Opinion: Hiring Scott Cochran is Kirby Smart’s most aggressive move yet
Former Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran’s departure to become special teams coach at Georgia is a move that’s nearly 60 years in the making.
Paul “Bear” Bryant won the first of his six national championships at Alabama in 1961, and in doing so, Bryant became football king of a region that’s almost unrecognizable compared to what it has become today. Most significantly, when Bryant first started dominating the SEC, the population growth that would come to define Atlanta and transform Georgia hadn’t yet occurred.
Back then, Alabama and Georgia were states of similar size. According to the 1960 census, Georgia’s population was 3.96 million. Alabama’s was 3.27 million.
This was five years before the arrival of the Atlanta Braves and Falcons, a couple years before Atlanta officially became home to the World’s Busiest Airport and decades before Atlanta was selected to host the Olympics – a move that cemented Georgia as the true hub of the South, and a state with legitimate international prestige.
Today Georgia’s population is 10.52 million. Alabama’s is 4.88 million.
As Georgia has grown, the SEC – headquartered in Birmingham, Ala. – has frequently gotten caught in its orbit. When the league first started a football championship game it was initially played at Birmingham’s Legion Field, but eventually the game got too big for Alabama and had to be moved to Atlanta. Likewise, the annual summer event known as SEC Media Days – for years a fixture in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover – has seemingly also outgrown its home. It will take place in Atlanta this July for the second time in the last three years.
In other words, the league’s home office might be in Alabama, but its unofficial capital is in Georgia.
Being an SEC school so close to Atlanta ought to be a huge benefit to UGA, but it hasn’t always taken advantage of it as well as it should.
But under coach Kirby Smart, that has started to change.
Smart has seemingly ushered in a new era for the program that pushes the Bulldogs to live as large as its neighboring metropolis. In this new age — with UGA fully committed to playing to win — it’s no longer possible to construct a dynasty the way Bryant first did in the 60s, or the way Nick Saban did when he took over the Crimson Tide in 2007.
UGA simply has access to too many resources, and it now employs a coach willing to use them.
When Saban first arrived at Alabama, UGA was content to play small. The Bulldogs were satisfied with lesser facilities, cheaper assistants and meager recruiting classes.
Those muted ambitions were frequently masked by the phony bluster of hollow motivational ploys – such as the humiliating “blackout” for UGA’s game vs. Saban’s Alabama in 2008. Back then, Cochran predicted the Bulldogs’ black jerseys were for their own funeral, and the 41-30 final score that night proved him right.
Now Cochran works for UGA, and it’s his former employer that could soon be getting a visit from the grim reaper.
Alabama had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for seven straight years from 2011-17 according to the 247Sports Composite Team Ranking, but UGA has produced the top class in two of the last three years, and that isn’t the only area in which the Bulldogs are gaining ground.
Each year, Forbes ranks college football’s most valuable teams on the basis of average revenue per season over the previous three years. In 2018, Alabama was fourth in the country with an average revenue of $127 million. UGA was 16th with $89 million. However, last year the Bulldogs jumped to seventh with $125 million, compared to $134 million for Alabama.
The money earned by the Bulldogs while closing the gap with Alabama is being put to good use. Georgia recently announced a massive facilities upgrade, hired a high-profile offensive coordinator with extensive ties to the NFL and overhauled the game day experience with a state-of-the-art LED light system that was a huge hit with fans and recruits alike.
Yet in many ways, Smart’s hiring of Cochran is his boldest move yet. Cochran has been called “the most important part of Alabama football beyond Nick Saban,” and no matter what Saban says to downplay Cochran’s departure, his absence will be noticed in Tuscaloosa.
Of course, Alabama fans will say that hiring away a strength and conditioning coach is no substitute for beating Alabama and Saban on the field, something Smart – nor any other former Saban assistant – has ever done.
However, something tells me that stat isn’t as comforting for Tide fans as it once might’ve been. It’s obvious that change is on the way.
UGA might have once been content to allow Alabama to dominate the SEC, but Smart won’t tolerate that anymore – even if it requires plucking away a key source of that dominance.
This is a new version of UGA — one molded by Smart’s vision — and much the same way the state of Georgia once outgrew Alabama, its flagship university’s football program now stands poised to do the same.