Would you like to receive DawgNation news alerts? Excellent! News alerts will be displayed in your browser.
Curtis Compton/AJC
Kirby Smart prepares to enter his fourth season as UGA coach.

Recent history suggests fourth season as UGA coach could be pivotal for Kirby Smart

Brandon Adams

Georgia football fans crave a national championship, and this season might be the year their wait comes to an end. However, the first step toward making that happen is for UGA coach Kirby Smart to lead the Bulldogs to a third-straight SEC East title. With that in mind, DawgNation is proud to present — in partnership with Georgia’s Own Credit Union — the “Own the East” series. A season preview content series focused on what it will take for UGA to dominate the division once again, and possibly return to the College Football Playoff.

Recent history suggests 2019 is an important season for the legacy of Georgia coach Kirby Smart.

As Smart begins his fourth season with the Bulldogs, UGA obviously has its sights set on a national championship — which would be the program’s first since 1980, and Smart’s first ever as a head coach. And the time for accomplishing that feat might be now. Not necessarily because UGA is set up perfectly to do so — although it might be. The timing has more to do with how crucial fourth seasons have been for recent coaches.

11 of the past 13 coaches to win a national championship for the first time, or coaches who’ve won their first national championships at new schools, have done so within their first four years on the job.

The full list includes:

2000: Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops (second season with the Sooners)

2001: Miami’s Larry Coker (first season)

2002: Ohio State’s Jim Tressel (second season)

2003: Split national champions with Nick Saban (fourth season) and USC’s Pete Carroll (third season)

2006: Urban Meyer at Florida (second season)

2007: LSU’s Les Miles (third season)

2009: Saban at Alabama (third season)

2010: Auburn’s Gene Chizik (second season)

2013: Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher (fourth season)

2014: Meyer at Ohio State (third season)

In the last 19 years, the only two coaches to win a national championship for the first time at their current jobs who had been in place for longer than four years were Mack Brown, who won the 2005 national championship at Texas, and Dabo Swinney, who won at Clemson in 2016. Both were in their eighth seasons.

Does this mean that if Smart doesn’t win a national championship this season he won’t ever win one? Obviously not.

However, it should be a reminder of the pressure that builds the longer a coach goes without winning.

In other words, for every Brown and Swinney — coaches that rewarded their employers for the patience they were shown — there’s a Mark Richt, who eventually wore out his welcome with a fanbase that simply grew tired of waiting.

The good news for UGA fans hoping this is the year for Smart is that, through three seasons on the job, Smart has definitely had the look of a coach on an upward trajectory, and he’s crafted a program that closely resembles the teams that have recently won championships.

Former UGA All-American Jon Stinchomb, speaking as part of DawgNation’s season preview video series, Own the East (linked above), says the work Smart has put into building the program over the last three seasons could be about to pay off, and the atmosphere that’s been cultivated around the program acts as a catalyst — even for the newcomers.

“As freshmen come to campus, they know part of a culture that they’re participating in and where the bar is and the standard that’s set, and that comes from Coach Smart,” Stinchcomb said. “By year four, that’s established. That culture is the biggest piece a coach contends with when he enters a new program.”

Stinchcomb also said the transition to a fourth season provides an opportunity to fully move on from the previous coaching regime — even one like Richt’s, which was mostly successful.

“It’s [Smart’s] culture now,” Stinchcomb said. “He’s created the identity of this team. There’s no more talk of an inheritance of Coach Richt’s players.. Year four, this is yours. Your fingerprint is all over this entire organization top to bottom — not only the roster, but how they conduct business.”

Of course, “business” has mostly been good for the Bulldogs since Smart was hired, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t also been some growing pains.

The chance to grow is something Smart apparently relishes. Smart spoke before the start of last season about whether the lessons learned during a challenging first season (UGA went 8-5 in 2016) set him up to lead the Bulldogs to the Playoff the following year.

“I think you always want to get better as a coach,” Smart said last August. “As coaches, we’re trying to look introspectively at what we could do better… we’re always trying to do that regardless of what year we’re coaching in — second, third, fourth or 20th.

2019 provides another chance for Smart to get better, and like many of the other top coaches who’ve come before him in recent years, this upcoming fourth season could be the moment Smart delivers the national championship UGA fans have been waiting for.

Previous Own the East season preview stories:

Heisman candidates Jake Fromm, D’Andre Swift could be UGA championship catalyst

Don’t count out Brian Herrien in battle to become UGA’s next 1,000-yard rusher

Richard LeCounte is arguably one of college football’s most underrated players

Fans have high hopes for UGA’s latest collection of elite recruits

Combination of returning talent, touted newcomers should improve UGA’s ‘Havoc Rate’

Jake Fromm working to gain chemistry with new WRs

UGA’s lauded offensive line still has areas in which it can improve

Zamir White, already part of ‘RBU’ family, could soon add to its legacy

QB depth could be crucial component of UGA’s championship chase

UGA’s No. 1-rated 2018 class still offers potential breakout stars

Former UGA great doesn’t see realistic threat to Bulldogs in SEC East

New UGA coordinators could be ‘source of excitement’ for Bulldogs

No shortage of options for UGA in quest to replace Deandre Baker

UGA’s rush defense must improve for the Bulldogs to win the national championship