ATHENS – It was a moment that stuck out from Kirby Smart’s introductory press conference last December: Asked whether he’d be “hands on” with Georgia’s defense, or leave it to assistants, Smart wanted to make a larger point.
“Oh, no, I’m hands on with the whole program,” Smart said. “I’m going to be involved with everything.”
There were cheers from a few fans in attendance. And over the last nine months, Smart has lived up to it, involved in Georgia’s defense, offense and special teams, whether it be practice or games, and especially in crucial situations.
Seven games into his tenure – into a season that’s so far been disappointing – Smart was asked if he saw any need to step back on anything.
“No, absolutely not,” Smart said. “I think I’ve got to be just as much hands-on with everything.”
Those fans who cheered Smart’s “involved with everything” pronouncement evidently saw it as refreshing change from the seemingly laid-back Mark Richt, and more like the detail-oriented Nick Saban. That’s what Georgia expected it was getting when it hired Saban’s longtime assistant.
“The most thorough coach that I’ve seen in a long time,” Mike Cavan, the former college head coach who is now a special assistant to Smart, said of Smart this spring.
But are there benefits to a more laid-back, CEO-type approach? Does a hands-on approach during games especially take away from observing?
The end of the first half at South Carolina stands out. Georgia didn’t call a timeout, letting the first half run out without a field goal try or a pass from 29 yards out, because Smart and the staff were trying to assess the situation. But no one realized or remembered the clock would re-start until it was too late.
For his part, Smart acknowledged after the game it was a “debacle” and “mismanagement.” And to be fair, later in the game he was also involved in what turned out to be a great play for Georgia.
As South Carolina was preparing to onside kick, it was Smart in the middle of the huddle as Georgia’s kickoff “hands” unit was huddling. Smart was holding up a binder, telling players what to do. The end result: Terry Godwin recovered the onside kick and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown, sealing the game.
“The parts that I’m hands-on the most would probably be the defense and the special teams,” Smart said.
Smart estimates he spends about 60-70 percent of his time at practice working with the defense. The parts of offensive practice that he misses, he tries to make up for by watching on film.
“That’s kind of how I’ve grown up seeing it, how I’ve been a part of it, and how I’ve seen other coaches do it, the guys I’ve worked with. You’re involved in everything,” Smart said. “But certainly I feel comfortable with where I’m at, being with the defense probably 60-70 percent of the day. That’s where I’m most comfortable.”
Since special teams has its own portion of practice – bringing players from offense and defense – Smart said he’s able to monitor and coach that just as much as the defense. In fact every coach – other than the offensive and defensive coordinators – are involved in special teams.
“The hardest thing to do is to get involved in the offense,” Smart said.
It’s hard to miss how active Smart is at practice, moving around and constantly shouting directions. At some periods open to the media, Smart can be seen holding a play sheet and literally telling scout-teamers where to stand.
During games, Smart is seemingly just as active, often coaching up the defense on the sideline. But at crucial non-defensive situations, he’s been in the middle of it, including when the play call before the fourth-and-1 against Vanderbilt was being decided.
Smart was also asked about the balance between being hands-on and delegating to assistant coaches and other staff.
“Absolutely there’s a balance. And I think that balance really has been reached,” Smart said. “I feel comfortable with the amount of time I’m able to spend with each component (offense, defense and special teams). …
“We’ve got to do better in each one. We’ve got to perform better in each one. We’ve got to execute better. We’ve got to get the young players to play better. We’ve got to get less penalties. There’s so many areas we can improve on. That has nothing to do with the balance of time that I spend.”