HOOVER, Ala. – Jim McElwain said all the sweet things about Kirby Smart that you’d expect him to on Monday, and surely will again in October, when it’ll be presented as just two old friends meeting again.
Greg McElroy, though, remembers when the competition between the two coaches wasn’t so nice.
McElwain was Alabama’s offensive coordinator from 2008-11, when Smart was the team’s defensive coordinator. For four years, their two units bashed each other in spring and preseason practices, trying to make each other better – but also just plain competing.
“There are times the offense really strongly dislikes the defense, and vice versa,” said McElroy, who was Alabama’s starting quarterback in 2009 and 2010. “Those guys are both fiery. Mac and Kirby, as much as they respected and appreciated each other, our goal was to beat them and make them look bad.”
It worked to lift both units and help Alabama win a lot of games, including the national title in 2009. When McElwain and Smart meet again on Oct. 29, only one of them will be able to leave with a win. The other will have to hear about it for a year in both team’s biggest rivalry.
Well, perhaps both teams.
“I guess maybe you’d have to check with Tennessee on that one,” McElwain said on Monday, during his appearance at SEC media days.
McElwain was sort of an unwitting linch-pin in Smart ending up at Georgia – in a couple ways.
First, Florida’s rout of Georgia last season was the back-breaker that resulted in Mark Richt’s firing.
But before that, McElwain getting the Florida job after the 2014 season led to Colorado State hiring Mike Bobo, and it’s fair to wonder if Bobo had stayed as Georgia’s offensive coordinator whether things would have gone much better for the Bulldogs in 2015.
Either way, Smart is now the head man.
“I’m so excited for Kirby,” McElwain said. “He is one heck of a ball coach. He’s a great guy. He’s going to do it the right way. It’s a place obviously that’s near and dear to him. Playing there. All the things that go into it. Long and well-deserved, and I’m excited for him.
“We’ll get together and laugh about some stories, and that’s always fun. It doesn’t matter. When they blow the whistle it’s your guys against their guys and see what comes out.”
That’s putting it too mildly, considering the fierceness and gravity that people put on the Georgia-Florida rivalry. It was one of the downfalls for Richt, who was 5-10 against the Gators.
McElwain dealt the last blow, going on to win SEC coach of the year and win a surprise division title. But the Gators lost enough talent off that team that Tennessee is expected to be the favorite to win the East. That didn’t stop his relentless optimism.
“You know what?” he said Monday. “Things are good at the University of Florida and that’s the way it should be.”
Smart didn’t have much better success as a Georgia player, only playing for one Bulldog team that won what was then still officially the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Then Smart embarked on his coaching career, landing back with Nick Saban in 2007.
“You could sense how important he was to the organization as a whole,” McElroy said. “And that importance was really on a platform over the last seven years, with four national championships. Now all those guys with similar ties, having the coaching network and the communities like they have all kind of coming from the same tree, it’s going to be really interesting moving forward.”