ATHENS – “Just call me Kirby.”
That’s what Georgia’s new head football coach Kirby Smart has been telling coaches and prospects to call him out on the recruiting trail these last couple of weeks. It’s not as though his predecessor, Mark Richt, prohibited people from calling him anything other than “Coach Richt” – more than a few coaches just called him Mark — but it’s one of the subtle differences folks point out about Smart as they have dealt with him during these frenetic times.
“It’s interesting. I heard somebody the other day on the radio or something criticizing Isaac for calling him Kirby,” said Jay Nauta, father of tight end Isaac Nauta, an early enrollee for the Bulldogs. “Well, that’s something he’s just always wanted us to do. He always says, ‘no, just call me Kirby.’ He even does that to me. He’s that way to other people, too. It might not stay that way now that he has so many people reporting to him. But he’s always wanted me to call him Kirby.’”
We placed a few calls around the country this week to talk to individuals who have interacted with Smart in the seven weeks he has been Georgia’s head football coach to try to get an idea about his personality and recruiting style. Certainly choppering around metro Atlanta in a helicopter is a different recruiting wrinkle under Smart.
Among other things we heard about Smart, he is “extremely energetic,” “approachable,” “very personable” and, for what’s it’s worth, “touchy.”
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Trent Hatton, assistant principal at Clinch County High, welcomed Smart and assistant coach Kevin Sherrer as they flew in to visit UGA commitment Chauncey Manac last week. Hatton picked them up at the Homerville Airport.
“I dealt with him when he was at Alabama and he would come through,” said Hatton, who actually played quarterback at Bainbridge High School under Smart’s father, Sonny Smart. “He’s very personable, very easy to talk to and very energetic. The kids love him. They really take to him. Like Erk Russell used to say, he’s got that ‘it factor.’ You can’t really describe it is, but he’s got it. He’s full of energy and you can just tell from his demeanor he’s excited about Georgia football and excited to be where he’s at. You can tell it was a dream of his and he’s finally getting to fulfill it.”
Tony Eason is the father of one of Georgia’s most anticipated incoming signees in years. His son, Jacob Eason of Lake Stevens, Wash., was rated the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the country. And in regard to Smart, the Easons were truly getting a first impression of the Bulldogs’ new head coach. While they figure they probably shook his hand while they passed through Tuscaloosa during an early Southern recruiting journey, the Easons had never met Smart until he flew out to Washington immediately after his Dec. 7 introductory news conference in Athens.
“There was a lot going on at that time,” Tony Eason with a slight chuckle. “He was tired. It was a long flight and I think he’d been up for like 18 hours or something before he got here. … If I’m judging, I’d say he’s just being himself more than anything else when he’s in your house. He’s not trying to be anything else or trying to be what he thinks you want him to be. When you’ve been through this whole recruiting thing like we have, you can pick that up pretty quick. He’s genuine; what you see is what you get. He doesn’t come across as this guy with a big ego. He’s a head coach and he demands respect for being in that position, but he’s a pretty personable guy. I saw no red flags.”
Isaac Nauta and his father, Jay, have known Smart for a long time. Smart has been recruiting the elite tight end from Buford since he was a ninth grader. So to say the transition was smooth after the Bulldogs named Smart their head coach would be an understatement.
“I tell you, that guy has been nothing but even keel ever since I’ve known him,” said Jay Nauta, who sells Cadillacs for a living. “He even came in here to the dealership and saw me at work. Shoot, I spent probably 10 minutes with him, and he spent at least 30 minutes with the rest of the people in the dealership. He’s just a very direct, up-front guy. He’s a touchy guy, too. He’ll put his hand on your shoulder, on your neck, when you’re talking to him. He’s just always been like that. He’s been one of Isaac’s favorites from the beginning, just as far as being somebody who was approachable and being a sincere guy. Judging from the other recruits and people that I’ve been around, they’re excited.”
Ben Cleveland already knew Smart well when he was named Georgia’s head coach. But Derek and Andrea Cleveland, Ben’s mother and father, had never met Smart before he drove to their house in Toccoa directly after his introductory news conference in Athens.
“He drove up to the house and spent a couple of hours with us that evening,” Derek Cleveland said. “But, you know, the minute he walked in the door, it was as though he’d known us his whole life. He wasn’t uptight, everything was real informal, just very relaxed. I know people use the term down-to-earth – it gets beaten to death sometimes – but that’s how he was. You felt very comfortable around him. We really felt at ease. And that was one of the things that Coach Smart said. He said, ‘I want to reassure you that we’re going to turn this program around and make people respect Georgia and make people look at Georgia the way they used to. That’s my goal, to put the best program I can out there, and it requires quality athletes and quality students like Ben.’ And he wanted Ben to know his commitment to the program was just as important as anybody.”