ATLANTA — Kirby Smart has gone out of his way all week to emphasize that he’s not like Nick Saban and he’s not trying to be like Nick Saban.
You know what? He’s exactly like Saban.
To his point, he’s not trying to be like Saban. He just can’t help it.
Anybody who works under one coach for 11 football seasons, as Smart did with Saban, is just naturally going to adopt a lot of his style and philosophy. That’s true whether one works for Saban or Vince Dooley or a high school coach.
But it’s especially true when that coach is having as much success as Saban. At Alabama, Saban and Smart won four national championships and four SEC championships together. They were also together for single seasons at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins.
It wasn’t something Smart set out to do. His career coaching objective was not to become a branch on the Saban coaching tree. The way they came together is quite arbitrary and boring, actually. Smart interviewed for an opening on Saban’s staff at LSU in late January of 2004 during the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
“I didn’t want the job because it was Nick Saban; I wanted the job because I didn’t have a job,” said Smart, at the time a graduate assistant at Florida State. “It was my first career SEC job, so it was a great opportunity for me.”
Little could he have known then how great.
And now, as they get set to face off on college football’s stage, it’s quite evident just how much they’re alike.
Sitting on opposite sides of a stage Sunday in the grand ballroom of the Downtown Sheraton, with the College Football Playoff championship trophy between them, Saban and Smart could not have appeared more similar. In a game of giants, they’re both relatively short. Saban is now slightly shorter, but that’s mostly the effects of gravity on a 66-year-old body. They’re both former college defensive backs, Saban at Kent State and Smart at Georgia. At rest, their faces both fall into the same natural scowl.
The similarities extend to their coaching styles. They’re both defensive coordinators at heart, moving up through the ranks as secondary coaches. As head coaches, neither takes the CEO approach. Saban is famously hands-on during Crimson Tide practices, throwing passes during DB drills and singling out a player at any moment to emphasize the most minute aspect of fundamental instruction, or just to chew them out.
Smart does the exact same thing. He throws to DBs and receivers. He runs back and forth from one end of the field to the other to be with either the offense or the defense. At the end of practices he’s sweaty and hoarse, same as his old boss.
Yet, Georgia’s coach remains insistent that they’re dissimilar. He was on Saturday, at least.
“I’m a different person than Nick,” Smart said during the media day extravaganza. “I’m not trying to emulate him. He’s got his own way and I’ve got mine.”
Smart was singing a different tune on Sunday while sharing a stage with Saban. More than anything, he allowed, he has tried to follow Saban’s lead organizationally at Georgia.
“Probably the single greatest thing is just the level of commitment to the organization, holding everybody in the organization to a standard that he kind of embraced himself,” Smart said. “He never asked anybody in the organization to work any harder than he did. He held every person on the staff — and I’m not talking about just the coaching staff, I’m talking about the entire organization — to be at their best.”
That can be validated at Georgia in oh so many ways, from the size of the Bulldogs’ football support staff to the structure of practices to routines before games.
Alabama and Georgia found themselves in a bind for Sunday night as both schools were trying to book the same movie theater at the same time. Alas, the cinema was able to accommodate both teams, building in a 10-minute offset so that they could come and leave without having to interact 24 hours before the most momentous game of the year.
Asked what film they were going to see, Smart said “12 Strong.”
“Yeah, it’s a good movie,” Saban interjected. His team had watched that very movie the night before their Sugar Bowl semifinal against Clemson last week.
“I’m just doing whatever he did,” Smart cracked.
It’s true. But it goes much deeper than pregame routine for these two. Not only have they spent all that time together over 11 seasons with three different teams, they’ve also shared life. This is where the hard-crusted Saban can get a little soft.
Two years ago, when he was asked about Smart in the lead-up to the National Championship Game against Clemson in Phoenix, Saban nearly came to tears at the microphone. Sunday, he was more composed, but still uncharacteristically transparent about the special feelings he has for his young protégé and his family.
“Terry [Saban’s wife] was there when his babies were born,” Saban said. “I mean, you become a part of a family. That’s what you do when you’re together for a long time. I think there’s a special appreciation for those people in your family, the contribution they made to the success that you had. And you always want to see them do well when they leave because that’s what they worked hard for, and you’re glad that they got the opportunity.”
Those who have long covered the Alabama program say Saban’s fondness for Smart has always been evident. They say he sees a little of himself in Smart.
Rarely if ever, we’re told, has Smart been the victim of one of Saban’s infamous tirades. He has been known, as Lane Kiffin might tell you, for tearing into an assistant if things aren’t being done the way he expected, or directed.
“I don’t really ever recall getting really upset at Kirby,” Saban said. “I’m sure that he can remember a few times that I got on him unjustifiably, and maybe a couple times where maybe it was justified. I don’t know. But, look, it’s always about trying to make somebody better and make them understand. … But Kirby did as good a job as anybody ever did for us in the time that he was with us and whatever his role was and especially when he was in a position of responsibility.”
No, for Saban, Smart is more than a branch on his coaching tree. He’s more like those giant magnolias we have here in the Deep South, where a branch tunnels its way back down into the ground, then shoots up skyward in the form of another whole tree.
Which is not to say Saban will be all right with having Smart and Georgia beat him Monday night. None of Saban’s former assistants ever have beaten him. As has been recited a thousand times this past week, Saban is 11-0 against head coaches that once worked for him. The average margin of victory in those games has been 28 points.
Alabama is favored in this one, too, and by a goodly amount even though it’s the team carrying the lower seed and entering the playoffs without a conference championship. But that’s not surprising, considering the Crimson Tide have Saban on their sideline.
Then again, maybe Georgia does, too.