Own the East: For Georgia’s Kirby Smart, building the Bulldogs is a minute-by-minute proposition
GEORGIA’S OWN #1: COACH KIRBY SMART
ATHENS – Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity’s face lights up in a wide grin when asked what he has learned about his head football coach over these last three years.
He chuckles for a moment, then shares an anecdote about his many one-on-one meetings with Kirby Smart.
“The first thing he asks is how much time do you need,” McGarity said this week. “I might say, ‘just five minutes.’ He’ll say, ‘OK, how about 1:35? I can give you five minutes then.’”
And so, they’ll meet at precisely at 1:35 p.m. And if they’re still talking at 1:41 p.m., Smart will start fidgeting and looking at his watch.
McGarity doesn’t translate that as Smart doesn’t have much time for him. From his vantage point, Smart has accounted for pretty much every minute in every day. McGarity likes that. And, like everybody else, he has seen what that kind of detail-oriented approach has had on Georgia’s football program.
“I respect him for that,” McGarity said, because that means he has every day scripted out. It doesn’t matter if it’s June or if it’s January.”
McGarity laughed again.
“I also know I only have five minutes, so we tend to get to the point quickly.”
Welcome to Kirby’s World. Anybody who has anything to do with the Georgia football program is living in it. He’s a maniacal taskmaster who counts minutes in a day like others count dollars in their bank account.
Media and other ancillary organizations are not excluded. When Smart recently wanted to personally thank UGA’s Redcoat Marching Band for everything they do for the program, he scheduled an appearance in a brief gap he had between the end of practice, giving a post-practice briefing to reporters and breaking down the video from that day’s practice.
So he had UGA’s Transportation service to send a bus to the Butts-Mehre Building to pick up reporters and carry them to the Intramural Sports Complex where the band was practicing. There, he spent exactly two minutes talking to band over a microphone from a viewing tower, then came down and gave the press eight minutes to ask questions. Then he was immediately whisked away in his Ford pickup truck by operations director Josh Lee and returned to the football complex.
The whole endeavor cost Smart 15 minutes. Reporters spent an hour on the bus between the drive over and back and sitting on the bus awaiting his arrival. But that’s how Smart rolls.
Based on last year’s results, it’s working for him. The Bulldogs shocked the college football world by winning the SEC Championship and playing for the national title in Smart’s second year. They came tantalizingly close to winning it all.
That Smart was able to lead Georgia to that level of success in and of itself was no surprise. Most expected it would happen eventually. But by every measure, Smart getting them there 25 months after the announcement of his hire was ahead of schedule.
Now, between that and three recruiting classes that were nationally-ranked 6, 3 and 1, the expectations are officially through the roof. The Bulldogs were picked as a runaway favorite to win the East, almost every projection has them back in the College Football Playoff and a number of analysts have them winning the program’s first national title in 38 years.
All that has seen Smart re-coin Billy Jean King’s maxim of “pressure is a privilege.” Between that and his Smart’s new seven-year, $49 million contract, count him a very privileged man.
“Those are things we embrace at the University of Georgia,” he says of great expectations. “We can’t run from those things.”
The fact is, Georgia is ahead of schedule under Smart. If he’s proven nothing else, it’s that he knows how to get them where they want to go. Now they have to figure out how to cash in once they’re there.
Smart is owning up to his part of coming up short as well. He said there were several takeaways from last season, when the Bulldogs went 13-2 and let Alabama come from behind to steal away the national championship in overtime.
“You always want to get better as a coach,” he said. “What we try to do is look at areas we were deficient in last year, where did we not play well, what did we not do well. … Two-minute situations; third down and short; we weren’t as good on third down as we thought we needed to be; Turnovers. How can we improve ourselves? You’re always trying to do that regardless of what year you’re coaching, second, third, fourth, or 20th.”
Georgia fans will probably like hearing this factoid: Since 2000, all but four national titles has been won by a coach in his second, third or fourth year with his team, or by a coach who has already done so with the same team.
That should bode particular well for team whose coach just led them to a runner-up finish in Year 2.
Meanwhile, Year 3s have been stunningly successful for programs under the guidance of new leadership. Michigan’s Lloyd Carr (1997), Southern Cal’s Pete Carroll (2003); LSU’s Les Miles (2007); Alabama’s Nick Saban (2009), and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (2014) all hoisted national championship trophies in their third year.
And, of course, it’s the Alabama template forged by Saban that Smart has welded onto Georgia’s football program. The similarities thus far are uncanny. After going 7-6 in 2007, the Crimson Tide was 12-2 in 2008 and then went 14-0 to win it all in 2009.
The Bulldogs have gone 8-5 and 13-2 in Smart’s first two years. Many are projecting Georgia, which currently is favored in every game, to have an undefeated regular season this year. Then, of course, they’d likely face Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
But don’t bother discussing any such projections with Georgia’s young coach. He’s not looking at the 2018 season week-to-week or even day-to-day.
As his boss at Georgia will tell you, for Smart these things are minute-by-minute propositions.
“He cannot stand for people to not be performing at an optimum level all the time,” McGarity said. “And that’s so hard to do. We all have days where we feel like we might not have the juice that day; everybody has that. I don’t know if Kirby accepts that. For him, every day is precious, every hour is precious.”
And that makes Kirby Smart the biggest reason Georgia will “Own the East.”