GLENDALE, Ariz. – Kirby Smart’s game day began like almost every other that he’s had since he’s been at Alabama. But this was anything but an ordinary game.
That’s to say nothing of it being a national championship tilt for the Crimson Tide. Let’s be honest, that’s kind of old hat for those of the houndstooth variety. This was the fourth title game in which Smart has participated in the nine years he’s been at Alabama.
And now he — or rather, they — are 4-0 in those games. The No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide (14-1) hung on to beat No. 1 Clemson (14-1), 45-40, in the the College Football Playoff championship at University of Phoenix Stadium Monday night.
So under the wing of his mentor Nick Saban, Smart has had the pleasure of winning four national championships in the last seven years.
“I don’t think anybody really understands what that is,” Smart said as he stood in an Alabama locker room choked with cigar smoke. “In a world where there is parity and you’ve got to change quarterbacks every other year and kids come and go. It’s just a different world in college football to be able to do that.”
It was the last game Smart was coaching while wearing the crimson of the Tide. As of Tuesday, the only colors he’ll wear will be the red and black of his alma mater, the University of Georgia.
While he was named the Bulldogs’ head coach 36 days ago, the Kirby Smart Era at UGA really begins on Tuesday when he finally sets foot for good in Athens. And he’ll be there bright and early Tuesday morning.
Smart, along with his wife Mary Beth, their 7-year-old twins Westin and Julia, were scheduled to board the University of Georgia’s plane at 6 a.m. to fly back to Athens. Accompanying them on their trip will be Glenn Schumann and Mel Tucker, two members of the Alabama football staff who will be joining Smart and the Bulldogs.
Schumann, a defensive quality control specialist, will be coming as an on-field assistant coach. Tucker, a 10-year NFL veteran who coached the Crimson Tide’s defensive backs and was assistant head coach, will be the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator.
All that was confirmed on the field and in the locker room as Alabama players took turns telling the three coaches goodbye with big hugs and long embraces.
“Got to get to work,” said Schumann, whose exact position is yet to be determined. “Can’t wait to get there. A lot to do.”
There were going to be no parties for any of the outgoing party. Saban infamously gives his teams only 24 hours to celebrate victories. But Smart was allowing even less than that, imposing “a five-hour rule” because they were all in hurry to get to Athens as soon as they could.
Plus, after the track meet Smart and his defense had just been put through, he said he was “absolutely exhausted.”
“I’m going to bed; going to sleep,” Smart said. “I’m tired. Ready to fly out and get gone.”
One reporter asked Smart if this was the perfect way to go out, having won another national championship. But there’s still too much defensive coordinator in Smart to accept that.
“Perfect? Not giving up 40 (points) and 550 (yards),” he said, incredulous. “I hate going out with that kind of performance. Leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But I’m proud for the kids and how they battled and kept fighting.”
Georgia was wasting no time getting its man home. Mike Cavan, Smart’s newly-appointed special assistant, and football operations director Josh Lee met Smart and his family in the middle of the field while confetti was still pouring down from the rafters of the domed stadium. At one point, Smart literally formed a huddle with Cavan and Lee and Schumann to exchange a short private message among the celebratory din.
While Smart has maintained that he has been able to keep up with all the demands of both of his jobs, he admitted at the end of this long night there were some things he is regretfully behind on.
“I’ve watched tape and I know a lot about the numbers and what we’ve got scholarship-wise and about the position breakdowns and what we need, stuff like that,” he said. “We’ve had meetings like that. But do I know the kids personally like I want to? No, I do not. That’s where I’m most behind, the personal relationships I intend to have with each and every kid. I hate that because I’ve only had a chance to be in front of them once. I’m going to get started on that as soon as possible.”
Smart’s wife, who played basketball for the Bulldogs, feels more than a little behind, too. Her two older kids are set to begin school at Athens Academy on Wednesday, and she’s eager to get her home set up. Their youngest child, 3-year-old Andrew, remained back in Georgia with their paternal grandparents in Rabun County and didn’t make the trip.
“My first priority is to just get them settled and into a routine,” Mary Beth said. “I’m so thankful for my in-laws and my parents for being willing and able to help out. But it will be nice to be in one place a while.”
In the hours before kickoff, Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity was quite pleased with the way things have worked out. He said he was always comfortable with Smart’s request to continue coaching Alabama’s defense while also leading the Bulldogs’ football program.
“I’m fully confident that while physically he may not have been in Athens during this time, mentally he was doing what he could on behalf of the institution. He was able to multi-task successfully,” McGarity said Monday. “The timing was such, with classes starting (Monday), we had no one on campus during that time other than bowl practice anyway. So as far as recruiting, things of that nature, that could have been handled anywhere. The way the calendar worked out and school not starting til the 11th, all of those things when you look at them as a whole certainly led us to be able to accommodate everyone.”
Throughout it all, Smart maintained that the challenge he chose to undertake wasn’t over the top. Nick Saban enlisted an operations assistant to help Smart handle UGA business when he was otherwise attending to the Tide’s X’s and O’s. But Smart said even that wasn’t totally necessarily.
Tapping the smart phone in his right-front pocket this weekend in Phoenix, Smart confidently, “The only secretary I need is this phone. That’s what I use.”
Indeed, by all indications Georgia has suffered no setbacks as a result of its decision to hire change head coaches after a nine-win regular season. The Bulldogs won their bowl with a patchwork coaching staff. And none of the ballyhooed recruits with multiple stars next to their names have jumped ship. In fact, one or two more seem to have come aboard.
It’s enough to make the Bulldogs wonder what it might look like when they finally get their boy full time.
Gary Danielson, lead college football analyst for CBS Sports, thinks he knows.
“They’re getting a coach who’s going to be able to evaluate players, and he understands winning defense and he understands I think how to motivate competitive people and bring them into the program,” Danielson said. “I don’t think there’s anything X-and-O wise he’s going to bring that looks any different than what Georgia was doing before.”
To watch Smart at work on the sideline is to witness intense focus personified. Every defensive play generally begins with Smart 10 yards back from the line of scrimmage, hands on knees. It’s as if he’s getting ready to defend the play himself.
But where he really springs into action is immediately after the play. Often the ball carrier has barely been downed before Smart launches frantically into the next play call. If he knows what he wants, Smart signals the play in himself without hesitation. If he’s not certain, he looks to his right toward fellow assistants for some quick input. Again, he signals in the plays himself.
All week, Smart harped on how difficult it is to defend a mobile, dual-threat quarterback, and Deshaun Watson was bringing all his fears to life in the opening quarter of play. At the end of it, the Tigers had a 14-7 lead and were on a 600-yard, 56-point pace.
But Smart and the Tide got the break they were looking for early in the second half. Junior safety Eddie Jackson picked off a Watson pass on the Bama sideline right in front of Smart. Bama took over at the Clemson 42 at the 11:58 mark of the second quarter and quickly drove for the tying score.
But the Crimson Tide never could really get a handle on Watson. The Tigers’ star quarterback from Gainesville accounted for 478 of their 550 total yards and threw four TD passes.
“I knew he was that good because I watched him play in high school,” Smart said. “I wish he wasn’t here. I tried to tell my players, but I don’t think they actually respected him enough. If they didn’t they do now.”
As anxious as Smart was to get out the stadium and on his way to his new life in Georgia, his old life wouldn’t let him go. Every third step he made, from the field, toward the locker room and back out, he was stopped by a player, fellow coach or fan who wanted to give him a personal goodbye and/or take a final picture. That refrain continued after postgame interviews.
As Smart tried to make his way back across the field to the bus, Tim Tebow and Greg McElroy shouted him down from the desk of the SEC Network to stop and talk to them in between live shots.
With a computer bag over one shoulder and a sack of Chick-fil-A in the other, Smart asked what he would be bringing with him from from Monday’s experience — besides a fourth national championship ring.”
“We’re bringing energy, passion and maybe trying to do it a different way,” managing a tired grin. “We’re going to go recruit some players and try to build something there that’s special. I think it gives us some momentum coming from this. Obviously, we just won it all. But we did it because we had good players, and that’s what it is at the end of the day.”