ATHENS – Kirby Smart is the epitome of the “tough, hard-nosed coach.” We see him on the practice field yelling instructions at the top of his lungs or behind a dais claiming in a perpetual state of hoarseness that he “honestly can’t tell you” who will start at quarterback, or any other position for that matter.
Andrew Smart sees Kirby Smart differently. He sees him as a 5-foot-10 jungle gym and punching bag, all in one. He can climb on him, tug on him and, if the conditions are just right, whack his shins with a big, plastic tyrannosaurus rex.
That’s what Andrew, Smart’s 4-year-old and youngest son, was doing on a recent late morning at Add Drug. The classic old pharmacy in Five Points, where the Smarts now live, has the traditional soda-fountain-style, counter-top eatery inside and is one of the new Georgia coach’s favorite haunts. On this particular day, Smart had Andrew-watching responsibilities, which according to family insiders, deserves hazardous duty pay.
Kirby and Andrew, his 4-year-old son, leave the Butts-Mehre football complex for some rare one-on-one time. Andrew’s ever-present dinosaurs go with him. SPECIAL PHOTO
So while the distinguished, young football coach and highest-paid state employee waited in the crowded store for two stools to open, his son decided to conduct an experiment: Which would break first, the plastic dinosaur or his dad’s patience.
The dinosaur won. But it did lead to a nice parental teaching moment.
“Gimme that,” Smart said, not waiting for his kid to hand over the dinosaur. “Now lemme hit your leg with it.”
Smart followed through, though barely tapping the child’s shins. “Hurts doesn’t it?” he said. “Now stop.”
Settling into a new life
That’s the side of Kirby Smart most of us never see. Mary Beth Smart, Kirby’s wife of 10 years, sees it every day. She sees a young father with a huge job and an even bigger ambition battling to maintain the work-life balance that everybody else in the human race strives for as well.
It was a challenge Smart handled deftly for nine years at Alabama, but it’s even more of a chore as the head football coach at Georgia.
“I think he’s handling it great so far,” said Mary Beth, a former Georgia basketball player who met Kirby during his brief stint with the Bulldogs as an assistant coach. “Of course, we haven’t played any games yet. But just from a time-management standpoint, it’s going well. I think that was my biggest fear about him becoming a head coach. How much time is he going to have for us now versus before? But I feel like we have more family time now than we had.”
“It’s the exact same time as far as the hours of work,” he says of being a head coach versus a defensive coordinator, his job of the last nine years at Alabama. “We have to stay (at the football complex) a long time to prepare for the next practice and for meetings. It’s really the same time, it’s just different material I’m covering now. I’m making decisions on which drill to do, when to do it, how to set the practice up. That’s probably the biggest difference.”
The Smarts certainly are closer than they’ve ever been, both emotionally, and in proximity. Three months ago, they moved out of the tight quarters that their temporary four-bedroom condo had provided since January. But they remain very much in a cramped and unsettled state on the home front.
In May, they purchased for $910,000 a two-acre property off West Lake Drive featuring a beautiful stone house built in the 1920s. The trouble is, they can’t live in it yet. The house is now undergoing an extensive renovation that won’t be completed this year and probably won’t until sometime next spring.
That meant they needed another temporary living space. Conveniently, they found a house on an adjoining property. But while adequate for meeting the basic needs of a five-person family – twins Julia and Westin are 8 years old now – it remains no bigger than the condo they just left. And while nice by middle-class standards, it lacks of the grandeur expected of a millionaire coach lording over a major college football program. Entertaining recruits on official visits in December is going to be a challenge.
Think Fixer Upper meets Hard Knocks.
“It’s small. It’s about a third of the square footage we were living in in Tuscaloosa,” Mary Beth says. “But it’s got a great yard, a great porch, a great outdoor space for the children. And the location is so convenient, being right there next to the other place. The kids have already immersed in the neighborhood with the other children, they’re making buddies and carpools, that kind of thing.”
That the Smarts have put down roots a mile and a half from the Butts-Mehre football complex is not happenstance. In fact, they told their realtor from the outset they wanted to live in Athens and preferably the Five Points area. But finding a property that could accommodate both their need to be close to the university and their requirement for privacy was quite the challenge.
Hence, the home-finding exercise was a five-month undertaking. But it was very much worthwhile to the Smarts.
While they are new to Athens, they are very much “old Athens” in terms of lifestyle and sensibilities. They’re active members at Athens Country Club, where Mary Beth plays tennis and Kirby plays golf with his friends, former fraternity brothers and teammates. The kids are attending school at Athens Academy.
“If we were going to be in Athens, we were going to be IN Athens; that was very important to us,” Mary Beth says. “For him and me both, we don’t want to just stop going out. I want to take my kids to the pool, and he’s coming, too. It’s not like he’s just staying home and studying film, he’s going out with us. And I think the more we do that, it’s not going to be so much a spectacle.”
Kirby and Mary Beth had twins Julia and Westin with them at the national championship game in Phoenix in January. CHIP TOWERS / AJC
The Smarts’ favorite escape is the lake. In fact, the only evidence that Smart has quadrupled his salary and entered the realm of the rich and powerful is the ski boat he bought for their house 45 minutes south of town on Lake Oconee. They’ve owned the house for nearly six years but, as they used to use it only for about a month each summer, they initially bought “a crappy 1996 boat,” Mary Beth says. That stayed broken down as much as it was running.
So Kirby splurged on a 2016 model and used it to pull his Bulldog players during a late-July outing before preseason camp began.
“His head coach prize, I think, was getting a nice, new boat,” Mary Beth says. “We’ve really enjoyed it this summer. … In the summer he’s so relaxed, people would not even believe it. One of my friends was saying, ‘wow, he’s like a different person at the lake.’ It helps him relax.”
So do Kirby’s friends. His best buddies are a group of guys he played with at UGA. They are all within a couple years in age and they call themselves the “Mag 7.” Former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is one of them, as is former punter Dax Langley.
“They do a really good job staying in touch with each other and have a group message that they are constantly flooding with texts,” Mary Beth says. “It’s been a neat group of guys that we now feel like are more of a family. We see them at least once a year — hopefully more now that we are closer — and our kids are all growing up as friends.”
Such escapes are necessary for Smart because he operates at such a high level of intensity in virtually every aspect of his life. At Georgia’s practices, Smart is a whirling dervish. He flits from player-to-player and drill-to-drill throughout, offering instruction or coaching advice without respect to offense or defense. His deep voice and gravelly tone can often be heard over all the other coaches’ shouts. When he calls up the team at the beginning middle and end of practices, he’s a commanding presence with a forceful, thought-out message to deliver.
“He’s a great man, on and off the field,” junior tailback Nick Chubb said. “I could actually go in there right now and have a conversation with him, just talk to him if I wanted to. He’s very hands-on. He actually called me up today to talk. He does that with other players, too. He’s a player-person, so that’s great.”
Smart is a meticulous planner. Like Nick Saban, his mentor and previous boss at Alabama, he prides himself on having thought of every possible scenario, planning for it and rehearsing it.
To that end, Smart is not much for hype. He told the Touchdown Club of Athens when he spoke there last week that he counsels the team to “be a thermostat rather than a thermometer.” In other words, he wants them to control the temperature rather than react to it. That way, he said, they’re less likely to make mistakes, whether it be on the field during the execution of a play or in pregame warmups when an opposing team is trying to agitate or intimidate.
“We want to control the outcome,” he said.
Likewise, Smart is very tight-fisted when it comes to the control of information, as well as player and practice access. Ever the Saban disciple, Smart’s relationship with the media that covers the team daily is borderline adversarial. He fields every question as a possible breach of security.
That’s all part and parcel of the philosophy he learned from Saban in Tuscaloosa: “One voice, one message.” No assistant coaches are available for interviews and Smart personally approves – or disapproves – of every media request for players.
None of the three quarterbacks involved in the high-profile competition to start this season – Jacob Eason, Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey – have been allowed to talk to reporters. Only a handful of fully-vetted players are given that privilege and only then after they’ve been briefed by staff on the message they want delivered.
“He’s a great leader,” said senior center Brandon Kublanow, one of the team’s regular spokesmen. “He expects a lot out of us, same as we expect a lot out of him. Since coming in, everybody has bought in to what he’s preaching.”
First season looms close
After camp opened on Aug. 1, Smart and his staff worked 20 straight days. Smart didn’t have an actual off day until this past Sunday. He spent it by going to one of Mary Beth’s team tennis matches – the former Division I basketball player is a Level 5 amateur – and had the charge of watching the three kids himself during the two-plus-hour match.
“She’s right. It is harder than watching over 85 football players,” Smart quipped.
But Kirby, as every head coach before him, has learned to enjoy every minute he has with the family. Chaotic or not, those moments are less and less and ever more precious.
It certainly won’t get any easier going forward. The No. 18 Bulldogs are getting ready to start the Kirby Smart Era in earnest as they face off against No. 22 North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game next Saturday in the Georgia Dome. As little as Mary Beth and the kids have been seeing of Kirby, they’ll probably see even less over the next week.
Meanwhile, Mary Beth’s spousal responsibilities have cranked up. She’s in charge of organizing the coaches’ wives and their various activities on game days and weekly during the season. And with Kirby embedded at the football complex most of his waking hours, he hasn’t had time to deal with domestic details such as what clothes will he wear during the Bulldogs’ travels to games, or in games. Mrs. Smart has been overseeing that as well.
“I’m excited. I’m very excited,” she said. “I’m really busy trying to get everything ready. I’m trying to get his suits for him, get his wardrobe ready. You’ve got to take things like that to a new level. You have to look the part. You don’t have to, but I want him to.”
The whole family is looking forward to the start of the season. Once it is underway, there will likely be more of an ebb and flow to the family routine. It might even be easier for Smart to steal away some time with his children.
“He’s good about taking one kid or two kids and doing something special, so they can really feel like that’s their Dad time,” Mary Beth said.
In the meantime, like most UGA alums, Mary Beth is as big a football fan as there is. She’s been to practice a few times and, like everybody, she has some strong feelings about who should start at quarterback.
“I do have an opinion, but I’m not telling you,” she says with a laugh.
No, even the First Lady of Georgia football adheres to “one voice, one message.”