ATHENS – It was the first job interview of Kirby Smart’s coaching career, and it was going great. This was the part where he went to the board and drew up a play, diagramming how his defense would set up and react, arrows this way and that.
Then someone pointed out: Uh, Kirby, you drew 12 men on your defense.
“What is this, Canadian ball?” said Will Muschamp, the former Georgia teammate who had brought Smart down for this interview at Valdosta State. “We’re gonna be pretty good if we can put 12 out there.”
Smart got the job anyway, as the secondary coach for the Division II program, with Muschamp the defensive coordinator, and you know the rest. Smart was named Georgia’s head coach earlier this month, the culmination (for now) of a career that began in 2000 at a small, previously struggling program in South Georgia.
Smart wasn’t there long; he left after two seasons. But while there he, Muschamp, then-head coach Chris Hatcher and the rest of the staff quickly built the Blazers into a Division II powerhouse – and by built, in some cases that’s quite literal.
The program needed new lockers at one point, so someone donated the wood to build them – but not the manpower. It was left to the coaches, who organized themselves into an assembly line, where they sawed and put together their player’s lockers.
That wasn’t all the young and low-paid coaches – Smart earned $8,000 that first year – had to do.
“We lined the field. We were in charge of the laundry. We handed out the hamburgers with lunch for camp,” Muschamp, now South Carolina’s head coach, said in an interview this week. “People have no idea. When you’re at that level that’s what those guys do. You’re not just a coach. I was in charge of the financial aid. We did everything. I hear coaches complain about how hard it is, but we had a blast.”
And they won. The year before Hatcher took over the Blazers only won four games. The year that Hatcher, Muschamp, Smart and the rest of the staff took over, they went 10-2 and made the playoffs.
Muschamp left after the 2000 season to join Nick Saban’s staff at LSU. That proved to be one of the lasting legacies of the Valdosta experience for Smart.
“I stay at Valdosta State the second year, and I get Will’s defensive coordinator’s job,” Smart said to Fortune magazine in 2012. “So I’ve got a connection now to Nick through Will. Will and I played at Georgia together and he was at Valdosta State with me, so I had one link there.”
It was only Smart’s second year as a coach, but Hatcher said the decision to bump him up to defensive coordinator was an easy one. Smart, as a Georgia safety, had first caught Hatcher’s eye when he picked off Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch in a game twice when Hatcher was the Wildcats’ quarterback coach.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen in this business,” Hatcher said. “But I did know one thing: Working with (Smart) you knew wherever he went he was going to be successful, because he’s just a good football coach and a good person.”
The confidence was well-founded: In Smart’s one year as Valdosta State’s defensive coordinator the unit ranked second in total defense in Division II.
“We didn’t have to do a whole lot,” Hatcher said of the simple 4-3 defensive scheme. “We lined up and made sure we were in the right spot and those boys played extremely hard for Kirby.”
It also helped that they had better talent, thanks in large part, Muschamp will point out, to the players he recruited.
“Kirby and I, we give ol’ Will a hard time about that,” Hatcher said, laughing.
There’s also a story behind that too: On signing day, as Muschamp anxiously awaited some of his key recruits, the other coaches played a joke on him, who was fooled into thinking the fax machine was broken.
“For about an hour I took the fax machine and almost threw it out the window,” Muschamp said. “They got me pretty good that day.”
It was a time that everyone on the young staff could have some fun, but also make mistakes out of the glare of the national spotlight. Valdosta State went 9-0 in Smart’s second year, then won the national championship a few years later. Smart and Muschamp were long gone, but some of the lessons from there remained.
“When you start at that level – and I hope Kirby is still like this – and move up, you’ve got a deeper appreciation for the nice facilities, the office support personnel that you’ve got,” Hatcher said. “When you’re in Division II and even FCS to a certain degree you wear a bunch of different hats. I mean coaching ball is probably the last thing on the totem pole.”
Hatcher is now the head coach at Samford, an FCS program that is scheduled to play Georgia in 2017. Muschamp is now leading South Carolina, the division rival of Smart’s Bulldogs.
Things are much different now, but Muschamp said he “often things back” to those Valdosta days, the fax machine story, and when the new Georgia head coach was just getting his start.
“It’s really easy to see his background, he’s a coach’s kid, he’d do well,” Muschamp said. “He’ll do a great job at Georgia.”