LOS ANGELES – After a long week of bustling media activities, Kirby Smart and Lincoln Riley walked alone onto a stage here for their final Rose Bowl press conference, and exuded an air of: Let’s get this over already.
Thee two coaches were relaxed enough to have a bit of fun. Such as when Smart was asked about his quarterback Jake Fromm being more inexperienced than Oklahoma star quarterback Baker Mayfield.
“Well, good thing for him is he’s not playing against Baker,” Smart said, smiling wryly. “They’re not on the field at the same time unless we put him out there at defensive back or something, which that would really concern me.”
Riley was asked later about Mayfield, who’s been dealing with flu-like symptoms, and whether that would lead to hand signals being used at the line. Riley paused and grinned.
“I don’t want to tell this guy too much about that,” Riley said.
Riley grinned. So did Smart.
Smart and Riley did not offer much of a study in contrasts, and that’s not surprising: They’re both young and relatively inexperienced head coaches who haven’t been a head coach in a game of this magnitude, but have recently as coordinators.
Riley and Smart have a combined age of 76, which is only 10 years more than Nick Saban’s actual age. (Smart, who turned 42 last week, is the senior of the two Rose Bowl coaches.)
Smart has been to this stage before as a defensive coordinator at Alabama, going four times to the national championship game, along with a trip to a national semifinal. Riley was Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator two years ago when it lost in a national semifinal.
As they took the stage together Sunday, both were asked to reflect on the similar circumstances of their ascendance: Neither Georgia or Oklahoma was in a rebuild.
Smart, however, was asked to improve on a program that was used to winning 9-10 games a year under Mark Richt, but wanted more.
“There’s two kinds of philosophies there: There’s you come in and scratch, overhaul, throw everything out because you have conviction that what was done before wasn’t working,” Smart said. “Then there’s you’ve got to win the players over because they may not see it as there was a problem. They may see it as they were completely happy with winning nine, 10 games a year, and that’s what I call complacency.”
It’s clear that’s the philosophy Smart decided to take.
“In our case, that was probably the greatest challenge was not accepting what had been done before as the norm and convincing the players that are currently on the team that we can do better,” Smart said. “We can do better things, and we can improve.”
Smart inherited a pretty veteran team, and indicated that over time he had to convince them that doing some things differently would ultimately pay off. He didn’t mention it Sunday, but in the past players have talked about the harder practices, lifting more weights during the season, and other minor tweaks.
“Sometimes that takes more work than just coming in where a team’s hungry, and more aggressive and listen to what you have to say,” Smart said.
Riley came in 2015 and had two great seasons as offensive coordinator. Then he suddenly found himself as the coach when Bob Stoops stepped down in early June. Stoops left a program that had been a bit more successful than Georgia under Richt, but had not won a national championship since 2000.
“Whatever changes that we did want to make you felt like you had to them done pretty quickly,” Riley said. “I think there will be some changes that we make that we feel like because of the timing it wasn’t appropriate to try to change maybe something bigger in June.”
But the continuity in staff helped. Stoops left, Riley was elevated to the top role, a full-time assistant slid into the open spot, and that was it. Riley kept calling plays, the defensive staff stayed in place.
“My situation was different in having our staff in place,” Riley said. “A lot of those guys that I had worked with, been a part of, we’ve had a lot of success together. So I think for us it’s continuing to build on it, trying to find a few ways to get a little bit better, and maintaining the high expectations there’s always been at Oklahoma.”
Riley reached those high expectations right away. Smart did in his second year. And now one will go on to play for a national championship.