TUSCALOOSA — Greg McElroy was driving from his home in Birmingham to Tuscaloosa for a sit-down interview with Alabama coach Nick Saban when he took a phone call from a reporter. The conditions were he had only about five minutes.
That is, until he heard the subject matter was going to be Kirby Smart.
“I can talk all day about Kirby,” said the former Alabama quarterback and current college football analyst for ESPN’s SEC Network. “I tell you, I love him. I really do. I couldn’t tell you enough good things about him. I’m real excited for him.”
McElroy knows Smart both as a player and as media member. He was playing quarterback for the Crimson Tide when Smart arrived with Nick Saban in 2007. He watched as Smart and grew from the role of loyal assistant to firmly-in-charge defensive coordinator.
The subject of the conversation with McElroy was to be about what Smart specifically brings to Alabama’s defense beyond working with great players. But, as McElroy alluded, he has much more to say about the man appointed the Georgia Bulldogs’ head coach on Dec. 6.
Following are some excerpts from that interview. …
Q: How do you think Kirby will do as a head coach?
A: I’m looking forward to what Kirby does now that he finally has the opportunity to run his own show. It’s just such a testament in this day in age. You see so many guys, so many guys – players, coaches, you name it – always jumping at the first opportunity, or jumping at the first head coaching job. Kirby’s had handfuls of opportunities over the last seven, eight years. He’s been patient. He’s waited. He recognized that he had a really good job at Alabama, of course, so he waited for the one that he wanted. I know he’s looking forward to making the most of it.
There’s something to be said for that in a day and age when you see so many coaches and players grabbing the first opportunity they get. Players, if things don’t work out in the first year or two of their career, you see them transfer elsewhere. It just seems like in society these days there’s so many people that aren’t patient. Patience is a virtue, obviously, and I think Kirby Smart’s career is a testament to that. He’s got a great opportunity in front of him.
Q: What would you say is the Alabama take on Kirby going to Georgia?
A: They were a young family when they got to Tuscaloosa; it’s been almost a decade now. And I know I speak for everybody over there who has really gotten to know him when I say they’ll be pulling for him. No one will be rooting harder for him to me. I really hope for him that he does a great job. There’s another guy just a few miles south I’m really rooting hard for, too (Florida’s Jim McElwain). So I’m just excited for Kirby and excited for the opportunity that he has at Georgia.
Q: Do you think Smart’s availability had anything to do with Mark Richt getting fired?
A: I know that South Carolina’s pursuit (of Smart) is why things had to change. I mean, look, Mark Richt was an amazing coach; I still think Mark Richt is an amazing coach. I think he’ll do a great job at Miami. I think the business side of things, especially when it comes to college football, is very unfortunate. And I hate to see Kirby’s opportunity come at the expense of a great person like Mark Richt. But I think it worked out for all parties in this particular case. Mark Richt gets an opportunity to go home and be a part of rebuilding a program he built in the first place as a player.
Obviously Kirby Smart has such great loyalty and appreciation for Georgia, it seems almost inevitable. It’s just funny to me because Georgia, in the last couple of years, has really developed an identity of being very similar to Alabama. With Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator, Rob Sale as offensive line coach, the strength coach, Kevin Sherrer, among others. There were several people in Athens that had ties to Tuscaloosa, I think it just comes full circle when you recognize that Kirby is now there. He should be able to start things up and get them going in the right direction.
Q. You say one of the best things Smart does is manage egos. How exactly does he do that?
A: One thing I’ve always said about Kirby is he is extremely likeable, he’s very approachable, you can always go to him if you have a question, you can always talk to you. He’ll hug you in the morning, he’ll get onto you at practice, then he’ll hug you after practice. People respond to that. He knows when to flip the switch. As a result, a lot of his guys know when to flip the switch as well.
The ego thing, I think Phil Jackson and some of the great coaches in sports, Coach Saban has some of that, they just know how to bring in guys that can go anywhere and do whatever they want to come in play for a team championship. I mean, you have the No. 1 player in the country who’s third-string on the depth chart. But he’s playing and he does well. I think that’s really important in this day and age.
Q: How do you think his style will translate to UGA?
A: He has been such an important part of what Alabama has done since Coach Saban got to campus. He’s going to be difficult to replace. To tell you the truth, at Georgia I thought Jeremy Pruitt did a wonderful job schematically (as defensive coordinator). So I think a lot of the guys are going to adjust well because they’ll have a very similar identity defensively when it comes to scheme and the way they want the personnel to act. I’ll be curious to see how he handles spring practice and some of the other things as he goes forward as a head coach.