Kirby Smart wasn’t wishy-washy about it. He said making his debut as a head coach as Georgia faced North Carolina Saturday night in the Georgia Dome was “weird” and, in some ways, a comedy of errors.
“To be honest with you, it was really weird,” Smart said to laugh in his first postgame news conference. “It was a comedy of errors flipping over on the head phones figuring out who I’m talking to. That was different. … Not feeling like I’m coaching my players. I always felt like that was my best asset. I just tried to stay really positive. …
“It was a unique experience for me that I’ll build on and learn from.”
Smart didn’t look a whole lot different on the sideline in his head coaching debut Saturday than he did the last nine years as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. Well, except that he didn’t wear his trusty visor.
But when it came to his demeanor, Georgia’s new coach was intense and emotional. And when it came to interactions, Smart was very hands on with the defense and not nearly as engaged when the Bulldogs had the ball. He was often seen instructing Georgia’s defenders at a whiteboard on the bench while the Bulldogs’ offense was running plays on the field. Actual defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was always right there at Smart’s side, however, and also providing instruction to the players.
“Oh, yeah, he’s a hands-on coach,” sophomore linebacker Roquan Smith. “He’s going to be over there talking, but he’s talking to both sides. He’s live throughout the game.”
The game against North Carolina in the Georgia Dome started markedly different as well. The Bulldogs won the opening coin toss and elected to receive the opening-half kickoff. They tended to defer to the second half under former coach Mark Richt.
“Change is a process, and we’re trying to change the culture and the demeanor,” Smart said. “And these kids played really hard. They were resilient. They had adversity and they kept fighting.”
It wasn’t just an emotional day for Smart. His wife Mary Beth got all the drama she could handle. She sat in the Dome with Kirby’s brother, Carl, who traveled from San Francisco, and her 8-year-old twins Julia and Westin.
“That was exciting,” Mary Beth said. “I’m just glad it’s over. I’m just glad we won.”
Asked whether she thought Kirby would be in the mood to celebrate or simply zonk out to sleep immediately, “I don’t know,” she said with a laugh. “Everything’s a first.”
As for in-game decisions, there were a few Smart could be questioned on. Trailing by one at the end of the third quarter, Smart burned a timeout as the Bulldogs tried to draw UNC offside on fourth-and-2. They probably should have taken the delay penalty as it was punting from midfield anyway.
And the general handling of the quarterbacks is always up for debate. After starting Greyson Lambert and going with the fifth-year senior primarily in the first half, he went with the freshman Jacob Eason in the second half. Eason came through with a 51-yard pass to Isaiah McKenzie on Georgia’s go-ahead scoring drive late in the fourth quarter.
Should Eason have been the primary quarterback all along? Perhaps. But Smart and the coaching staff deserve credit for deciding to stick with the true freshman with the game on the line.
Smart was not in the mood to nit-pick over such details. He said the goal for Saturday’s game wasn’t really about winning or losing but how the Bulldogs played the game. Specifically, would they remain competitive and poised throughout.
“We wanted our players to understand how to play Georgia football and what that is and they them to give the effort and go out and play with the competitiveness that we want, the relentless toughness, all the things we talked about,” Smart said. “That was it. It wasn’t about the scoreboard it was just about doing that. I felt like if they did that, then I’d be comfortable with how they played.”
And Kirby was comfortable indeed afterward.