GLENDALE, Ariz. – It was a solid hour, maybe longer, after Alabama’s 45-40 victory over Clemson, before Kirby Smart was able to emerge from the coaches’ dressing room at University of Phoenix Stadium and make some sense of what just happened and what’s about to.
At that moment, he was to leave for Athens via private jet in five hours to begin his full-time tenure as Georgia’s head football coach. But still within the confines of the Crimson Tide’s victorious locker room, where they were celebrating a fourth national championship in seven years, Smart was still feeling very much part of that team.
In the end, Smart felt strongly that he’d done exactly what he should have done by sticking with Alabama. And there was a lot of good from it he could utilize for the Bulldogs.
“I think it helps (Georgia),” he said. “Kids see it. They identify with it. Me being on TV and being in the national championship did way more for me tonight than say somebody who wasn’t. So it helps, gives you a little momentum. But at the end of the day you’ve got to build your own. You’ve got to win yourself. You’ve got to get good players and build a good program over there. Otherwise it doesn’t matter what we did here.”
Smart described the last 36 days where he worked as both Georgia’s head coach and Alabama’s defensive coordinator as physically and mentally exhausting. But having survived it, he believes it will only enhance his ability to do one job for the Bulldogs.
“I don’t know how much time I devoted to either one; I just did what I had to do for Alabama and I did what I had to for Georgia and tried to maximize it,” Smart said. “My family sacrificed, my parents, my wife’s father, my kids. So now it’s time to focus on one job and be attentive to that.”
Alabama barely snuck away with it’s latest national championship trophy. It required avoiding a Clemson onsides kick recovery (it went out of bounds) to clinch it. In between, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson torched the Crimson Tide for 478 of his team’s 550 yards and passed for four touchdowns. That exhausted Smart as much as anything.
Asked if the whole experience in Arizona this week was fun, Smart laughed an exasperated laugh.
“I don’t know that I’d call it fun; I’d call it emotional,” he said. “I know I’m leaving a lot of good people, people who helped my family, people who have worked really hard for this university and been very good to my family. So that’s emotional to me.”
Following are Smart’s answers to questions posed to him in the postgame locker room. …
Q: Will you guys have some sort of party or celebration tonight?
A: No parties tonight. I’m going to bed. Tired. Got to fly out and get gone. Got work to do. Got to get some rest. Got to go on the road in three days.
Q: What are your feelings as you get ready to leave for Georgia?
A. Exhausted. Really. I love going out on top, but I just hate going out with that kind of performance. It leaves kind of a bad taste in your mouth. But I’m proud for the kids. They battled and battled and kept fighting. And that’s us. They’ve been fighters all year.
Q: What will you bring to Georgia from this experience?
A: Energy, passion, maybe trying to do it a different way. Go recruit some good players, try to build something there that’s special. I think it gives you some momentum coming from this, obviously. We just won it all. We didn’t play good, but we did it because we had good players. That’s what it is at the end of the day, guys. Getting good players, making them do right and be successful.
Q: Was Clemson’s offensive production the result of defensive breakdowns or Watson just being an unbelievable player?
A: He’s a good player, man, a good player. We had some breakdowns. They went really fast on us, which we expected, but they made some plays, too. The quarterback made a lot of plays with his legs and that was frustrating, because if we couldn’t have covered them on the perimeter it would have been really ugly. But we made some plays on the back end, tried to pressure the guy and keep him in the pocket. But this guy’s different now. He can make throws that packet passers make, and he can make runs that dual-threat guys can make. It’s scary when you get that combination. He’s not just a runner. He’s a thrower, and he’s a really good thrower.”
Q: How does this national championship compare to the previous three?
A: The difference was us having a loss early. I don’t remember us having a loss that early in the year and having our backs against the wall for so long. Everybody wrote us off and said the dynasty is over, that Alabama down and gone and Alabama can’t play defense and Alabama’s got a bad quarterback. Everything was said about us. The kids just huddled up and said, ‘you know what, we’re going to win every game.’ And they did.
Q: How satisfying was it to go out with a national title?
A: Yeah, it’s satisfying to go out on top, but it’s not satisfying give up 40 and 550. That’s not my goal as the defensive coordinator and I didn’t feel like we played our best game. That’s the tough thing for me, going out that way. But, hey, a win’s a win. Humility is usually a week away; now it’s six, seven, eight months away.
Q: What specifically from Alabama will you take to Georgia?
A: I’ll take a lot of wisdom from Coach Saban. I’ll take a lot of wisdom from the university, and I’m looking forward to going to a great university. It’s my alma mater, so it’s a special moment for me and my family. All my family has known is Tuscaloosa. Been there nine years. I’ve got kids that are 7 and 3, so it just makes it a special place.
Q: What does it say to have won four titles in seven years?
A: I don’t think anybody understands what that is. Four national championships in seven years in a world where there is parity. There is, and it’s going to be that way. You’ve got to change quarterbacks every other year. Kids come and go, kids transfer. It’s just a different world of college football and there’s so much parity and that speaks volumes about Coach Saban’s coaching ability. Nobody realizes how much mental effort and execution and ideas this guy puts into it. He lives, sleeps, breathes football.
Q: After this would you say Saban stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Bear Bryant?
A: I don’t get into comparisons. But I’ll say this: (Saban) is a special one. He is very good at what he does.
Q: What’d you think of the call for the onsides kick?
A: Wow! That’s a helluva call. They told me on the headphones he was about to do it. I almost went to the huddle to tell them not to be offsides, but I thought it might give it away. I just stayed over there and watched. It was a gutsy call, but high-risk, high-reward. I think he felt like we were a little tired on defense. We had a little momentum going. That is what makes him a great coach. ‘Cause it wasn’t just you call it. That was practiced weeks upon weeks upon weeks. The look was there, he took the chance and it paid off. Everybody executed on that play, but it was a gutsy call.
Q: What are you behind on at Georgia …
A: I’ve watched tape. I’ve obviously seen some tape on them. I know a lot about our numbers as far as scholarship-wise. I know a lot about the different position breakdowns, what we need, what we plan on attacking. We’ve had meetings like that leading up to this game. Now do I know the kids personally like I want to? Absolutely not. That’s where I’m the most behind, the personal relationship with each and every kid I intend to have. And I hate that because I’ve only had the chance to be in front of them once, and that’s what I want to get over there and get started on as soon as possible.