ATHENS — It was comical really. The University of Georgia went to great lengths to make it appear that the decision to hire Kirby Smart as its next football coach happened quickly and suddenly.
To go by the statements issued on Sunday, one is left to think the Alabama defensive coordinator simply bowled over the university president in their interview that morning, so much so that they needed to scribble out a six-year, $22.5 million agreement right there on a napkin.
No, the Bulldogs got their man on Sunday, but Smart was identified as such weeks ago, pursued, given assurances and, finally, announced. Smart’s selection was ratified by vote of the executive committee of the Georgia Athletic Association board of directors via teleconference call at 12:40 p.m. Sunday.
Even the dismissal of former Georgia coach Mark Richt one week ago can be traced to the desire to acquire the services of this 39-year-old UGA letterman from Bainbridge. Smart, Alabama’s defensive coordinator the last eight years, has been one of the most sought-after head coaching candidates of the last couple of years, including this one. South Carolina and Virginia Tech were among the schools pursuing him the last month.
“I’m honored and excited for the opportunity at Georgia and promise high energy, effort every day, and hard work every minute on the part of all our coaches, staff and student-athletes,” Smart said in a statement released by UGA.
Smart will be formally introduced as Georgia’s coach at a news conference on the UGA campus at 12:30 p.m. on Monday. The school has asked to withhold the location to minimize distractions. He did not return messages seeking comment.
The school had great difficulty keeping its announcement under wraps. President Jere Morehead, who is chairman of the athletic association’s board of directors, was still taking roll of the executive membership when news of the Smart’s appointment was posted on the athletic department’s website. That was eight minutes before the group made the hire official by unanimous vote.
The board approved a six-year contract that will pay him approximately $3.75 million per season, according to a memorandum of understanding released by UGA on Sunday. It is Smart’s first head coaching job.
Mark Richt, who averaged 9.6 wins per year while coaching the Bulldogs for the last 15 years, made $4.1 million annually.
Smart has agreed to coach Alabama through the College Football Playoffs, which begin on New Year’s eve and won’t end until Jan. 11. But he wasted no time getting to work in his new job. He visited a 5-star signee Ben Cleveland, an offensive lineman in Toccoa on Sunday. He also contacted 5-star athlete Demetris Robertson of Savannah on Sunday and planned to fly out to Lake Stevens, Wash., to meet with 5-star quarterback prospect Jacob Eason on Monday.
Cleveland and Eason have signed non-binding grant-in-aid agreements and were slated to enroll at UGA in January before Richt was dismissed last week.
“Very down to earth and high energy,” Derek Cleveland, Ben Cleveland’s father, said of their Sunday visit. “He has a great vision for UGA. We are very excited about him and extremely honored that he took the time to come see Ben this afternoon. It was a good day.”
In the meantime, Smart was busy trying to assemble his coaching staff. He is expected to assemble his staff from members of Georgia’s current staff, some that he will bring with him from Alabama and others outside the region.
Whoever stays or goes, the season continues for Georgia. With the exception of the two coordinators, all of the Bulldogs’ current assistants are contracted through Dec. 31 and continue to work and recruit for UGA.
“I’m planning on staying, as far as I know,” said Tracy Rocker, the Bulldogs’ associate head coach who also coaches defensive line.
Georgia is preparing for a Jan. 2 bowl matchup against Penn State in Jacksonville, Fla., at the Taxslayer Bowl (formerly known as Gator), which was announced Sunday. Assistant head coach/receivers coach Bryan McClendon will serve as Georgia’s interim head coach for that game.
“It’s definitely been a little different, I will say that,” said McClendon, who was a player at Georgia in 2005 when Smart was on staff as running backs coach. “The one thing that hasn’t been different as far as everybody here is knowing it’s still all about the players. You just try to do everything you can to make sure those guys are OK.”
Smart grew up in Bainbridge, the son high school football coach Sonny Smart. He was recruited to play defensive back at Georgia by Ray Goff, then played three years under Jim Donnan. He was named team captain his senior year in 1998.
“Anytime any of your players have success it makes you happy,” said Donnan, who gave Smart his first job in coaching as a graduate assistant in 1999. “You hope you play a small role in their development. But the thing I liked about him from day one was how much he bought into the fact we’d made a change and he was all in. He was on top of things with the other kids and he did a good job of helping me out there. And he was a good player. I don’t think he’s gotten enough credit for the type of players he was.”
Smart finished his career with 13 interceptions, which ranks fourth all-time at Georgia. He was also a four-time member of the SEC academic honor roll. He is married to Mary Beth Lycett, who played basketball at Georgia. They have three children.
Smart coached defensive backs and eventually became defensive coordinator at Valdosta State. He was a graduate assistant at FSU for two years and coached defensive backs at LSU before joining Richt’s staff in 2005.
Smart left Georgia to coach safeties for Miami Dolphins and head coach Nick Saban. Smart followed Saban to Alabama and coached defensive backs for a year before taking over the defense. The Crimson Tide has been among the Top 10 nationally in total defense almost every year since. They are second this year.
“We are really excited for Kirby and his family,” Saban said in a statement released on Sunday by Alabama, which won the SEC championship Saturday. “He’s worked really hard and has done a great job for the University of Alabama, and he’s done a great job working for us for a really long time. He’s really, really appreciated for his hard work and the contribution he’s made to all of the success that we’ve had here.”
Georgia is hoping Smart can put that wealth of championship experience to good use at Georgia. To give them that, Smart is asking for the type of autonomy had at Alabama in regards to personnel and what he needs to build a winning program. Those details have been meted out through Smart’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, in the last week or so.
Or as Morehead claimed in his only statement on Smart, during their interview Sunday morning.
“Following that interview, I accepted the athletic director’s recommendation to hire Kirby,” Morehead said. “I am pleased to welcome Kirby, his wife, Mary Beth, and their three children back home to the University of Georgia, and I look forward to supporting him in his new role as our head football coach.”
The Bulldogs have failed to win an SEC championship in 10 years. The hope is that he can bring them one at least as quick as did Richt, which was his second year.