ATHENS — To say that Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp played together at Georgia really is not accurate. Though they were both defensive backs and attended UGA on football scholarships at the same time, they never actually played together.
They did practice together, however. Smart, a safety out of Bainbridge, was redshirted his true freshman year in 1994. Muschamp, also a safety, was a senior and defensive captain that season. So they never “went to war together” for the Bulldogs, as they like to say in football. But they did sit together through plenty of position meetings with secondary coach Steve Dennis and Smart stood behind Muschamp in a lot of drill lines.
“I didn’t really know Will, because Will was a fifth-year senior and I was a first-year freshman,” Smart said Tuesday evening. “So I was the little prick on the scout team that’s running around. He was the big man on campus.”
The two coaches are being asked a lot this week to reminisce about their school days. That’s because they’re getting set to go head-to-head as head coaches for the first time when Georgia and South Carolina meet Saturday night in Columbia.
“It’s South Carolina versus Georgia, a great rivalry, an SEC Eastern Division game, an important game all the time for both schools,” Muschamp said. “I have a lot of respect for Kirby. He’s a great friend. Regardless of what happens Saturday or 10 years from now, we’ll always be friends. He’s a very good friend of mine.”
It’s actually coaching together more than playing together that has made these two men close friends. Muschamp famously helped Smart get his first full-time job in coaching when he encouraged him to join him on the staff at Valdosta State in 2000. And Smart has pretty much followed Muschamp’s lead ever since.
Smart succeeded Muschamp as defensive coordinator at Valdosta State in 2001 and joined him for one year at LSU as secondary coach when Muschamp was Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator in 2004. After a brief stint as Georgia’s running backs coach in 2005, Smart followed Muschamp to the NFL when he succeeded Muschamp on Saban’s defensive staff with the Miami Dolphins.
Muschamp left that year to become Auburn’s defensive coordinator. Smart then followed Saban to Alabama until Georgia hired him as head coach last December 7th. Muschamp who has already had a head coaching stint at Florida, was hired as South Carolina’s two weeks later.
Ray Goff, the Bulldogs’ head coach from 1989-95, recruited them both and coached them both at Georgia. And he predicted success for both individuals way back then.
“You know, both of those guys are very bright,” Goff said as he drove back to Watkinsville after a speaking engagement in Macon Monday night. “They were very good students and good young men. They could’ve done anything they wanted to. They chose what they did because their fathers had a big influence on them in their lives. They saw the lives that their dads had chosen. They’re both very good coaches, but they’re as good as people as they are as coaches.”
Both Sonny Smart and the late Larry Muschamp were successful high school coaches who instilled the love of football in their sons. “That’s why they’re in it,” Goff said.
It’s really their friendship away from football that is central in their relationship. When they’re not playing each other as they are this week, Smart and Muschamp text often. In the offseason, their families usually get together at least once a year at one of their lake or beach houses. Having coached for nearly two decades now at a very high level has afforded them both a comfortable lifestyle.
“He’s a very good friend of mine, good friend of our families,” Smart said. “We’ve been good friends for a long time, and that’ll remain that way throughout. As far as the coaching influence on the coaching career, we just overlapped a couple of times and both worked for Nick (Saban). That’s the overlap.”
Like most people in football, they’re also intensely competitive. When they go out to play a round of golf, it’s not just to enjoy the great outdoors. There’s usually something on the line.
And there has always been something on the line when they have competed in football. Their teams have gone against each other five times over the years. That includes the 2009 BCS national championship game, when Muschamp was defensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting at Texas and Smart was defensive coordinator at Alabama. The Crimson Tide won 37-21.
Smart’s teams have prevailed in four of the meetings. Muschamp scored his lone victory as Auburn’s defensive coordinator in 2007 as the Tigers won the Iron Bowl matchup with Alabama 17-10.
Smart’s Bulldogs (3-2, 1-2 SEC) opened as an 8.5-point favorite over Muschamp’s Gamecocks (2-3, 1-3) in this year’s not-so-friendly rivalry. It’s the first time they’ll both be head coaches.
The hope for Smart and Muschamp is it will be the first of many head-to-head matchups they will lead. But there’s nothing really fun about that, Smart said
“I really don’t think it (is),” the Bulldogs’ coach said at his weekly news conference Monday. “It’s not about that. He was at Texas when we played them for a national championship. He was at Florida. He was at Auburn. It’s never really been about that for me. He and I are good friends. We talk from time-to-time. It’s never an extra motivation because that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about our players and their players. It’s business-like for us.”