Kirby Smart-Georgia football-sec
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and Georgia coach Kirby Smart meet the media at the final Rose Bowl pregame press conference. (CURTIS COMPTON/AJC)

Kirby Smart on coaching in the SEC: ‘It’s not for everybody’

Lincoln Riley surprised many when he left Oklahoma for USC. The Sooners have been the better program over the past decade and were headed for the resource-rich SEC in the coming seasons.

Riley’s move left some wondering if he wanted to avoid the SEC due to the intense levels of competition. Ed Orgeron was fired not even two years after winning a national championship at LSU. Dan Mullen lost his job this season as well, less than 12 months after winning the SEC East.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart is well aware of the difficulties that come from playing in the SEC. He’s in his sixth season at Georgia and it hasn’t always been easy.

He understands the pressure to deliver at these big-time programs.

“The amount of pressure that’s put on coaching staffs to win now is immense,” Smart said. “I think you have to understand when you get into this business, the nature of this business and the high stakes that are involved in the SEC coaching, that’s part of it. It’s not for everybody.

Mullen and Orgeron aren’t the only coaches that have been churned out by the conference. In fact, Smart is somewhat of an outlier at this point. He’s one of four coaches to be at his current job prior to the start of the 2019 season. The other three are Nick Saban, Mark Stoops and Jimbo Fisher.

Between the constant grind of recruiting, hours of game planning and the passionate fan bases, the pressure ramps up very quickly.

“I think people find that out when they get in our league, not only how physically tough it is, but the grind in recruiting and year-round transfers and portal,” Smart said. “It’s taxing, so you’d better have a very quality staff, a great administration, and you’d better be able to manage a lot of situations.”

Smart has been able to handle the heat, going 64-14 in his time at Georgia. He’s built Georgia into the best team in the country, with the Bulldogs entering Saturday’s SEC championship game with a 12-0 record.

Florida and LSU both hired their new coaches this week, with the Gators picking Billy Napier and LSU splurging Brian Kelly. Napier is familiar with the league, as he worked with Smart and Saban at Alabama. Napier spent the past four seasons as the coach of Louisiana.

Related: What Florida hiring Billy Napier means for Georgia football

Kelly made a big move from Notre Dame. He’ll be paid handsomely to do so, but there’s arguably even greater pressure at LSU than there is at Notre Dame. Kelly took the Fighting Irish to the playoffs twice. But the last three coaches at LSU all won a national championship.

“I appreciate those who want to embrace the challenge and want to do it in the right way because I’m convinced that in the Southeastern Conference we can win, we can win with our heads held high,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “I’m proud of the people who have chosen to become a part of this conference in recent months.”

Sankey did add that there still isn’t aren’t set plans for the Sooners and Texas Longhorns to join the league prior to July 1, 2025. The Sooners went 10-2 this past season while Texas went 5-7.

Smart will get a chance to add to his resume on Saturday when he takes on Alabama and Saban. For all that Smart has accomplished at Georgia, the Bulldogs have not yet beaten the Crimson Tide. A win would be big not just for Smart, but for those at the other SEC schools.