Kirby Smart was coaching at Georgia long before the news broke Tuesday that he was the Bulldogs’ pick to replace Mark Richt. Coaching even before a couple of brief stops at his alma mater as an assistant while scaling the career rock wall.
Cut to 1998, Smart’s senior season as a Bulldogs safety. This clearly was not a fellow who believed his team captaincy was just an honorary title.
As then-defensive coordinator Joe Kines walked about his workplace one day after a particularly lethargic practice, he was met by the sound of a building storm.
Kines picks up the story (insert down-home twang here):
“I’m going down to get my stuff together, and I hear all this commotion going on, and I ease up. As I got closer, I kind of grinned. Kirby had all the defensive backs in the defensive meeting room, and he was wearing them out. They didn’t take offense because first of all they knew Kirby knew what he was talking about.
“He’s always been one that was way ahead of other folks as far as competing.”
A player who out-kicked his bodily limitations, an assistant coach who quickly rose to the position of hot commodity/highest-paid coordinator in history, Smart, 39, is an unknown as a head coach. That his reported return to Georgia is at the expense of Richt and his uncommonly long and decent 15-year run only adds more intrigue to the mix.
They are dizzy in Bainbridge, the severely south Georgia town where Smart grew up as the son of the high school football coach and the resident BMOC.
“We’re in the state football semis now, then we get the news about Kirby,” said Stan Killough, Smart’s baseball coach at Bainbridge High. “I haven’t seen this place so excited in a long, long time.”
They are braced in and around Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Nick Saban runs a fairly successful college football program and finishing school for prospective head coaches. Saban’s facing one disciple in Saturday’s SEC Championship game (Florida’s Jim McElwain), and may one day soon contend with another in Smart.
“We’re going to miss Kirby at Alabama, and miss whoever he takes with him,” Cory Reamer, a linebacker dating to the Crimson Tide’s 2009 national championship, said. Reamer’s now an interested bystander, a player in the financial markets in Birmingham.
Throughout the Georgia sphere, they mostly wait, debating Smart’s beauty marks and warts even before he has signed a contract and while he fulfills his obligations to Alabama. Protocol demands he at least finish Saturday’s game as Alabama’s defensive coordinator before issuing his next Bulldog bark.
While he straddles two jobs — unconfirmed yet by a signed deal — Smart is Georgia’s mystery in waiting, the product only of the clues he has left on the trail to this reported first head coaching opportunity.
Defense, we know, is imprinted on his DNA. His father, Sonny Smart, first arrived at Bainbridge High as a defensive coordinator before his promotion to head coach. The boy would cut his teeth on the art of hunkering down.
At Bainbridge, he was the star of the football team and the shortstop in baseball (“a singles and doubles guy, not a power guy,” Killough said) — all the usual perches occupied by a small town’s leading athlete.
Thrown into the deeper pool at UGA, Smart had to spackle any holes in his athletic ability with a quick mind and competitive nature.
As a freshman, Kines remembered, Smart was pegged as an extra defensive back, to be deployed in obvious passing situations. “But I’ll tell you what,” said the former assistant, now 71 and retired in Tuscaloosa, “we may be one of the few schools in America that played ‘dime’ on first down way back yonder because we couldn’t get him out. If you ever got Kirby on the field, he was hard to get off.”
People always thought they could throw on Smart, Kines said, and Smart kept picking them off (he currently stands fifth at UGA in career interceptions, with 13). By the time he was finished at Georgia, he was All-SEC and a fixture on the conference’s academic honor roll.
And Smart was true to his name. Like the one game against Florida, when the Gators were at the goal line, stuffed on a quarterback sneak. Coming off the field, Kines asked Smart about the lonely Gators tight end he was supposed to be covering on that play. Why should he have, Smart answered. Everyone knew the sneak was coming.
A coach with passion
That Smart took his finance degree from Georgia (and later a master’s from FSU) and plunged directly into coaching could hardly have been a surprise.
His first paid position was just barely that, offered $8,000 to join Chris Hatcher’s staff at Valdosta State in 2000. Within a year, Smart got a raise and was running the defense.
He’d kick around, as young coaches must, his resume containing the names of five colleges (including Georgia as its running backs coach in 2005) and one NFL team (Miami, 2006).
Smart made the most important connection of his career when as a grad assistant at Florida State. Saban, then at LSU, came calling with an offer.
“I was looking for a good, young, smart, bright, aggressive secondary coach that we could sort of develop,” Saban recalled earlier this week.
“We had gone through a couple years of: I’d hire a secondary coach and he’d be there for a year — I don’t know if that was because I was a secondary coach or what — and they’d be gone in a year. I wanted to get a younger guy and sort of grow and develop with the guy, have the guy with me for a while.”
He had the guy with him for quite a while, Smart putting in a decade with a head coach who purportedly is among the most hard-driving of a demanding group. And when Smart was elevated to the title of Alabama’s defensive coordinator in 2008, there remained the stubborn suspicion that the defensively oriented Saban was the real brains behind a consistently dominating unit.
Reamer, the former player, though, remembers Smart as the man calling the defensive plays, the man who was the sole voice in his ear when he came off the field, the one making the halftime adjustments, the one who approached each practice without compromise.
As a group, defensive coordinators are a fiery lot, always the Trinidad scorpion pepper of the staff. Smart fits that mold.
“A defense takes on the emotions of its coordinator, and coach Smart is all over the place,” current Bama linebacker Reggie Ragland said this week. “He sees everything. He’s always on us about the little things. He’s set on 10, always.”
When Reamer imagines Smart as a head coach, he can only picture him being “high energy and hands-on, not a CEO-type watching from the side.”
Smart never has had to answer the hard questions asked of a head coach, never has hired a staff, done the meat-and-two booster club circuit, been the face and the compass of a program. His personality — “He has the gift of being able to be a players’ coach while also knowing how the get the most out of a player,” Reamer said — made him brilliant recruiter. Will it serve to make him a well-rounded head coach?
By 2009, when Smart received the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant, he was targeted as somebody’s next big hire. As he picked through various head coaching opportunities, another characteristic that might come in handy now showed itself: steadiness.
“Kirby knows the order of things,” Kines said.
“Some guys are just eat up as a young coach wanting to be the head coach. They can take a job too quick … to take a job just to have a title. I think he has resisted that,” he said.
Kines hardly can be an impartial witness to Smart’s ascension. When his daughter died in an automobile crash in 2010, Kines found that Smart was “one of the first people there for me.”
“You grow in your relationship with people. We went past player-coach. He’s a true friend,” Kines said.
What more do you want out of your head coach? OK, in addition maybe some regular appearances in the very same game that Smart finds himself in Saturday.
As far as that bottom-line requisite, Kines says, “It’s one thing to get ready to play the game. It’s another thing to get ready to win the game. Kirby through the years has been able to do that.”