ATHENS — Kirby Smart’s 2017 Georgia football team finished atop the SEC with the school’s first conference championship in 12 years. Accordingly, UGA on Thursday moved the Bulldogs’ third-year coach to the top of the league in compensation.
Not the tip-top. That spot remains occupied by Alabama’s Nick Saban, Smart’s former boss and coach of the team that defeated Georgia 26-23 in overtime of the National Championship Game on Jan. 8 in Atlanta. But in presenting Smart with a new $49 million deal, the Bulldogs’ coach moves up to third in a conference awash in money.
The deal, approved by the UGA Athletic Association’s executive board in a teleconference meeting on Thursday, represents a $3.25 million-a-year raise and three-year extension for Smart, and ties him with Auburn’s Gus Malzahn for third in the league in highest compensation with an average salary of $7 million. Malzahn got a raise to that amount and a similar extension shortly after losing to the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game last December.
“I’d like to first thank President [Jere] Morehead and [athletic director] Greg McGarity for allowing me to lead this program,” said Smart, in a statement released by the athletic association shortly after the 12-minute phone call. “I’m humbled by the faith they’ve placed in me and won’t ever take that for granted. I’d also like to thank our staff and our entire football family. Without their hard work and dedication we wouldn’t have been able to have the kind of success we’ve had in such a short period of time.
“As a young boy, I grew up in this great state dreaming of being a Bulldog. To have been able to do that — first as a player and now as the head football coach — is beyond anything I ever dreamed. I do not take lightly the awesome responsibility of leading this program, and while I’m pleased with where we are as a program, I couldn’t be more excited about where we’re going in the future. You can rest assured that we will continue to work tirelessly to make Georgia football the best it can possibly be. Last, but not least, I want to express my gratitude and love for all our fans and thank them and the wonderful people of the state of Georgia for their tremendous support.”
The SEC now sports five of the eight highest-paid coaches in America, according to the USA Today’s adjusted 2017 rankings of coaches’ compensation. Saban made $11.1 million last year, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher is paid $7.5 million annually and Dan Mullen was given a $6.1 million-a-year deal to move from Mississippi State to Florida.
For Georgia, it locks up for another seven years a young coach who not only led the Bulldogs to a school-best 13 wins, but also has overseen consecutive top-6 finishes in the annual national recruiting rankings. Georgia’s 2018 class ranked No. 1 and it was No. 3 and No. 6 in 2017 and ’16, respectively. The Bulldogs’ 2019 class currently is ranked fifth.
“Kirby has provided an incredible level of energy and excitement to our football program, and we look forward to his leadership for many years to come,” McGarity said in the statement.
It’s the continuation of what was a great second year for Smart as Georgia’s football coach. This time last year, the 42-year-old married father of three was the eighth-highest-paid coach in the 14-team SEC and No. 23 among 130 FBS coaches, according to USA Today. Now he is fifth.
Thanks to UGA’s generous bonus structure, 2018 has already been a good year for Smart. The Bulldogs’ 13-2 season, which resulted in an SEC championship and a national runner-up finish, helped Smart earned an additional $1.35 million in compensation. That was just $250,000 shy of the maximum he could collect in performance incentives, which would’ve come with a victory over Alabama in the title game.
Smart and Georgia have made sure to spread the wealth. The Bulldogs’ reconfigured coaching staff will make $6.42 million this year, or $1.86 million more than the previous season. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and co-offensive coordinator James Coley were awarded a combined $1 million in increased compensation to remain at Georgia.
Smart became the Bulldogs coach in December 2015, succeeding Mark Richt, who had been in that role for 15 years. Smart is entering his third season as a head coach and 19th overall. The Bainbridge native and UGA football letterman started out as an administrative assistant at Georgia in 1999, then held assistant coach positions at Valdosta State, Florida State, LSU, Georgia (2005), Miami Dolphins and then Alabama.
Under Saban at Alabama, Smart rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming defensive coordinator in just his second season (2008) and serving as an assistant head coach until he left in 2015. The Crimson Tide won four national titles in a seven-year span with Smart on board.
Georgia went 8-5 in Smart’s first season as head coach before leading the Bulldogs to a 13-2 season. Georgia defeated Auburn 28-7 in the SEC Championship Game and Oklahoma 54-48 in double overtime in the College Football Playoff semifinals in the Rose Bowl. The Bulldogs lost to Alabama 26-23 in overtime in the National Championship Game, falling on a 41-yard touchdown pass.
It will go down as one of Georgia’s most exciting seasons ever. And a pretty good year for Kirby Smart.