I’ve been criticized more than a few times this season for being too stern when I grade Georgia on my weekly Report Cards. And a lot of times my marks haven’t been glowing — though rarely poor — with regard to the performance of head coach Kirby Smart, which always draws the ire of Bulldogs’ faithful.
Let me just say two things about that. First, as for my grading scale, it starts from the point of excellence. To achieve an “A” in any area means things had to have gone pretty much perfect, which rarely happens in football and was especially rare for Georgia this year. Hence, I haven’t given out a ton of “A’s.”
As for Kirby, these grades are dispensed on a week-to-week basis and are based on the way things went in any given game. But that’s different when you widen the lens to encapsulate the view of the season as a whole. And from that perspective, I give Georgia’s rookie coach high marks.
Now the story on Smart’s first season is not written. As all of us know who have followed UGA for any length of time, what the Bulldogs do against their primary rivals — Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech — is on what every Georgia coach forever will be judged. Don’t think so, just ask Jim Donnan. He did OK against everybody else, but against those three, he did not do well at all. Hence, he was fired after losing to the Yellow Jackets a third straight year in 2000.
So far, Smart is 1-1 against those teams. That upset of the No. 9-ranked Tigers two weeks ago was ‘YUGE,’ as one president-elect might say. And suffice it to say, a win over archival Georgia Tech this Saturday will do wonders for Smart’s credibility among the Bulldogs’ most ardent supporters.
But that’s not the point I want to make today. Regardless of what happens this Saturday in the rivalry so aptly named “Clean Old-Fashioned Hate,” I give Kirby good marks for the way he has handled this team in this transition year. That’s particularly for the seniors and upperclassmen, the guys who were fully indoctrinated in another way of doing things.
And that, my friends, was no small undertaking.
“The transition has been great,” Smart said Monday of the minuscule senior class, which includes 12 scholarship players, some of those elevated walkons. “… They respected our staff and our program to the ‘enth’ degree. A lot of them have supported everything we’ve been about. They’ve been the glue that held this team together during some adverse times. We appreciate them and have a chance to recognize them Saturday. So we just want them to go out on top and that’s what’s important.”
Think back to Week 10 of the season. Georgia was coming off back-to-back humiliating losses, first at home against Vanderbilt and, then, two weeks later to Florida in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs weren’t really even competitive in the 24-10 loss to the Gators, and it was clear both mathematically and aesthetically at that point, that Georgia wasn’t going to get anywhere near the Georgia Dome and the SEC title game.
But something happened that following Sunday that went Kind of under the radar at the time. The Bulldogs’ seniors and the team leadership council held a meeting in that same team-meeting room where Smart conducts his weekly news conferences. According to scattered accounts from various players who were in attendance that day, a lot of the conversation was about buying in to what Smart and the new regime were selling. It was about not accepting the way things were going and writing off the season as a consequence of “culture change.”
And what Smart was selling wasn’t an easy buy. He has preached and practiced toughness, above all else. Rather than having one day of full contact in practice each week, Smart wanted three. Rather than repping finesse, Smart wanted to work on the fundamentals of blocking and tackling and winning one-on-one matchups. “Winning your box,” Smart calls it.
And that’s what happened in those two critical weeks following the Florida debacle. It probably always will be one those “you-had-to-be-there” moments, but Georgia was facing quite a challenge that cold night in Kentucky. The Big Blue was out in force and fully behind their football team, which not only began the day solidly in second place and ahead of Georgia in the Eastern Division standings, but with Florida’s loss during the course of the game could end the day in first with a win over the Bulldogs.
Instead, Georgia drove the length of the field and won the game on a Rodrigo Blankenship field goal as time expired.
The next week, the Bulldogs’ defense was thoroughly dominant against an Auburn team that came in with the SEC’s most potent offense. Without the benefit of an offensive touchdown, Georgia beat their oldest rival 13-7 without allowing so much as a second-half first down. It was a victory that would’ve made Erk Russell proud.
If not for those seniors and team leaders buying in, the season could’ve gone the other way at that juncture. Instead, we saw the Bulldogs climb out of the abyss.
“They’re not afraid to speak their mind, which I think is good in that setting,” Smart said of those seniors and that late-October meeting. “But they’re also not locker room lawyers. They understand they’ve got a role to lead this team and keep the demeanor right. I thought they did that.”
For getting them to do that, Smart deserves a lot of credit. Coaches can call plays and they can for go for it on fourth down and choose the ball or the wind. But the most difficult thing they do is manage personalities and egos and serve the team as both teachers and psychological task masters.
We’re finding out that Smart is pretty good at all that, and that bodes well for Georgia’s future.
“Being comfortable being uncomfortable,” senior Greg Pyke said of Smart’s general message. “I think what he really meant by that was just having to be able to push that extra, go above and beyond, do that extra stuff, whether it be extra treatment, watching extra film, doing extra practice reps. That’s what he’s really trying to build in the culture of Georgia football, is doing that little extra to be that much better.”
Sounds like he’s bought in.