Smart’s task is making Georgia believe it can be great

New Georgia coach Kirby Smart is faced with a difficult task: Making Bulldogs players believe they can succeed in big moments, which has been lacking. (Brant Sanderlin / bsanderlin@ajc.com)

ATHENS – This wasn’t about winning the press conference. There are introductory press conferences that have you pumped and ready to run through a wall for a coach, and others that seemingly are set to Kenny G and make your eyes bleed. The only certainty is neither guarantees a thing.

This wasn’t about what Kirby Smart said – He speaks! – at his official re-introduction to Athens Monday. This is about whether a young football coach who has been behind the curtain through all of Nick Saban’s building, brainwashing and brass at Alabama, can reprogram Georgia. Because for as much as everybody loved Mark Richt and what he stands for and what he did for this school and this football program during his tenure, things had stalled and change was needed.

Georgia players and fans need to believe again that greatness is possible, that the home team won’t walk into Sanford Stadium sky high and undefeated on a fall afternoon and walk out three hours later as a punch-drunk loser, as the Dogs did twice to Alabama (2008 and 2015). Smart was an assistant for the winning team in both of those games.

“It’s hard for me to say what happened to Georgia because I don’t know what went into their game plan or prep,” he said. “But I know what we did and I know I’m going to do things as close to that way as I can.”

Keeping Richt would’ve been the easy decision. The difficult is saying goodbye to almost guaranteed nine-win seasons. But there were too few of those great, euphoric moments in a program that should experience those regularly, or at least periodically. There were too many spectacular splats. And 10 years without an SEC title: too long.

This wasn’t about needing a new head coach. It’s about needing a new mindset and punching through a ceiling, or at least trying.

“We have to believe we can do remarkable things here,” said Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, who has been beaten up by Richt supporters in social media for the firing. “There’s no question with the potential here that great things can happen, and Kirby’s been around it. He knows what it looks like. He can bring those intangibles to our program.”

Can he? Whether Smart is the right choice remains to be seen because he never has been a head coach. But nobody can question the resume of coach who has consistently overseen one of the nation’s best defenses, worked for Nick Saban for 11 years (nine at Alabama, one at LSU, one with the Miami Dolphins) and Bobby Bowden (two years as a graduate assistant) and, yes, Richt (running backs coach in 2005, ironically the year of Georgia’s last SEC title).

Sonny Smart, Kirby’s father and a former long-time high-school coach, obviously can’t be objective on the subject but makes a good point when asked about his son’s readiness: “He saw the process at Alabama,” noting  Smart was there at the start of Saban’s takeover in 2007, when the Crimson Tide was down and still wounded from NCAA sanctions.

Georgia wanted to hire Smart as defensive coordinator in 2010 but Smart said no. A story circulated that Saban questioned why Smart would go to Georgia as a coordinator when he could wait a few years and potentially go there as a head coach.

“The story’s not true,” Sonny Smart said. “He was offered the (DC) job the day after the national championship game. I know because I was present. He considered it for two days. He never talked to anybody and just felt like it wasn’t the right thing to do. He never talked to Nick until later. After the national title game Nick went to his lake house.”

Five years later, Smart is at Georgia, at least for another week during this recruiting period before heading back to Alabama for the playoffs. Then he’ll return to Athens for good. Asked how he will go about affecting change and elevating the Georgia program, Smart referenced an acronym, WIN: “What’s important now,” he said.

“You build faith, trust and confidence in your program by what you do with your players. These players at Georgia have to believe in themselves. We have to do a good job instilling that as a staff. We have to improve the quality of depth on the offensive and defensive lines. That can be done and I think it will be done.”

Smart passed up other head coaching opportunities, mostly at smaller programs. But, “I honestly felt like my growth was better being in a large program, being around coach Saban and learning how to manage tough situations.”

The bar is high. Richt has a .739 winning percentage at Georgia but lost his job. McGarity  acknowledged he had doubts about the direction of the program last year, particularly following the losses to Florida and Georgia Tech.

“There are certain games that are difficult to get over,” he said.

This season’s ugly losses to Alabama and Florida, the loss at Tennessee and unimpressive wins against soft competition, “confirmed my earlier thoughts,” McGarity said.

So he made the change. It was all set up for Smart. It helped to have a candidate in mind. In 2002, when he was an assistant to Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, McGarity was called into his boss’s office one day and was told to sit on the couch. “I thought, ‘This is not good.’ I thought it was about me,” he said. “Then Jeremy says, ‘I just got a call from the head ball coach (Steve Spurrier) and he said he’s not coming back. He’s leaving.’ Nobody expected that.”

Ten days later Spurrier was named the Washington Redskins coach. But Florida wasn’t prepared for his departure. Foley scrambled and hired Ron Zook. That didn’t work out too well.

There was no scramble at Georgia. Smart was their guy all along. He said all the right things Monday. But I don’t think anybody today is worrying about what Nick Saban said in 2007 as much as what Alabama did in the years that followed.

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