UGA running back Tyson Browning was involved with one of the single most exciting plays of the Mark Richt era — a 93-yard screen play for a touchdown against LSU in 2003. It’s the kind of moment that would live forever in the program’s folklore if not for one thing — UGA went on to lose to the Tigers that day.
“If we won the game, the fans would’ve remembered it forever,” Browning said before Saturday’s G-Day spring game, with a look that suggested he might enjoy his image in paintings and on video highlights a little more often.
The final score in Baton Rouge, La. that September day was 17-10. The Bulldogs did regroup after that loss and found a way to win the SEC East, earning a rematch with LSU in the SEC championship game, but the second meeting between the two teams was even worse — a blowout in favor of the Tigers, who would go on to win that year’s BCS title. For UGA though, it was another season — of which Richt seemed to have many — of being unquestionably good, but far from great.
Coming close to the pinnacle of achievement without actually crossing the threshold was a new notion in 2003, just Richt’s third year on the job. However, those kinds of years had become commonplace by Richt’s final season in 2015 and their compounding disappointment might have produced some negative energy among recent UGA teams.
“I just think with some of these younger guys, the love of being a Dawg, the passion to win — week in and week out — was different,” Browning said. “I just didn’t feel like the guys had been playing with the same anger and drive that we played with.”
Browning believes Smart’s status as a former UGA letterman makes him uniquely qualified to reignite the fire in the program.
“Kirby takes it seriously. Just like all of us (ex-players) do. It’s personal for him,” Browning said.
This is a sentiment shared by former UGA defensive end Freddie Gilbert, who played for Vince Dooley at UGA in the 80’s before playing four seasons in the NFL for the Broncos and Cardinals. “Now we’ve got one of our own guys in charge now. It’s just a different feel,” Gilbert told DawgNation.
Some will say that feeling was noticeable on Saturday given the record-breaking crowd of 93,000 that was on hand for G-Day. But to former UGA quarterback Cory Phillips, the good feelings were actually evident the night before.
“We got here (to Athens) last night, and there seemed to be a lot of people here,” Phillips said “The enthusiasm is high — which makes it fun.”
Phillips believes Smart’s energy and the way fans are responding to it sends a valuable message to recruits, and Phillips has been impressed with the first-year coach’s aggressive approach to gaining the attention of the next generation of college stars.
“I don’t think those guys sleep,” he said.
It isn’t just recruits who are being won over. Ex-players like Phillips are being courted too. Phillips said he couldn’t even count the number of messages and correspondences that have gone on between the former lettermen and the football program since Smart took over.
That level of communication is a welcome addition to the UGA program by Smart, according to Gilbert, who likes everything he’s heard from the coach so far.
“When we found out he was going to be hired it just changed the whole attitude,” Gilbert said.
Of course, the positive vibes being produced by Smart will be put to the test once real games begin. There will no doubt eventually be some disappointments for Smart, like the loss Browning suffered at LSU in 2003. How Smart leads the program after those moments is what truly matters.
That is — however — something to be considered in the future. For now, Smart is the coach who can do no wrong. He asked for 93,000 and got his wish, and among the crowd on Saturday was no small number of fellow former UGA players proud to see one of their own writing the next chapter in the history of the program they love.