When Kirby Smart returned to his alma mater, he already had a pretty good template for success.
He might as well have been wearing a wrist band with the letters “WWND.”
What Would Nick Do?
In just two short years, Smart has taken Georgia to the cusp of its first national championship since 1980 , largely by following the process laid out by his former boss, Alabama’s Nick Saban.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that to win the title, Smart will have to beat the man who taught him so well.
Bring it on, says Saban, in the twilight of his career but still on top of his game.
“I have a lot of respect for all the guys that worked for me,” the Crimson Tide coach said. “I’m happy to see them doing well wherever they go, and when we have to play against them, I’m sure they’re doing everything they can to beat us for their team and their players. We’re going to do the same with our players. It’s not personal.”
While some would have you believe this is one of those potential changing-of-the-guard games, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Saban hasn’t stared down a true coaching peer in the Southeastern Conference since Urban Meyer left Florida, and it would be foolish to anoint Smart to fill that role even if Georgia defeats the Crimson Tide in Monday night’s national championship game.
Saban’s greatness is in the longevity.
It will take more than one title to take down perhaps the greatest coach in college football history.
Like the man at the helm, Saban’s program is a self-perpetuating behemoth that never sits still . His dynasty has endured for a full decade in an era of increased parity because it never takes time to revel in its accomplishments. Any celebrations are fleeting. When there’s a rare stumble along the way, he always gets right back up.
Win or lose, Saban will go to work Tuesday with the same mindset, singularly focused on what it will take to build his next championship team. At 66, he shows no signs of slowing down, no signs of being the least bit satisfied with what he’s accomplished, no signs of loosening his grip over every little aspect of football program he calls “the organization.”
Those are lessons that Smart surely learned well during 11 seasons spent on Saban’s staff, first at LSU, then with the Miami Dolphins, but mostly at Alabama, where he earned enough trust to be anointed coordinator of Saban’s fearsome defenses.
“It’s a demanding approach of never, literally never, taking your foot off the accelerator,” said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who will be part of the broadcast team for the title game. “They do a good job of loving on the guys when it’s the training table or you’re in the locker room or whatever. But as far as when it’s time to work, man, it’s unlike any other place you go as far as how demanding Nick Saban and Kirby Smart are, and how involved they are. I mean, I don’t know how many calories they burn during practice, but they’re involved.”
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Smart certainly came across as a Saban clone as soon as he was handed the keys to the Bulldogs, a sleeping giant of a program that never quite lived up to its full potential under predecessor Mark Richt.
For as long as anyone could remember, going back to the days of Vince Dooley, Georgia coaches had always held their weekly news conferences on Tuesday. But Saban performs this function on Monday, so that’s the way it is now with Smart. Also following the lead of his mentor, Smart banned freshmen and assistant coaches from talking to the media, which meant Jake Fromm — who took over as the starting quarterback in the second game of the season — was off-limits to reporters until after the SEC championship game, when league rules require everyone to be available.
But Smart’s battened-down dealings were the media were mere window dressing.
He knew the real key to Saban’s success.
“Recruiting really good players that are really big and really fast,” Smart said. “Then you have to block them, OK, or you have to be able to run the ball against them or you have to be able to defend the wideouts and the corner. It comes down to a lot more than his tendencies because his tendencies are very similar to a lot of good coaches: smart, good decisions, protect the ball, play great defense, kick your butt on special teams.”
When Smart got to Georgia, he saw a roster that was talented at the skill positions but lacking in the trenches. He made it a priority to sign big, strong, quick lineman on both sides of the ball, knowing that’s the foundation of any great program and certainly the reason that Saban has stayed No. 1 for so long.
For good measure, Smart’s also had stunning success recruiting the most important position on the field. After taking over for Richt, the new coach persuaded top quarterback recruit Jacob Eason to stay in the fold. Even though he started as a true freshman, Smart landed another five-star prospect in Fromm, who wound up claiming the job when Eason was hurt in the season opener. Now, even though Fromm is seemingly set for at least next two years(Eason will almost surely transfer), Georgia picked off the nation’s No. 1 dual-threat quarterback prospect, Justin Fields, in an early signing class that was a consensus choice as the best in the country .
There’s no longer any doubt that Georgia made the right call with its much-debated decision to dump Richt, trading in a really good coach for a potentially great one. Smart shows no signs of becoming another Jim McElwain, a former Saban coordinator who got off to a strong start at Florida but flamed out in less than three seasons.
Can Smart become the new king of the SEC?
Get back to us in a few years on that one.