ATHENS – A popular saying in Dawg Nation is, “Hunker down you hairy Bulldogs!” Georgia coach Kirby Smart has very much adhered to that adage since the end of last season. Though in his case, one might substitute “bunker down” for “hunker down.”
To say Smart has kept a low profile since the Bulldogs’ finished the 2018 campaign with a whimper would be an understatement. Well, unless you’re a blue-chip recruit, that is. If so, then you might’ve grown tired of hearing from Georgia’s fourth-year head coach.
But for the rest of us, we haven’t heard enough. Smart has practically gone underground. He hasn’t held a press conference since the postgame of the 28-21 loss to Texas in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. That’s despite some rather notable happenings within and around the program since then. Not the least of those happenings was National Signing Day in recruiting, which initiated a coach’s news conference at virtually every school in America.
Not Georgia. And it’s not like that would’ve been a negative exercise. The Bulldogs finished No. 2 in the nation on that front, a year after finishing No. 1.
But there have been some major developments besides recruiting. You might note that Georgia lost an offensive coordinator, bestowed new titles on five assistant coaches – two of whom became first-time coordinators – has had a major reshuffling in the area of analysts and support staff, had at least two significant player transfers and another enter the “portal,” and had an inordinate number of juniors bolt for the NFL. Yet all we’ve heard from Smart since the Bulldogs left New Orleans is a cryptic statement issued here and there from the school or a few very select “appearances.”
I say “select” just because none of them have included an exchange with UGA’s primary beat corps. On the rare occasions when those who cover the team most intently have actually heard from Smart on any of these subjects or others, it has been from a third-party standpoint from some of the Bulldogs’ strategic partners.
As always, DawgNation and other outlets dutifully relay those thoughts and statements to the masses. But it’s not the same as the free and open exchange one gets in a question-and-answer fashion from an unbiased press.
That’s not really my point today, though. My intent is not to complain, I promise. It’s only to inform and share my observances from my perspective as your longtime devoted correspondent. And I’ve actually found Smart’s postseason behavior to be quite fascinating.
I’m really not entirely sure what to make of it. I’m certainly not worried about it. Now that we’re a mere six days from the start of spring practice and Smart’s annual news conference that will precede it on Tuesday, we’ll all hear from Georgia’s coach soon enough. And then we’ll talk with Smart regularly throughout the course of the 15-practice session, which will culminate with the G-Day Game on April 20.
There wouldn’t be an occasion to meet with him before then anyway. It’s my understanding that Smart is with his family somewhere far off in The Caribbean, and deservedly so with the all time, effort and energy he puts into the job of trying to win games and defeat 13 other teams in every other aspect of playing football in the SEC.
But I’m sure that Tuesday’s news conference will be the usual regimented and time-constrained affair it always is. You can always be certain that Smart’s press conferences will end precisely at 20 minutes, after Hall of Fame sports communications director Claude Felton looks up from the timer on his smart phone to say, “last question.” And I’m also certain that Smart will, as ever, be focused on the future and not interested in talking at all about the past.
Therein, though, lies the problem. There is a lot of past that’s gone without being talked about. Most of it is good, mind you, as in another 11-win season, another SEC Championship appearance, another season of great expectations on the horizon. But there is also some not so good stuff discuss.
Smart touched on a little of that ever so briefly in his latest “exclusive” interview. Smart had what I understand to have been a seven-minute exchange recently with the esteemed Tony Barnhart, who was making is annual spring tour of the league for the SEC Network. As always, you can read an account of Barnhart’s interview right here on DawgNation.
To his credit, in that compressed window, Barnhart did get to couple of the important points. He asked Smart what went wrong in the late collapse against Alabama and then, of course, what elicited such a poor effort/performance against Texas in the Sugar Bowl.
I was glad to see that because I believe Georgia’s preparation — and primarily the team’s attitude — for the Sugar Bowl as one of several missteps Smart made last season. (The others included mostly special team’s strategic mistakes, as in LSU fake field goal, Auburn fake field goal and Alabama fake punt.) I felt like the way Smart handled the College Football Playoff snub, the Justin Fields transfer situation and the decision of Deandre Baker to skip the Sugar Bowl contributed significantly to the Bulldogs’ lackluster effort in the last game. His actions allowed distraction and disappointment to accompany the team to New Orleans.
Smart seemed to admit as much to Barnhart.
“Playing for the Sugar Bowl championshipm that should be enough if you’re a competitor and you have inner drive and you have ‘want to,'” he said. “… But they don’t see the Sugar Bowl as you and I do.”
Then Smart drilled down on the defining point. “That’s no excuse. (Getting players ready to play) is our job as coaches.”
On that we heartily agree. At the end of the day, the Sugar Bowl really didn’t matter. In the age of the college playoff and Smart’s stated goal of Georgia winning a national championship, that was a glorified exhibition game. But, consciously or subconsciously, Smart and his players approached it as such.
This is certain: They’re not approaching this season as anything of the sort. I’m hearing the Bulldogs have been grinding like never before in the offseason. Whatever the NCAA limits are in terms of practice and coaching time, you can be sure Georgia has been pushing it to the absolute last minute and second.
That’s because the Bulldogs are going to be a preseason favorite to get back to the SEC Championship and to reach the playoff a second time in three years. And Smart’s nemesis of Nick Saban’s Alabama remains formidably between Georgia and that objective.
That’s a big task. That would put a lot of pressure on anybody.
That might explain Smart’s inclination to lay low since the end of last season. If it doesn’t absolutely have to do with something that gets the Bulldogs closer to that objective, he’s going to pass on it.
He’s hunkering down, for sure.