he asked. “You can’t time the finish.” Saban explained, “No, Bill likes to look and see how big their ass is when they get down in the 40-yard stance because he wants to sign the biggest ass defensive linemen that he can.” Saban accounts for a number of critical factors when evaluating players: straight-line speed, short-area quickness, arm length, ankle and hip flexibility. But sometimes a big can is what’s required, “Because those ‘backers want to … be protected.”

Last year, Travon Walker was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt also were first-rounders. Current junior tackle Jalen Carter is a potential No. 1 pick in 2023.

From 2016 to 2018, Georgia spent $7 million on recruiting — $1.5 million more than any other public university in the Power 5, according to a USA Today Network study. And that’s not to mention the millions of dollars that went toward the kind of infrastructure recruits notice: new locker rooms, a new players lounge, a new indoor practice facility.

Robby Discher spent one season as a quality control coach at Georgia before taking the special teams coordinator job at Tulane. A former Group of 5 and FCS assistant, he marveled at the resources Smart had assembled. He singled out director of player personnel Matt Godwin for his skill in overseeing a robust recruiting operation. He called associate director of recruiting operations Angela Kirkpatrick a “stud.” He said director of recruiting relations David Cooper is incredible, working the phones day and night, connecting with prospects and coaches.

That’s all before you get to on-field assistants Smart hired, such as Dell McGee and Todd Hartley, who are some of the best recruiters in the country.

“I think it starts with him,” Discher said of Smart. “He’s a relentless recruiter. … He’s on you about it. If he asks [about a prospect], you better know.”

Kirby Smart celebrates with Kelee Ringo after Ringo’s 79-yard pick-six sealed a Georgia national title last season. Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

THERE’S A PHRASE Smart uses often to describe his job as a leader: confront and demand. Discher said Smart does a good job of setting a clear standard, whether it’s in recruiting or any other facet of the program. And, apparently, he misses nothing. “If a random guy on punt return should be inside of the guard and he’s head up on the guard, he sees it,” Discher said. “Not only is that player going to hear about it, so is the assistant coach. You can’t be soft and make it through that program.”

“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” Discher added. “He’s incredibly intelligent, and he’s gonna be on your ass.”

During the summer of 2016 — a month before his first game as head coach — Smart visited the Athens Country Club and spoke to fans about what to expect: the health of the team, the transfers added during the offseason and how Saban had called Georgia one of the best jobs in college football. Smart laughed and said his old boss was pulling a fast one with that comment, setting him up for high expectations.

But then Smart got on the subject of movies, specifically the decision to show the team “Friday The 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” before the last two scrimmages, and he gave a glimpse into the team psyche he was attempting to foster.

“That’s who we want them to be,” he said. “We want them to be scary. Just like the guy in the mask; you can’t kill him. He keeps coming back. As soon as you do kill them, well, here comes the sequel.”

Jeb Blazevich graduated and left Georgia after the 2017 season, but the former tight end kept a memento at his new job selling insurance. It was a printout of the Tuesday practice schedule, which he pinned to a wall in his office. So whenever he had a bad day, he said, he could turn to the schedule and remember old times.

“Especially in August,” he recalled, “we would all sit around and be like, ‘Well, boys, I just got chewed out at work, I screwed something up, client’s pissed. But it could be worse.'”

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It could be Bloody Tuesday.

When Smart arrived, Tuesday stopped being just another practice during the week. It became a two-hour test asking, essentially, how tough can you possibly be? They’d run as a team and practice in full pads. It would be ones vs. ones, full go. No special teams, no red zone. No stopping to catch your breath while they change out personnel every 5 minutes. “No special situations, you’re just playing fast football,” Blazevich said. “A super physical day.”

It was a shock, too, because Monday — the first day of practice after a game on Saturday — was usually light. Tuesday was the “heaviest day” by far, Blazevich said, and every day after that tapered off in terms of intensity. Coaches would emphasize its importance, telling players they took care of them the rest of the week for a reason. “How you practice,” they’d say, “is how you play.”

“The whole day is about setting your jaw,” quarterback Stetson Bennett said. “It’s a mindset day. That’s when we go good on good, and we try to shove it up the defense and they try to spit it right back out. And it’s competitive, and we’re talkin’ trash, and Coach Smart’s on the microphone, and it’s almost like a game.”

Smart doesn’t need a microphone to get his point across, but boy oh boy does it add an exclamation point on things when his voice is booming out of a speaker. Last month, someone was able to record Smart from across the street when he ripped into cornerback Kelee Ringo ahead of Georgia’s game against Tennessee. “Kelee, all this finger-pointing bulls—?” Smart was heard saying. “Every other team in America, you know what they do? They say, ‘It’s his fault! It’s his fault! It’s his fault!’ Why do they get f—ing layups? Because people don’t concentrate!”

“That was nothing,” Discher said. “That was a normal Tuesday.”

For the record, Ringo, who signed with Georgia in 2020, loves Tuesdays. He said it “molds you into a good player” and “gets you ready for Saturday.” They bring up Bloody Tuesday during pregame, he said, as a reminder to “impose our will and just be physical.”

Is it difficult to endure that kind of mental and physical toll every week? Of course it is. Ringo said he warns recruits all the time, “If you come to Georgia, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be painful. There are going to be some days where it’s really hard to keep your chin up.”

Other coaches have adjusted to the current climate, not wanting to run off players who can easily leave via the transfer portal. It’s been suggested by the media and some of Saban’s former players that the 71-year-old is a kinder, gentler version of his younger self.

Smart is 46 and seems just as ready to run through a wall as he did during his playing days. Smart jumped higher than Ringo did for his game-sealing pick-six against Alabama during last year’s national championship game.

Being tough, being physical, practicing ones vs. ones, Bennett said, “It’s at the foundation of this place.”

Those Tuesday practices set the tone. Co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp called them “a thing of beauty” and “the way you’re supposed to get after it.” Offensive lineman Sedrick Van Pran said it gets chippy and fights are common. But it’s OK. It’s like building calluses, he said. “It gets you acclimated to what they expect in the game, because honest, football isn’t easy.”

“We hit,” Smart said. “We promote toughness. And it’s not just by me. It’s done by the leaders on the team. And I think they embody that. They embrace that. And when you talk to people after you play ’em, they [say], ‘Man, y’all are a really physically tough team. And we respect that.'”

“Nobody realizes how much mental effort, execution and ideas this guy puts into it,” Kirby Smart said of mentor Nick Saban. “He lives, sleeps and breathes football.” AP Photo/Dave Martin, File

LOOKING BACK, the thing Blazevich appreciated about Smart was his consistency. There was a point during their first season in 2016, he said, when it felt as if the wheels were getting ready to come off. The Bulldogs had just lost to Vanderbilt and dropped to 4-3. The media was tearing them apart and everyone was dreading the bye week when Smart called a group of veteran players into his office.

Blazevich, who was part of the group, remembered Smart being calm and starting out by saying, “I know everyone’s scared.” But he said that nothing had changed just because they had lost a game. The bye week wouldn’t be altered. “That gave me a lot of confidence that, all right, we’re not just acting emotionally, we’re not figuring this thing out as we go,” Blazevich said. “Like, there is a plan in place that we can trust.”

They lost to Florida the next week but didn’t collapse. Instead, they went on to win four of their final five games, including beating TCU in the Liberty Bowl, which helped set the tone for the next season.

Despite starting 2017 off with nine straight wins and reaching No. 1 in the AP poll, Smart didn’t let off the gas. In fact, he pushed harder, worried about the effect of so much positive press.

On Mondays, Smart wanted to set the tone. So at the start of every practice, during stretch period, he played a song by The O’Jays. It was a little on the nose and way too old for the audience, but he dialed up “Back Stabbers.” Early on, there’s this passage:

Blades are long, clenched tight in their fist
Aimin’ straight at your back
And I don’t think they’ll miss
What they do? They smilin’ in your face
All the time, they want to take your place
The back stabbers (Back stabbers)

So that was the soundtrack the first time Georgia reached the playoff, beat Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl and lost to Alabama in the national championship game. Four years later, the Bulldogs got their revenge.

The song is still in rotation. Linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson said Smart plays it to remind them “They’re not with us.”

Bennett gladly recites all the ways in which “they” are wrong.

First, look at the defense, he said, which lost five first-round picks and hasn’t missed a beat.

“You know, that’s why you recruit good players,” he said. “They just come in, and now all these guys on defense are hungry because everybody [during the] preseason is tellin’ ’em that they’re not gonna be this, they’re not gonna do that.”

Now look at the offense.

“Everybody on offense is hungry and ready to go,” Bennett said, “because everybody said, ‘Oh, well, the only reason you won last year was because of your all-world defense,’ as if that’s some sort of slight to our championship ring.”

Now look at the entire team.

“We’re hungry,” Bennett said. “We’re sittin’ over here and sayin’, ‘Oh, you’re saying that about us. Really? Blah, blah, blah.'”

Talking to players, there’s no sense of entitlement. There’s no letdown. Dumas-Johnson said they enjoy feeling like underdogs. They enjoy the feeling of disrespect — all because they weren’t ranked No. 1 at the beginning of the season.

No. 1 in the preseason was, of course, Alabama, which seemed to play not to lose. At one point, Saban questioned his team’s emotion, wondering why players had stopped chanting in the tunnel before games as they had in the past.

Alabama used to have an edge, manufacturing it through competition and slights in the media, real or imagined. But that edge appears to have dulled in recent years, with the Tide struggling to put away teams late (see: losses at Tennessee and LSU) and playing down to competition (see: Texas A&M and Texas).

The edge belongs to Georgia now.

Jim Nagy runs the Senior Bowl, which is equal parts college all-star game and NFL draft showcase. When he watches Georgia, he sees the Alabama blueprint in action — the high-end talent, specifically on defense. Saban used to load up on big, strong linemen, Nagy said, but now it appears Smart has “cornered the market on those guys.”

There’s even a parallel on offense. Remember when Alabama used to have game-manager quarterbacks and multiple bruising running backs? It’s flipped to where that’s now Georgia with the ultimate blue-collar QB in Bennett and a trio of hard-nosed backs in Kenny McIntosh, Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton.

“You’ve gotten full recruiting classes that have cycled through now, right? And they’re just building on each other,” Nagy said. “So the culture is established. There’s a hunger there. I think where Alabama kind of ran into it was after they’d won a bunch — and this is just hearing this from the coaches on the staff there — after they’d won multiple national championships, they would have kids come on the recruiting visits and see all the trophies and then they would sign. And part of them felt like they already helped win those trophies when they didn’t. I don’t think there’s that, um, what’s the word I’m trying to use?”


“Right,” he said. “I don’t think there’s that entitlement yet in the Georgia program. I think they still seem like a hungry group.”

When Smart left Alabama seven years ago, he didn’t carry those four championships out the door and onto the plane to go home. No one at Georgia inherited that success the moment he arrived in Athens.

All he got from beating Clemson was momentum in recruiting. All he got from Saban was a blueprint. And even then it was his job to build on both and make them his own.

He did that and so much more.

Even former Florida and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier — a constant thorn in the Bulldogs’ side who once joked that he liked playing them early in the season because he could count on 2-3 players being suspended — had to admit that Georgia will be “hard to catch.” They’re so much bigger along the line of scrimmage than they were in the past, he said, and every year they’re around the top of the recruiting rankings. Last week, Georgia landed a seventh consecutive top-three signing class.

“They’re a big, good-looking team,” Spurrier said. “Kirby’s done an excellent job with their attitude and the way they play, the way they prepare each week. They don’t get full of themselves. They get ready to play every week, and they have a plan, and the plan is to win ’em all. And, so far, they’re on schedule to do that.”