ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart has been the SEC’s winningest coach over the past three seasons, but the Nick Saban legacy lives on.

ESPN has hired Saban to work on its College GameDay set, so it’s not surprising there is interest in propping up the former Alabama head coach that Smart famously once worked under.

To that end, Smart’s recent Q&A included questions about his time with Saban and thoughts on his recent retirement from the sideline.

“I’d say different for a lot of people, but for me, I love the man, I appreciate all he’s done and I enjoyed competing against him,” Smart told ESPN reporter Chris Low in a private, one-on-one meeting last week.

“I wish he was still around so that I could get some more shots at him because I hadn’t done real well against him (1-5).

“We’ve had some really close games, some really great games. But yeah, I wish he was still there.”

Georgia plays at Alabama on Sept. 28 in one of the biggest games of the season, perhaps overshadowed only by the Oct. 19 trip to Austin to play Texas.

But the Bulldogs’ game against the Tide is sure to be a ratings giant, and ESPN will surely continue to play up Smart’s history with Saban.

Local Georgia media rarely asks Smart about Saban, because the Bulldogs’ head coach keeps a “next game” mentality, and isn’t as enamored with the former Alabama coach in light of Smart’s recent success.

After all, it has been Smart — not Saban — that has captured the SEC’s two most recent national championships in 2021 and 2022.

Smart also set the SEC record with a 29-game win streak that spanned three seasons, and in another historic mark that was overlooked by national media, became the first SEC coach in history to complete three consecutive eight-game league seasons undefeated.

Alas, the Saban narrative will remain in effect, as it behooves ESPN to maintain the value of the former Alabama head coach, whose dynasty ended with the 2020 national championship in the Covid-shortened season.

Smart, asked if it eats at him that he doesn’t get any more chances to beat Saban, chose the high road.

“I think if I had never coached under him, I would probably be more frustrated because it would be like, ‘Man, I never got to beat the GOAT as much as I wanted to,’ or whatever,” Smart said.

“But with him, there’s so much respect having worked for him that I’m happy for him that he’s chosen to do what he wants to do. He deserves to go out how he wanted.”

Saban did go out as the SEC champion after quarterback Jalen Milroe delivered an MVP performance in a game that saw the Georgia offense sputter.

Alabama, however, lost to Michigan by a 27-20 in the CFP Rose Bowl semifinal to finish 12-2.

Saban unloaded on his players on his way out the door

“I want to be clear that wasn’t the reason, but some of those events certainly contributed,” Saban said in an ESPN interview.

“I was really disappointed in the way that the players acted after the game. You gotta win with class. You gotta lose with class. We had our opportunities to win the game and we didn’t do it, and then showing your ass and being frustrated and throwing helmets and doing that stuff ... that’s not who we are and what we’ve promoted in our program.”

Saban’s comments caught some off guard, as those same players were responsible for several wins after Saban and his staff got out-coached in a 34-24 home loss to Texas that led to Milroe getting benched.

Still, Smart kept his comments on Saban completely respectful throughout the interview last week, as one might expect.

ESPN asked what Smart told Saban when the coaches spoke at midfield after Alabama’s win over Georgia.

“I just said, ‘Look, I appreciate all you’ve done for me and my career. You’re one of the best to ever do it, and I have immense respect for you,’ " Smart said. “And then I joked with him. ‘You can’t keep doing this much longer.’ "

As it turned out, Smart was right, as Saban has admitted he was having trouble keeping up with the way the game had changed around him.

Smart, meanwhile, continues to adjust and has Georgia built to the point the Bulldogs were the early favorite for the 2024 season ever before Saban announced his retirement.

The Alabama coach had telegraphed it in many ways, with his weekly TV appearances with Pat McAfee, who he will now star with on College GameDay, and his purchase of a $17.5 million last August.

Interestingly enough, a Yahoo story detailing the purchase noted that Saban told 5-star recruit Ryan Williams that “he plans to coach until he croaks,” and added that he had no plans to step down soon.

Smart had avoided speculating on Saban’s coaching future for years, but one of the SEC’s other all-time greats did not.

Steve Spurrier turned out to be the most accurate prognosticator, telling DawgNation in 2021 that Saban would coach “as long as he’s able to keep getting the best players.”

Saban has voiced his opinions on the challenges NIL and the transfer portal create, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him returning to the sideline for one last go if the slower, television analyst life doesn’t suit him.

Saban has taken great care of his health, and wasn’t even the oldest coach in college football at the time of his retirement.

Certainly, Smart would be among the first to be asked about that should Saban start dropping hints that retirement isn’t for him, after all.