ATLANTA – Kirby Smart came to his media appearance Monday night ready for one question. And the way he pounced on it showed yet another way he’s learned from his old boss.
The occasion was an Atlanta donor event, where beforehand Georgia’s new head coach held an interview session. The subject was Jonathan Ledbetter.
Some necessary background: Two weeks ago, in the immediate aftermath of Ledbetter’s DUI arrest, his second alcohol-related arrest since March, Smart confirmed that the sophomore defensive end would be suspended (at least two games, as mandated by UGA policy) but declined to say how many. Nobody pressed him further.
Then last week Smart went through the so-called “car wash” at ESPN, where he apparently was hit with more questions from ESPN reporters on what Ledbetter’s suspension would be. At one point he told one ESPN reporter that the amount of games Ledbetter would be suspended would “surprise everybody.”
So naturally local beat reporters, who otherwise probably would have waited till sometime in August to ask again about Ledbetter’s suspension, asked what Smart meant by the “surprise everybody” comment.
The coach briefly answered that “it’s not a set, determined amount as of now, it’s a situation that’s kind of fluid and moving.” Then Smart went into what appeared to be the pre-planned statement:
“It’s more important to me that you guys would ask how Jonathan’s doing. Because nobody asks that. The only question I get whenever I go somewhere is what’s Jonathan’s suspension going to be. I’m waiting on one of y’all to come up and ask, How’s Jonathan doing?”
That’s fine. That’s admirable. It’s also straight out of Nick Saban’s playbook.
Saban is renowned for using media appearances to seem as if he was going after reporters, when in fact he was sending a message to his team, or using it as a recruiting tool. Even two weeks ago at SEC media days, when Saban and Paul Finebaum had an on-air exchange about two of his players who were arrested (and not suspended because they were cleared). SI.com’s Andy Staples opined that Saban, based on his long track record, knew exactly what he was doing when he squared off with Finebaum.
“All of it was calculated, as is almost anything Saban does when a camera is trained on him,” Staples wrote.
And everyone who has covered Saban would nod their head in agreement.
Whether it was getting ahead of negative news by changing the subject, or jumping on reporters for not seeming to respect Charleston Southern, Saban knows that an animated sound bite makes good television, and that his players and recruits watch television.
Smart saw this approach work for Saban for the past nine years. So it’s no surprise that when the Ledbetter question came on Monday, he was ready. It sends a message to Smart’s own players, Ledbetter, and players Smart is recruiting, that, essentially, Kirby has your back. It was the same message Saban was conveying two weeks ago when he went out of his way to defend his two players.
None of this should really bother media members. We have to develop thick skin anyway. And Smart probably understands that until he announces a firm suspension for a key player – Ledbetter was on the way to earning a starting job – he’s going to be asked about it. That doesn’t mean media members don’t care about how Ledbetter is doing. Last month I watched Ledbetter interact sincerely with cancer patients at Camp Sunshine. I tweeted out a photo of that interaction the day after Ledbetter’s DUI arrest, trying to provide a fuller picture of the young man.
But the media also has a job to do.
And so does Smart.