ST. SIMONS ISLAND — UGA President Jere Morehead revealed Friday that Georgia football coach Kirby Smart and his wife Mary Beth have given a “significant donation” to the university’s Terry College of Business. That gift will result in a classroom being named in their honor when the final phase of that school’s massive construction project is completed this summer.
That’s right, “the Smart Classroom” is on the way.
“Yes, a very smart classroom,” Morehead quipped.
Both Kirby and Mary Beth Smart graduated with finance degrees from the Terry College. Morehead could not say how much money they donated and neither of the Smarts responded to messages seeking comment.
“Enough to get a classroom named after them,” said Morehead, who approved Smart’s $7 million annual salary last year.
Morehead said the Terry College would be providing details soon. A dedication of the three-phase project that produced three massive new buildings on the corner of Lumpkin and Baxter Streets will be dedicated this fall. So Smart will get a classroom named after him about the same time former coach Vince Dooley gets the field at Sanford Stadium named after him.
But as was underscored at the Georgia Athletic Association’s end-of-year board retreat here on Friday, Smart’s contributions to football are resulting in a lot of contributions to the athletic department. More than anything, Morehead and Athletic Director Greg McGarity credit Smart and the Bulldogs’ success in football for what has been enormous growth in donor giving and, by association, the athletic department’s budget.
The athletic board on Friday approved a record budget of $153.89 million for Fiscal Year 2020, which begins July 1. That is an increase of more than $10 million from last year’s budget ($143.32 M). Together with last year’s budget increase of $16 million, Georgia’s budget has grown by $26 million in the last two years.
Not coincidentally, the Bulldogs have gone 24-5 on the football field over that span. Moreover, we’re finding out that Smart is quite the star on the fundraising circuit.
Matt Borman, the GAA’s director of development, revealed that Smart is intimately involved in the Bulldogs’ fundraising efforts. He initiated the change of format of the Georgia Bulldog Club’s annual coaches’ caravan to put the emphasis on donor dinners rather than fan rallies. Borman said Smart also regularly has lunches with individual donors in his office and at times will make fundraising visits with major givers when his schedule will allow.
“Kirby is unbelievable with his time,” Borman said. “Obviously he is a great salesman for his program. We’ve been able to take advantage of the time he’s giving us. Those lunches in his office have led to some major gifts being closed.”
The Bulldogs knew they were getting a good football coach when they hired Smart in December. What they didn’t know was the salesmanship and business acumen that he would also bring.
“He’s one of our graduates, like Greg and me, and I think he relates well to our graduates,” Morehead said. “He knows many of them from his time as a student at the University of Georgia, so I do think he brings a different dynamic.”
Said Athletic Director Greg McGarity: “We can see why Kirby is such a great recruiter because he connects so well with our fan base. He knows so many people and he’s able to talk about the University of Georgia in a certain way because he’s been there and experienced it. He and Mary Beth value their degrees from Terry and he’s passionate about it.”
Smart’s program also benefits, of course. Details remain vague, but the Bulldogs are in the midst of raising money for a new football building, the price tag for which might exceed $80 million. Together with the Payne Indoor Athletic Center, the West End renovation and locker room expansion at Sanford Stadium and other projects, that’s more than $175 million in facility improvements for the football team since Smart came on board four years ago.
But at the same time, Georgia experienced exponential increases in its donor base. The Magill Society, which requires a $25,000 commitment to be paid off over five years, has seen its membership grow to 1,054 since September of 2015 and they have contributed $108.9 million, according to Borman. All that money is earmarked for construction projects for football and other sports.
The Bulldogs now boast 44 “Silver Circle” members, a club which requires at least $1 million in cumulative gifts. There were only 15 such members when Smart arrived.
Of course, Smart and football success are not the only reasons for a better bottom line. Number one, the economy has improved dramatically since 2011, when Georgia had a budget of $84.8 million. The budget has increased 45 percent since then.
Also, the SEC Network was founded in 2014. Since then, the SEC’s average distribution to its membership has gone up from $30 million that first year to $44.5 million, which Georgia is projecting for next year. That’s an increase of $3.2 million in one year.
Georgia also got a $1.7 million bump in football ticket revenue in this cycle. That increase is attributed mainly to Notre Dame and Texas A&M being on the home schedule this year. While there won’t be more seats in Sanford Stadium, the Bulldogs are able to charge those schools’ fans more commensurate to what they charge Georgia fans for tickets. Notre Dame fans will pay $185 each for their 8,000 seats, while the Aggies will pay $135. UGA normally charges an average of $66 per seat.
Borman also said that the addition of Tom Crean as basketball coach also is making a difference. He said they’re experiencing a significant increase not only in ticket sales, but program donations.
“Tom Crean does well in that regard as well,” Morehead said. “He’s got a strong and vigorous personality. He’s very different, but they’re both highly effective.”
In the end, though, it’s Smart and his football program that are the driving force behind all the glad tidings that the treasurer shared with the board in Friday’s meeting.
“He wants things done right,” McGarity said of Smart. “He’s a huge part of our fundraising efforts and he devotes as much time to it as he can. But that time is well spent. It’s more personal instead of large gatherings, so he connects with people on a more intimate level.”
As a result of the better than expected windfall, the athletic association increased its annual gift to the university by $500,000. The athletic department will transfer $5 million to UGA’s general fund next week.
Morehead said the extra money will be directed toward two strategic initiatives: $250,000 for recruiting and retention of “first-generation, rural and other under-served students;” and the other half to “promote student and faculty engagement in the emerging innovation district.”
If Smart and the Bulldogs keep winning, there will be more where that came from.