ATHENS – At Georgia’s official groundbreaking for the new $30 million Indoor Athletic Facility this past Tuesday, it was Kirby Smart, two months on the job as the Bulldogs’ football coach, who stood in front of media, donors and fans, ceremonially tossing dirt with a red-and-black shovel.
In truth, it probably should have been former coach Mark Richt up there alongside UGA President Jere Morehead, Athletic Director Greg McGarity and other dignitaries. After all, it was Richt who had been beating a drum for years about Georgia’s need for such a facility.
UGA finally heeded his call, but it was too late for Richt to benefit from it. He was fired as the Bulldogs’ football coach on Nov. 29, or exactly 17 days before actual construction on the IAF began.
For this, Richt insists he harbors no bitterness.
“I’m very happy for everyone who will benefit from the new indoor facility at Georgia,” the new Miami head coach told The AJC via text message this week.
No, as often happens in these cases, it’s the new guy who reaps the most benefits. And this was not lost on Morehead and others in attendance at Tuesday’s proceedings.
“It was a project in the making for a considerable amount of time, and we all agreed that a launch in December of 2015 made the most sense from a practical standpoint,” Morehead said shortly after the ceremony. “So I certainly appreciate the many contributions (Richt) made to Georgia athletics, including his recommendation that we build this facility. He will always be remembered for what he did for Georgia athletics. Absolutely.”
Said Jon Stinchcomb, who played offensive tackle for Richt from 2001-02 and is now a member of the Georgia Athletic Association’s board of directors: “(Richt) was very instrumental in getting this done. It was part of what he’s been asking for for quite some time, and he was not alone. I’d just say it’s a good step in the right direction for the University of Georgia to finally have this facility being built.”
Having access to a state-of-the-art indoor practice building is just one of the ways in which Smart is reaping “new-guy benefits” as Georgia’s football coach. Nowhere has that manifested itself more than in the realm of travel.
Those paying attention to recruiting the last couple of months might’ve noticed that Smart and his staff were getting around quite bit via plane, jet and helicopter. Smart famously hop-scotched around metro Atlanta in mid-January in a bright, yellow helicopter.
“Looked like we were flying around in a big banana,” Smart quipped.
Indeed, Georgia’s records reflect a considerable increase from last year to this one in the use of chartered flights for the purpose of recruiting and conducting business. According to invoices provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request, Georgia’s expenses for chartered aircraft services from this past December through Jan. 31 increased 219 percent over the same time period the previous year under Richt.
Smart’s staff produced 25 invoices totaling $558,741.29 during that two-month span. Several of those invoices reflected charges of $20,000 or more for private jets, with a high of $45,306 on Dec. 11.
Asked on National Signing Day about his reliance on planes and helicopters for getting around, Smart said simply, “time is money.”
Richt and his staff chartered airplanes (but no helicopters) 16 times for a total of $174,886.05 over the same time period a year earlier. The most expensive lease among those was from Georgia Jet for $21,110.
Money for such expenses comes from the athletic association’s privately-accumulated funds and not from any state sources.
McGarity, who along with a board of directors is charged with overseeing the athletic association’s budget, acknowledged that Smart has utilized private charters more often than his predecessor. But he also took issue with comparing the two totals.
“That’s apples to oranges; there’s no way to compare that,” McGarity said. “A lot of that was interviewing candidates. It wasn’t all recruiting. We were in a transition year. … A lot of it is the price of transition.”
Indeed, a significant portion of the costs were accumulated while Smart and/or his assistants were traveling around to interview candidates for staff positions in December. But records do not always make it clear who was doing what.
Some of the invoices included a hand-written denotation of “FB-Recruiting” to indicate the travel was done for the purpose of football recruiting. At least one included the remark “interview/moving—Gen Sports.” But most included no such distinctions.
Some were obvious, however, such as the invoice for $8,000 from Georgia Jet on Dec. 13 that showed “James Chaney” as the sole passenger. Smart hired Chaney, better known as Jim, from Pittsburgh as offensive coordinator on Dec. 12. He was in Athens by the next day to meet quarterback prospect Jacob Eason and assist in Eason’s recruitment. Eason eventually signed with the Bulldogs and acknowledged that meeting with Chaney was critical to his decision to fulfill his commitment.
And not all of Smart’s travels were reflected in the documents UGA provided. For instance, there is no record of Smart flying to Lake Stevens, Wash., on Dec. 7 — the day he was introduced as Georgia’s new head coach — to meet with Eason. And Smart and new assistants Mel Tucker and Glenn Schumann all were flown back to the Southeast via private jet from Phoenix on Jan. 12, the day after they helped Alabama win the College Football Playoff national championship as Crimson Tide assistants. There is no invoice that represent that trip.
However, it’s after the open period for recruiting resumed in mid-January that Smart and his staff logged most of their chartered miles. 17 of the 25 invoices totaling more than $750,000 were filed after Jan. 13 when the recruiting calendar again permitted in-home visits.
Again, McGarity insisted UGA didn’t do anything more for Smart than Richt.
“We never told him no; there’s never been an instance we said, ‘Mark, you can’t charter,’” McGarity said. “If there is the perception that the new guy gets everything, that’s just not true. (The head coach) gets whatever he needs, whatever he requests.”
Richt did not dispute that claim.
“I was very blessed at Georgia,” he said.
Smart hasn’t appeared shy about asking for what he wants. He came to Georgia from Alabama, where the recruiting budget was generally higher than any other program in the SEC. Hence, there are other areas where Smart has exhibited a more extravagant taste in recruiting.
Last month, when prospects came to UGA on official weekend visits, they were shuttled around Athens in convoys of black Chevy Tahoe sports utility vehicles. On one particular weekend the Bulldogs utilized six such vehicles. With Georgia flags flapping from each side window, they looked a presidential motorcade driving down Smith Street toward Stegeman Coliseum.
“The Tahoes are a great example,” McGarity said, unapologetically. “We respond to requests. I can’t emphasize that enough. … Coaches come up with ideas and it’s up to the coach to be creative. If it’s legal to do and passes compliance, fine.
“From an administrative standpoint, we respond to the requests of the coach. ‘You tell me what you need.’ Had Mark Richt and his staff made that request, we would have said yes. But they didn’t think of it. Ideas are just different.”
It remains to be seen where Smart will take it from here. He is still in the process of hiring support personnel. That’s an area in which Georgia had already increased the size of its staff considerably over the last two years.
There continues to be a lot of ingress and egress on that front, but McGarity said he didn’t expect Smart to require significantly more of a work force than they previously had in the realm of “quality control” and player personnel and development.
But as he vowed at Smart’s introductory press conference and in regular intervals since then, McGarity plans to provide Smart what whatever he deems necessary to building a championship program.
“As I told Kirby, just tell me what you need and we’ll get it done,” McGarity said after the athletic association’s quarterly board meeting on Tuesday. “And I think a lot of that is the coach’s vision. What’s important to the coach? What are his priorities? Be able to discuss those and we’ll come to an understanding. ‘We’re on board, let’s go.'”
Being able to sell those 2017 recruits on that sparkly new indoor facility is a nice start. For that, Smart might at least want to drop Richt a little thank-you note.