ATHENS — Homecoming!
Churches have always scheduled homecomings and colleges annually host homecomings. I suppose that many organizations and clubs embrace some sort of function which welcomes back individuals or groups to something or other at some point during the year.
If you grew up in the South in the last century, more than likely you were exposed to a church which picked a summer day when the crops were laid by for a homecoming, welcoming back neighbors and old friends who grew up in the community and made good elsewhere, doing something substantial that moved them to a higher station in life. Their presence evoked curiosity, often accompanied by envy.
Homecoming games in college football date back. Researchers have noted that Harvard and Yale began inviting alumni to return to campus in the 1870s. Baylor, Illinois and Missouri have laid claim to being the first at making homecoming premeditated and official, annually. Whatever it was that took place for those three schools, happened around 1910.
Georgia’s first homecoming, according to UGA’s Gilbert Head, came about Nov. 18, 1922, versus Vanderbilt. The first homecoming parade was in 1934 against N.C. State. Coeds were allowed to join in the main parade in 1936.
Today, Homecoming on the Georgia campus is a special time for the Georgia aficionados who embrace the new football regime of Kirby Smart. He is too busy today with coaching up his football team — which has enjoyed the euphoria of victory and the sting of defeat — to concern himself with the ramifications of Homecoming.
To be emphatically correct, his official homecoming came about in December when he was hired by Greg McGarity to become Georgia’s 28th head coach. He is one of six undergraduates who have enjoyed the honor of becoming the UGA football boss. Charles Herty, M.M. Dickinson, Kid Woodruff, Johnny Griffith and Ray Goff were the others.
Already something singular has developed in his brief tenure. He is a first- name Bulldog personality. Dating back, head football coaches have traditionally been identified with title and surname: Coach Mehre, Coach Butts, Coach Dooley.
With the current director of football at UGA, it is simply “Kirby.” With his competency and promise, he could become another icon whose first name dominates as in Herschel rather than Herschel Walker. Heroes of the gridiron in the past, players and coaches, usually were known by their last names: Sinkwich and Trippi. Sapp and Tarkenton. The exceptions were those with cutting edge nicknames, such as “Catfish” Smith. Catfish was known far and wide, including one New York newspaper which headlined his feat of scoring of all the points in Georgia’s dedicatory game with Yale in 1929, “Catfish 15, Yale 0.”
Kirby! It feels right. It connects. And resonates, given his successful coaching background.
To assess his budding career, you learn from looking into his past that there is a significant coaching pedigree. His father, Sonny Smart, coached Kirby at Bainbridge in Southwest Georgia. Sonny never yearned for his son to follow in his footsteps, and now that Kirby has reached exalted status as a coach at a major university in the most dominant league in college football the last 20 years, he will not relive his life through his son. Sonny is happily ensconced in the background. There is no coaching from the sideline in this family, but if Kirby wants advice when it comes to serious football matters, he knows where to turn. Sonny’s ambition for Kirby is as keen as Kirby’s when it comes to aspiring for championship success to become the focal point of the Kirby Smart legacy.
In addition to growing up in a coaching household that allowed for a close-up view of how football must become family — like family at home — Kirby, by absorption learned about the immaturity of youth and how it affects a team. He became familiar with the mores of the times and the significance of discipline, learning that kids react differently to motivation overtures. There is one uncompromising staple: If there is success, you must pay the price, and everybody must buy in to the larger objectives of the team.
Most of all, no coach has ever prepared himself better to become a head coach. When he was waiting in the wings, Kirby learned the value of patience. He didn’t jump at any job. While, he did not have a grand scheme to return to his alma mater, he knew what he wanted in becoming a head coach. Georgia fit all the criteria. He evaluated other schools, other programs, other coaches. But, most of all, he was learning about how an elite program is managed while apprenticing under the most successful coach in the land in Nick Saban. Kirby lived success with Saban and formulated a plan and philosophy which is, understandably, devoutly Sabanese. However, he will tell you that he has approached his life as the head Bulldog by “being his own man.” He is aware that iconic coaches, more often than not, spawn failed coaching careers.
Kirby’s respect for Saban is lofty and abiding. “The most valuable thing I learned is how to run an organization from top to bottom; being demanding of people in the organization and expecting that they all perform at a certain level and a certain standard, making them realize that standard does not change based on whether you win or lose. He is head and shoulders above the others because of his management style and passion. The guy is relentless. He works his tail off.”
Kirby is compatible with the suggestion that Saban, not taking anything away from his splendid coaching ability, is perhaps a better recruiter than he is a coach. “I would probably agree with that,” Kirby says.
This is why you find Kirby forever in overdrive when it comes to recruiting effort. He agrees to speak to the Touchdown Club of Athens in late summer. He has no interest in social hour — just tell him what time he needs to be there for his assignment. If it is 6:30, you may see him parking his car around 6 p.m., but he stays inside with the cell phone to his ear. He is on the phone for business only. He’s talking to recruits. He will talk until 6:25, then go inside on time and fulfill his commitment. He is very punctual.
While he is there, he is happy to greet well wishers, old friends and doting alumni, but his life is compartmentalized to the extent that there is no wasted minutes. If you ask for an hour of his time and he agrees, but it works out that you stay an hour and 15 minutes, you will be reminded when you leave that the next meeting, you “owe” him 15 minutes.
That it worked out for him to return to Athens, where in addition to playing with the Dawgs, he was an assistant briefly (running backs in 2005), brings about warm sentiment. He knows his alma mater offers championship opportunity and that not to win championships would be underachieving. He knows what it takes to win and finds Georgia up to speed in most every category except one: Facilities.
He told a select group of donors in Atlanta in the summer, “We (coaching staff) may be able to out-recruit and out-coach some of the schools on our schedule, but we can’t out-facility people.” Translation, Georgia is behind in facilities everywhere except, perhaps, Sanford Stadium proper. He wants to see the West End zone expansion (new locker rooms, recruiting, catering and player lounges among other advanced features) come about sooner than later. “The things we need will make a big difference when we get them,” he has said.
At Alabama, when Kirby reviewed game tape of opponents, he saw which teams were the best coached, those which underscored teaching, discipline and were imbued to commitment to fundamentals. Long before “Mama” called, he had a general idea of who the best assistants in the conference were. He had a potential staff conjured up in his head while he was working to improve himself as a defensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa.
He is a Georgia boy with a Georgia education. Nothing finer, the late Dean of Men, William Tate, preached about that. Everything is in place for a bountiful career. He has feeling and respect for his past. He loves Bainbridge and South Georgia from whence he came. He loves his native state and connects with every county through recruiting. When he drives the back roads recruiting in South Georgia, he reminisces with a nostalgic buzz.
“That’s cool,” he said about those times on the road, enveloped by the solace of the drive. Silence, however is never golden as he motors through the countryside. His cell phone is always connected to the cell phone of others from recruits to parents to coaches. When there is a break, he’ll check in at home and catch up with old friends — the beauty of technology.
Love of alma mater is deep and unending. Early on, he became a Bulldog fan, but in his formative years he was all about “Friday Night Lights.” His heroes all played for the Bainbridge Bearcats. His time was the late Eighties, following the Herschel era. Signed by Ray Goff, he lettered four years (1995-98) and was elected a defensive captain his senior season, evidence that his ability to lead was manifesting itself. His coach for three seasons, Jim Donnan says, “Kirby was a coach on the field for our defense besides being a very good athlete at free safety. His leadership during the transition from the previous staff to mine was very instrumental in our success. He topped his all-conference play by being named a captain — the ultimate reward for any team member. His thorough knowledge of the state, relationship with high school coaches and endless energy in recruiting will pay big dividends.”
There were highlights as a Bulldog safety, including making three sacks against South Carolina between the hedges in 1995 and two interceptions in the Florida game in 1997 in a 37-17 Bulldog victory. Interestingly, there are no photos on the wall and no scrapbooks to peruse — but they’re indelible in his mind’s eye. This reflects that he is not about himself. “The team!” is his mantra.
At Georgia, there were no championships, but three bowl games and countless friendships which have endured. (Throughout his coaching career he has kept in touch with his old friends).
Any story about his college years without reference to his Terry College degree would make the story incomplete. He is proud of the degree, naturally. An offspring of teachers, (he still hears his mother, Sharon, reminding him to read more books), who have always influenced him to embrace the importance of school work has brought about a residual as a coach. He passionately explains to the players he recruits that a degree is not only important, but is achievable by underscoring the same basics that enable success on the field — it all begins with discipline and hard work.
Those who know him best would conclude that he has a coach’s mindset, the ultimate due diligent advocate who is always prepared and considers all the angles. Fueled by a dedicated work ethic, enhanced by perpetual enthusiasm and seasoned judgment, his courtship with Mary Beth Lycett confirms the above is ever present in his makeup.
When she was being recruited by Andy Landers out of Morrow High School, she remembers seeing him play between the hedges, Nov. 15, 1997. On that bitterly cold day, she had no idea who wore No. 16 was or what he did on that field when the Bulldog defense was being overwhelmed by giving up 45 points to Auburn. You have to fast forward to learn how they became permanently linked.
They became acquainted when she joined the business office of the Athletic Association after graduation, and he showed up to coach the Bulldog running backs in 2005. He “checked her out,” by doing his own scouting report by consulting with the Lady Dawg basketball staff. Their relationship was harmonious from the start.
When asked about Kirby, she comes forth with a laudable and reverential assessment.
“I just don’t see how anybody could work any harder than he does,” Mary Beth says. “Still, he finds time for family. He is really honest with everybody. He is that way with me and the kids. There is not a lot of time for us, understandably, during the season and that stretches right on into recruiting. He is passionate about recruiting as he is about anything. He knows recruiting is where success begins.
“Even so, I have seen him during his busiest time stay on the phone trying to help friends in coaching with their job search. He reaches out on their behalf. His friends are really important to him. That is why he has kept in touch with his buddies from his Georgia days.
“He is really close to his parents and his family. Family has always been important to him. He is as excited as I am about my grandmother (Madelle Malcom) coming to the Vandy game, her first time to see Georgia play. She considers him her grandson.
“Kirby dotes on our kids (twins Weston and Julia, and Andrew) and a highlight of the year is when he takes the family snow skiing after recruiting is over.”
On coming back “home,” Mary Beth, who was a four-year letter-winner and a two-year starter for the Lady Dawg basketball team, found the situation surreal. “He had turned down other opportunities, wanting to make sure that he made the best decision — trying to make sure he waited for the right job — but we never planned for it to be Georgia. That it worked out has made us very, very happy.”
Having competed on the college level, she considers that an asset which enables her to understand the rigors of being a head coach who has to endure stress and pressure and the vicissitudes in the life of today’s celebrated athletes whose heads are easily turned with the fame and potential fortune that surrounds them.
His office reveals that he is a busy man, with neat stacks of papers arranged to accommodate his requirements for the day. There are artifacts of his playing and coaching careers: photo art of him huddling with his teammates at Sanford Stadium, family photos, a couple of Steve Penley paintings (in his outer office), game ball from Alabama college football playoff victory, a photo of him and his parents on Senior Day when he would play his last game in Sanford Stadium. Most prominent is his framed diploma from the Terry College of Business.
There is also his diploma from Florida State where he earned a Masters degree as a graduate assistant member of Bobby Bowden’s staff and his trophy as winner of the 2009 Broyles Award as winner of the Assistant Coach of the Year.
Outside his office is a photo display of his signature accomplishments (four-time National Champion, five-time SEC champion, seven-time SEC divisional champion) and an action photo of Mary Beth in her Lady Dawg uniform. A loyal Bulldog and Georgia graduate, he is proud of his wife’s being a letter winner at his alma mater.
All this reflects accomplishment and the right fit to take Georgia to a consistent championship level. He never takes things for granted, however. Always reaching for the prize, he is comfortable with the expectations that hover around him.
Homecoming for him becomes real when Georgia wins a championship and makes an annual appearance in the Georgia Dome. No Bulldog of any status expects more of Kirby Smart than Kirby himself.
Loran Smith is a writer, UGA track letterman, a former executive secretary of the Georgia Bulldog Club and a longtime employee of the UGA Athletic Association who currently serves in the development office. His columns will appear weekly on DawgNation.