ATHENS — If you’ve risen through the ranks as an offensive football coach, your most important hire as the head guy is your defensive coordinator. Conversely, if you’ve been a defensive guy your whole career, you better get a sharp guy to run your offense.
That’s a lesson Derek Dooley learned while head coach at Tennessee. And it’s one reason he thinks his good friend Kirby Smart is going to do well at Georgia.
In landing not only Jim Chaney to coordinate the Bulldogs’ offense but also offensive line coach Sam Pittman, Dooley believes Smart got a huge head start on getting his football program under way.
“The two most important hires for Kirby were the offensive coordinator and the O-line (coach),” said Dooley, who is currently the wide receivers coach for the Dallas Cowboys. “Those are the two (positions) where you’ve got to know what you’re doing or you’re going to get exposed. I think the fact that Jim and Sam have been together at Tennessee and Arkansas, that continuity and knowing each other, the learning curve was not going to be as dramatic.”
Chaney’s offense will be on full display in two weeks when the Bulldogs play the annual G-Day Game at Sanford Stadium. Smart has called for a capacity crowd at the 92,746-seat facility and the game will be televised on ESPNU.
Dooley has more than a casual knowledge of what kind of offense Chaney and Pittman can produce. The two men worked for him in Knoxville. Dooley actually inherited Chaney from Lane Kiffin when he succeeded Kiffin in Knoxville in 2010. Pittman joined them in 2012.
And it was in 2012 that tandem did its best work. The Vols actually finished ahead of the SEC East champion Georgia Bulldogs in total offense that season, 476 yards per game to 468. Quarterback Tyler Bray passed for 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns (with 12 interceptions) while wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson combined for 1,861 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns.
“Our third year we had the best or second-best offense in the history of Tennessee,” Dooley said. “Of course, we had some good players. … I thought that was a real testament to Jim’s ability to keep staying progressive without compromising sound football principles. I think that’s a real key for a coach, being able to stay simple but progressive.”
As has been well documented, Dooley was fired as the Vols’ head coach at the end of that season. But it had nothing to do with his teams’ offensive performances.
“Kirby’s pretty smart; he’s seen what’s happened to Will (Muschamp) and me,” Dooley said with a laugh. “He knows you don’t have much time. Even though it takes time to establish your program, nobody wants to hear that. They don’t care what the state of your program is.”
Smart, a veteran coach of 16 college football seasons — including 11 with Nick Saban — knows this as well as anybody. So when he landed the Georgia head coaching job early last December, he immediately set his eyes on Chaney.
He counts as his first success as Georgia’s head coach being able to snag Chaney from Pitt and Pittman from Arkansas less than a week on the job.
“It was huge for me,” Smart said earlier this week. “I’d always heard that (Chaney) was a great coordinator. I’d gone against him so I knew that. But I’d never sat through an interview with him. At the time, I didn’t have a whole lot of staff. I hadn’t really retained anybody yet and I hadn’t really hired anybody. I wanted to get that piece.”
Getting both Chaney and Pittman in one swift swoop was an added bonus that Dooley believes is going to pay dividends for Smart this fall.
“In order to get quick results, the coaches have to be on the same page before the players can be,” Dooley said. “And so when you hire an O-line and OC who are already on the same page, it saves you a lot of time in transition.”
Pittman actually wasn’t on Smart’s radar screen when he first set out to hire a staff. It was only after that initial meeting with Chaney that he understood how important an acquisition Pittman would be. Chaney essentially insisted on it.
Smart made it happen, but it wasn’t easy. Not only did the Bulldogs make Pittman one of the highest-paid offensive line coaches in the country at $650,000, but they paid Arkansas a $100,000 buyout and gave him a three-year contract. Chaney will earn $850,000 a year over the next three years as Georgia’s offensive coordinator.
“He felt strongly that if he could have Coach Pittman by his side,” Smart said. “He and Sam had worked together so many times, that they were a great tandem.”
Chaney was ideal for other reasons. Indirectly, he’s part of the Saban coaching tree. That’s important when it comes to understanding and embracing the infamous “process” Saban employs in player and program development.
Like Smart, Dooley worked under Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins. So he employed many of Saban’s coaching techniques and practice routines at Tennessee. Chaney and Pittman have experienced that first hand.
“The other benefit of Jim for Kirby is the structure that Nick puts in place that we all learn from,” Dooley said. “Expectations of practice, how we practice, how the program’s run, how you recruit, there are so many things that are similar to what we did at Tennessee. I suspect it’s going to be a lot easier for Kirby to communicate to Jim what he wants with Jim having been in that system for those years. Kirby’s going to put his own touch on it, but just the overarching thing there’s a lot to carry-over that’s going to help them this spring.”
Said Smart of Chaney: “He’d been with Derek, which gave him some of Coach Saban’s coaching tree. So he’d been around some of the same drills and had the same beliefs and fundamental beliefs. That was a key cog.”
Georgia’s offensive players say the familiarity between Chaney and Pittman is evident.
“It definitely shows when we’re out there in practice,” junior offensive lineman Dyshon Sims said. “They’re kind of like the same person, actually. They get us going and we’re having fun out there. You can tell they’ve (coached) together before. It’s like they’ve been doing this their whole life, basically.”
And Dooley believes that’s going to help Georgia in the long run. Maybe even in the short run.
G-Day, Georgia’s annual spring football scrimmage, is scheduled for 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 16, at Sanford Stadium. Check back here daily for DawgNation’s G-Day coverage brought to you by Georgia United Credit Union.