There is a learning curve for a first-time head coach. Kirby Smart may have studied under one of the greats, had a drawer full of championship rings and brought the passion and familiarity with Georgia to make him seem like the perfect choice. But until a coach is standing in the center of the practice field for the first time, nobody really knows.
Year 2 is going to be better than Year 1. Smart firmly believes that. History supports it. Players know what to expect, but equally important, the coach knows what to expect and has a better pulse on his program.
Smart conceded in a conversation that he has some “regrets” about some of his decisions in his first season at Georgia. Not game-management decisions, but the way he handled some practices leading to games. He might have pushed players too hard, particularly down the stretch of the season. He might have overestimated how much they could take. It was a difficult thing for Smart to recognize at the time because his first priority was to change the culture and practice habits.
The Bulldogs won a game at South Carolina in October. The game was postponed to a Sunday because of a hurricane. The next day in Athens, Smart had his players practice. Georgia lost the next game. To Vanderbilt. At home. Maybe there were other reasons for the defeat, but for Smart, the problems started Monday.
“I’ve talked to people. It’s the only way to grow,” he said. “I felt like towards the end of the year, we were a tired football team.”
There were other days he believed he should’ve backed off, decisions that may have contributed to Georgia finishing a disappointing 8-5 and in the Liberty Bowl. Below is a transcript of my conversation with Smart:
Q: You played and coached under a number of head coaches, but can anything prepare you for the job?
A: It’s not different from a game-planning perspective. The X’s and O’s aren’t different. The film I watch is the same I watched before. It’s the presentation to the team. It’s dealing with the media and all of those other things that you have to adjust to. But somebody told me a long to me ago you’re never really ready for it. You just adapt to it because it’s nothing you can really prepare for.
Q: It’s different when everybody is now looking at you.
A: It’s more like: What do I have to do to make the organization stronger, the team better from a tactical standpoint? I’m not concerned that everybody’s looking at me. I know that’s the way it is but that’s not my thought process. The only way to grow is to be uncomfortable.
Q: You said early on that too many Georgia players had a sense of entitlement. Has that changed?
A: I don’t know that you can change the culture in one year. Within the program, the people and players understand that can be a concern. There’s entitlement with reason and there’s entitlement without reason. At Alabama you went through entitlement without reason early on, and then there was entitlement with reason. Either is extremely dangerous. Here, my big thing is, you better do something first. That’s all of us, not just the players.
Q: What do you attribute the entitlement to?
A: The media world makes it really hard for [recruits] to come here and not feel entitled. They read about themselves in one of the biggest media outlets in Atlanta and I think they come in feeling more entitled than kids going to LSU or Alabama or even Auburn, where they don’t have that same media circus around them. It’s triple for the kid from Atlanta than it is for the kid from Mobile, Alabama.
Q: What will it take to get Georgia to an elite level?
A: No. 1, recruiting. We don’t have four solid classes here. The first class lacked offensive linemen. The junior class has absolutely no DBs because there was a mass exodus because a lot of them didn’t think they were being treated well. There’s a hole in each class. Beyond that, there’s some culture things, some toughness, having the right belief system and structure.
Q: You had some painful losses last season. Ole Miss, Florida and Georgia Tech come to mind. What were your teaching moments as a head coach?
A: Nothing that stood out to me from a game-management standpoint, whether to go for it or not, whether to kick a field goal or not. If anything it would be more the week of practice. The week of Vanderbilt, coming off the South Carolina game having been on Sunday, I regret coming back and practicing on Monday. It was a Sunday to their bodies. Why practice? I’ve talked to people. It’s the only way to grow. I felt like towards the end of the year, we were a tired football team. Maybe we shouldn’t have practiced in pads as much. We had no [indoor practice facility], but we could have just not practiced. I felt some regrets about that.
Q: It must be hard as a first-time head coach who wants to fix things to think, “OK, maybe I should back off here.”
A: For me, the first year was really about trying to establish a culture about the way to practice because I’ve seen that way work. The first thing you have to do is convince. You spend more time convincing players than you do coaching. But you also have to know what your team can do, what they can handle.
Q: That was a problem for you?
A: Our roster probably had 50 guys who really played. There’ll probably be 70 guys this year. The cumulative burden of playing is heavier when it’s 50 than when it’s 70. So you have to decide: Are you going to back off or are you going to try to push them through? I think it will pay off more this year that we pushed them last year. But the regret looking back is: Were we tired? Did we not finish against Georgia Tech because of that? Those are all things that are introspective for me.
Q: Do you feel you’re going to be a better head coach this season?
A: Oh, sure. You grow as you do this. There’s not one coach I’ve spoken to who didn’t say Year 1 to Year 2 is the greatest learning curve.
Q: You’re pretty hands-on. Many coaches have become more like CEOs. Are you trying to find that balance?
A: I’m not ever going to be comfortable not being hands-on. My greatest asset is my passion. I want the players to feel my passion and energy. If I’m going to do it overboard, I’d rather do it that way than the reverse. That’s easy to say in Year 2 and a lot of coaches change over the years. But there’s one coach I worked for who’s never changed.
Q: Do you bristle at those who say you’re only doing things a certain way because Nick Saban did it that was?
A: That’s what people think. I get it. There are a lot of things I still follow from that coaching tree. So does Jimbo [Fisher]. So does Jim McElwain. So does Will [Muschamp]. But there’s also a lot of things each one of us have gone our own way about. I’m a different person. I don’t want to get into how because that would be like me calling him out.
Q: What’s your expectation level for this year’s team?
A: The same every year: Get the most out of the team. Do I feel better? Sure. We have more players who’ve played and we have a quarterback who’s played 13 games. You have no idea the value that brings. Last year we had no idea, to be honest, if he would start at this point. We know a lot more about what this kid can do now. He hasn’t played what we call quarterback-efficient in games, but he’s been able to do it in practices now.
Q: Were you doing back flips when Nick Chubb and other underclassmen decided to come back for this season?
A: I was very thankful. I thought it would help ensure that guys are buying into the program. That first year at Alabama, more guys left than maybe should have because they didn’t feel they were a part of the new system or it was too tough. But regardless of us, they made the right decision for them.