HOOVER, Ala. – Georgia coach Kirby Smart was being whisked from one of the SEC Football Media Days venues at the Wynfrey Hotel to the next with with a platoon of television cameras in tow when I sidled up to him quickly to ask how he was holding up.
“Getting little bored at this point,” Smart said with a smile and shrug. “Hearing a lot of the same questions.”
Ah, the difference a year makes. This time last year Smart was the new kid on the block at these annual proceedings. Twelve months later he’s like a grizzled veteran. He sounded remarkably like his mentor, Nick Saban, who will move into second place tomorrow in all-time Media Days appearances at 16. Smart’s tied with active SEC coaches for fewest now with two.
His 6½-minute opening statement began the way Saban’s does every year, by profusely thanking the gathered media for all they do to promote the sport and these teams. Unofficially, it’s the last time Saban compliments the media all year.
But to talk to Smart and his players, little has changed in the year since his first as a head coach. As is well documented, the Bulldogs went 8-5 in Year One of his tenure. Including in that were late-game collapses against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.
Since then Smart won a bowl game, closed on a Top 3 national recruiting class and he and wife Mary Beth finally finished the extensive renovation and expansion of their new home on Westlake Drive. So things are different.
“There aren’t any regrets. It’s not anything like that,” Smart said of his reflections on last season. “There’s things you do different every year. Last year was a significantly younger team. There were only three or four seniors that really played significant roles. This year it will be 12 or 14 (seniors). When you ramp up the number of seniors you’ve got playing it’s good from an experience factor. It may be a little this or that, but it should be better.”
The expectations are definitely greater. Last year nobody was really sure what to expect from Smart, until then only Saban’s loyal defensive coordinator and right-hand man. This year, the Bulldogs are consistently listed as favorites to win the SEC East by preseason publications. They are expected to be picked first or second by the assembled media here and were picked second behind the Florida Gators by the staff of SEC Country.
Smart shuddered at one media member’s assertion that his team should be favored to win the East. He talked instead about all the areas in which his team needs to improve, namely with a revamped offensive line.
That said, he said neither he nor his players should shy away from high expectations
“Our players expect to win, and we don’t want players who don’t expect to win,” Smart said. “When you come to the University of Georgia, that’s what sits out in front of you. You’re going to be one of the best players in the country, coming from one of the best states in the country, one of the best high school football states in the country. We expect them to come in with that attitude and demeanor. You create that, and it permeates your program by how you carry yourself and perform on the field. And we have not performed on the field from the level we should.”
Smart was accompanied to Birmingham by senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and junior inside linebacker Roquan Smith. They were all asked if they’ve seen much difference in Smart from year one to year two.
Said Chubb: “I think he’s a lot more calm, I’d say. Overall, he’s not a lot different, but I’d say he’s more relaxed.”
Added Michel: “The only change I’ve seen is the expectations and just raising the bar higher and higher. He’s not really different. He still has the same goals he wants us to reach and you can’t reach by being content and complacent. But the expectation of winning the East never changes.”
Said Smith: “I’d say Coach Smarty is a consistent guy. I wouldn’t say he’s changed. He’s a consistent guy who comes out to work each and every day.”Smith said the most pronounced change has probably been the players’ perception of their coach. They know now exactly what they’re getting.
Smith did indicate he saw some change from Smart, though a natural one.
“The first year, you’re still getting the feel for a coach,” Smith said. “You’re learning about this and this and that and the other thing. That second year you pretty much know what he’s going to be like in certain situations, and that’s definitely big.”
Smart said he has made some subtle adjustments in both the things he has the Bulldogs do and how he goes about things. He admitted to probably trying to do too much himself in the first year.
“If I had to pick one thing I’d probably say delegating,” Smart said. “When I was making the transition (from defensive coordinator to head coach) that was the biggest struggle for me. I like to be control of the things that I can be control of, and that’s the defense mainly. That’s when to blitz, red area, things like that. I was the defensive guy at Alabama and I made those kind of decisions.
“Now I have to look at it from a much broader scope. You have to make decisions based on what’s best for the organization.”
There’s still a lot of Saban in him. And here in the state of Alabama, there are still a lot of people who associate Smart with the tremendous success that program has achieved in the past decade.
Smart seems to be distancing himself from that a little, even those his style and mannerisms closely resemble those of his longtime boss.
“Obviously I took a lot from my experience at Alabama, but we’re different in a lot of ways,” Smart said of Saban. “My focus is on the University of Georgia and how we go about things. Every step we take we try to have a more heightened awareness on what is we’re trying to do. It’s about getting each and every one of them to play better. The way you do that is through relationships.”
And that is the one thing they’ve learned about Smart more than any other. He wants to be close to them, and is.
“We are close, but he does a great job of being close to everybody on the team,” Chubb said. “He stays in contact with all the main guys, the leaders. To me, he’s a great guy. And there’s a lot of guys on the team buying in.”