ATHENS — There is a colony of North Carolina alumni and aficionados who have settled in the Atlanta area over the years. They brought their buttoned-down collegiate look to the Georgia Dome last Saturday night, comingling with their Georgia friends but keen on enjoying bragging rights and getting the season off to a celebratory start.
While the Tar Heel advocates are inclined to high expectations in basketball, there remains, with many alumni, affection for football. They believe it has a new opportunity under Larry Fedora, whose pedigree, with a Power Five coaching flavor, is more like that of the disciple of the hard-nosed Bill Dooley, who was recognized in memoriam at the Georgia Dome. On the sideline during the game were Bill Dooley’s four boys Jim, Bill, Shawn and Ashton, wearing Carolina blue.
The Carolina fans arrived with hopes that the future is becoming brighter for Tar Heel football and were fist pumping bundles of confidence in the third quarter when UNC suddenly held a 10-point lead, 24-14. When Georgia rallied to claim victory, Carolina fans sat stunned. No storming out as the take-a-knee-kill-the-clock routine took place in the Georgia backfield. No carping about coaching calls made or not made, no finger-pointing at their competent head coach. Just humiliated disbelief that their hopes were dashed.
If anything good can come out of this it is that the Georgia staff and players left town with enduring respect for the team they vanquished. Before kickoff, an old friend wished Kirby Smart luck. “These guys are good,” he said with resignation on his face. In the locker room, Nick Chubb, who gained 222 yards and looked fresh enough to go two more quarters, said as if he had been instructed to “repeat-after-me” by his head coach, “These guys are good.” Made one feel as if he were in a PGA Tour commercial.
The view of the Georgia partisans across the board is that the Tar Heels will win some football games. Their offensive line never allowed a sack and they have some throwers and catchers. They can put up points in dizzying bursts.
All of this means that Georgia could not be more fortuitous. Win the opening game against a quality opponent in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome; new staff, new system but old questions and worries: inexperience and lack of depth here and there. How to handle an explosive offense? Can the rookie backup quarterback measure up to expectations? Will Chubb’s knee be sound enough for him to perform like his old self? We know the answers now.
I spent considerable time observing the new head coach. He is all about family. His mother Sharon attended a dinner at the College Football Hall of Fame Friday night while his dad, Sonny, kept the grandchildren. With the Bulldogs, his peripatetic style keeps him constantly on the move. Watching him on the sideline makes one realize that while he did not originate kinetic energy, he certainly has tried to perfect it.
The Smart style is to be involved from one end of the sideline to the other. Seeing an incorrect alignment on the field caused him to go into a gesticulating fit, jumping up and down like a kid who has won the big prize at the state fair. He gives his coaches room to coach, but when kickoff comes he is as hands-on as a chef at an omelet bar.
He inspires his young men to hustle, to believe and to major in second effort. On believability, he wants that to include the fans in red. He took note of the flagging emotions in the stands when Carolina took a 10-point lead in the third quarter. His message: If the team believes, the Dawg Nation will believe.
In the closing minutes of the game, the red-dominated Dome was as much into the game as the yardage-gobbling running back whose family roots are in Chubbtown, Ga. There is the sense that the coach is looking for leaders to complement the quiet and laid-back style of his running back with the dancing feet.
He didn’t confide anything in this corner, but I am sure this week there have been reminders about South Alabama’s performance in Starkville Saturday night. I can hear him paraphrasing Vince Dooley. “Men this is no time to let up. Nicholls State is a lot better than people think.”
That is another thing I like about Kirby Smart. He will never lose a game with his mouth.