Dear Coach Smart,
Well, I’m guessing at some point during this season you may have been tempted to say, “Mary Beth, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Alabama anymore.”
Tough first season. As you found out, there’s a lot more to winning in the SEC than just packing the stadium for the spring game. (Congrats on the 93K, though. That was an ambitious goal and the fact that you achieved it was impressive.)
Still, as I warned you back when I first wrote you back in January, right after you took the reins at UGA, the fact that you were the popular choice to replace Mark Richt didn’t change the fact that Richt wasn’t fired for not winning enough games; rather, for not winning enough big games or championships.
So, the bar was set kind of high for you — quite a bit higher than for most new coaches. And, while most Dawgs fans I talked with in the preseason realized the talent challenges you faced, and had modest expectations for your first team, I’m not sure “modest” in their minds translated to just seven wins in the regular season.
No matter, there’s always next year. Only, as I pointed out before, college football fans are an impatient lot generally, and quite a few expect you to at least equal Richt’s second season.
You might recall he won an SEC championship that year.
Others in Bulldog Nation have their sights set higher. As one fan put it when you were first hired: “I expect to contend for a national title in year 2.”
Like I said, no pressure at all.
Anyway, back when I first wrote you, I outlined some of the expectations the fan base had for you. I thought I’d run through those and see how you’ve done so far:
- Stop the unexpected, humiliating blowouts. Well, Ole Miss was a blowout and the Florida game wasn’t terribly competitive, but those were expected to be your biggest challenges with the talent you inherited and the young kids you had to use. The real expectation here was that your teams always would “show up prepared,” and I can’t say they always did that (Nicholls State). So, this is still a work in progress. It certainly is worth noting you did beat a heavily favored Auburn and played heavily favored Tennessee to the closest possible loss.
- Be flexible and always willing to examine what works and what doesn’t. I’d say you rate an “incomplete” on this one. You and your staff adjusted against Tennessee and in the second half of Missouri and then stubbornly refused to do so against Vanderbilt and wound up losing to the lowly Commodores at home. Time will tell whether you’re willing to adapt to the talent you have and what the other team is giving you, or if you’re going to insist on trying to institute your “system,” even if it loses games for you. What I’m mainly interested in seeing is whether the offense evolves or if we are doomed to the “old man football” that Jim Chaney seems to prefer.
- Players should still be expected to behave and should be punished or dismissed if they don’t. You had a pretty fortunate first season in this regard, so we’ll have to wait and see how you handle these situations. Your Alabama background makes you a little suspect in this regard with some fans, but most just want to win and likely would give you a pass if you do, no matter how you handle discipline. But my expectation, as I wrote in January, is that there should be no lowering of disciplinary standards. The next Zach Mettenberger or Jonathan Taylor should be just as swiftly kicked out of school as before.
- If you need something, demand it. There was a lot of talk about Richt not having resources that rivals had (an indoor practice facility, recruiting staff, etc.) and not being terribly aggressive in demanding what he needed. So far, you appear to have gotten everything you wanted, even a state law on open records that mostly accommodates your boss and really won’t help you win any ball games at all. Overall, I get the feeling that demanding what you need won’t be a problem for you.
- It’s not just about recruiting and hiring staff. Manage the game well. As I noted in January, even the best coaches miss on some decisions (Nick Saban and the kick-6), and you’ll never win big if you avoid risk. But you need to be smart about clock management, subbing, pooch kicks, etc. Unfortunately, in your first season you mostly were not there yet. You didn’t handle the clock very well with several late-game or late-first half possessions and you tried to kill the clock way too early against Tech. There also were quite a few wasted timeouts this season due to apparent disorganization on the sideline. Overall, this was a disappointing area, but not particularly a surprise since it’s an aspect of the game where you had virtually no experience, having never been a head coach before. One thing that did disturb some fans was seeing how wrapped up you got in coaching up the defense on the sideline during games. You have a coordinator for that; as the head coach, you need to step back and keep the big picture in mind at all times.
- Improve special teams, which previously were a dumpster fire. Mixed results here. Your special teams started out pretty awful early in the season, but generally trended better in the second half of season, so that’s good. Still, there’s no way this could be listed yet as a strength of the team. Improvement is needed. Please, don’t be that head coach who downplays the importance of what really is a third of the game.
- Most importantly for your job security, you will need to get UGA back in the SEC title game during the Jacob Eason era. As I wrote you in January, the fact that Richt didn’t even make it to the game while he had Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno in Athens still boggles the mind. Basically, you’re in Athens now because the Dawgs hadn’t won the SEC since 2005. If you win the conference, chances are good that you’ll also make the College Football Playoff. That, for starters, should keep most in the Bulldog Nation happy. You’re off to a slow start, having pretty much wasted Nick Chubb and Sony Michel this year, and I personally don’t look for your second team to be that much better than your first, what with the work needed to build an offensive line. But, if Georgia isn’t playing for the SEC title in Eason’s junior year, I think you’re going to find your seat heating up considerably.
Honestly, Coach Smart, if you had beaten Tech, a lot of folks in Bulldog Nation would be feeling pretty good right now. The Dawgs either would be ranked, or nearly ranked, while heading for a bowl game. But you didn’t beat Tech and your team isn’t close to being ranked. It’s a game of inches and seconds, as your predecessor and you both learned the hard way.
Before I sign off, another piece of unsolicited advice: Lose the Nick Saban Jr. attitude. Saban earned the right act like a surly jerk; you haven’t. Sure, if you wind up winning like Saban does, the press corps may grumble, but most fans won’t mind at all if you have all the attitude in the world. Until you get there, though, a touch of Richtian empathy and humility might make the contrast with what you’ve actually achieved a bit less unflattering.
Anyway, I’m still excited to have you in Athens and have great expectations for the future.
Please don’t let us down.