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For as long as I have been a fan, UGA football has been the lovable ‘almosts.’ A few trinkets in our trophy room to keep us relevant (SEC champs 2002 and 2005, and SEC East 2012, plus the bowls). Whenever I say I am a fan people say, Yeah I cheer for them when my team’s not playing. Which meant, Yeah they’re fun to cheer for because they’re not a real threat. How do you see the program changing after this year and becoming, at least, the flag-bearer of the east? Does that renew the fight with our East foes? How do we change the revenge tour to be who you are supposed to be?
― Cale Westbrook
This is probably something Kirby Smart has already started thinking about. Actually, he was during last season, if you harken back to a quote from Davin Bellamy, when the team was 7-0.
“We don’t like to think of ourselves as the hunted. We like to think of ourselves as the hunter. Coach Smart likes to end practice [saying that]. But I even tried to impress the same message to the guys pregame. At this point now in the season we can’t look at any team’s record and think we’re going to come in and just beat them handily, because we’re going to get everybody’s best shot. That’s what comes with being 7-0 or being a top 5 team. You’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”
And after winning the SEC, the Rose Bowl and nearly winning the national championship – and then winning the recruiting championship in February – Georgia is definitely going to get everybody’s best shot.
The revenge tour? That’s out the window now until Georgia gets another shot at Alabama. Smart and his coaches have to find something else to use to motivate their players. So what approach do they take?
Some of it will be natural. Georgia is going to have so many new starters and contributors, players who weren’t around or weren’t key parts of the 2017 run, that they’ll want to make a name in their own right. And Georgia won’t be a preseason No. 1 because of the loss of so many players ― but the Bulldogs should be in the top 10.
But Cale, you asked how I see the program changing now. Maybe players and staff members will carry themselves with a bit of a different air, but I think Smart’s goal will be not to have much change at all. There’s a reason that Smart was preaching about being the hunter last season, even as the team was unbeaten. It’s the nature of sports: You play better as the underdog. You play harder. You avoid letdowns. So what happens when you’re clearly not the underdog? That’s the trick.
Michael Jordan used to make up perceived slights. He would pour 50 or 60 points on a poor last-place team during the dregs of January because of something he read in the paper, or something he thought he heard a player say on the court. The Bulls once had back-to-back games with Washington, and in the first game, LaBradford Smith put up 30 points or something to lead Washington to a win. Afterward, Smith is alleged to have told Jordan “nice game,” and Jordan took it as a slight. I believe Smith was dispatched with extreme prejudice in the rematch.
Nick Saban goes with the rat poison approach. He rails at people who write good things about his team or bad things about the opponent. Everybody laughs when Saban launches into one of his bromides at a press conference. It’s performance art. But it also works. Saban isn’t really yelling at the reporter who asked the question. He’s sending a message to his players through the press.
You can expect Smart to mostly follow Saban’s script. In fact, Smart said he showed his players Saban’s “rat poison” comments right after Saban made them last season.
There’s a template for coaches handling this, and a lot of it may already be in place. Coaches tend to come up with motivational tools that should work whether you’re an up-and-comer or an established power. Bill Belichick made “do your job” the mantra for the New England Patriots, and that’s what Smart came back talking about after spending a week with the Patriots a decade ago. The team’s various recent mantras (“Attack the Day,” “Keep the main thing the main thing,” etc.) can work in pretty much all situations.
For now, I wouldn’t expect much to change with the program itself, at least on a day-to-day level. But for Georgia fans, they undoubtedly will carry their heads a little higher, while still clamoring for that brass ring and hoping to eventually hold their heads the whole way up.
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