ATLANTA — Kirby Smart has been all business this week and his interview with SEC Network star Laura Rutledge and Nick Saban started out the same way on Friday.
But for a few fun and lighthearted moments, the pickup basketball games that took place at LSU 17 years ago became the topic of discussion on the SEC Now stage at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and Smart and Saban couldn’t contain their laughter.
“I respect Kirby as a competitor,” Saban said, asked what makes Smart’s effective in games. “He was always on my team in noontime basketball, so I know what he’s like when it comes to doing a great job for his team …. I know how competitive Kirby is.”
Smart allowed himself what might have been his only smile in an interview setting of the week leading up to the SEC Championship Game at 4 p.m. on Saturday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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Saban, known best for carrying a stern sometimes harsh sideline disposition en route to seven national championships, smiled widely and was practically beaming as Smart — arguably the shiniest apple off his coaching tree — shared tales of how the coaches shared downtime.
“He would pick the teams, and so he was the ref, he was the general manager and he was the owner,” Smart said. “Fortunately, I got to play on his team.”
Smart spend nine years at Saban’s side at Alabama, sharing in four of those national championships.
But before that, Smart coached with Saban at LSU in 2004, joining his old friend Will Muschamp, who was Saban’s defensive coordinator, on the Tigers’ staff.
There were also pickup basketball implications, Smart revealed.
“Muschamp got demoted once I got there, (Saban) wanted the younger, more talented guy,” Smart said. “He didn’t want Will and Derek (Dooley) on his team anymore. We had some really physical battles.”
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Smart said the coaches didn’t really have a choice but to play with Saban when requested.
And Saban, like Smart a former collegiate defensive back (Kent State), had some basketball game, too.
“He’s got unbelievable handles,” Smart said of Saban’s dribbling and ball control. “And he’s got an uncanny ability to bank a shot. You know the guy on Hoosiers that teaches you to hit the bank shot? He still uses the backboard. I grew up in a generation where the backboard, you didn’t count that, you had to go all net. He still uses the backboard.”