ATHENS – Before, this had been all about plotting, timing, assurances, contracts and recruiting. But Monday, as Kirby Smart tightly gripped both sides of a lectern in the main auditorium of the Georgia Center for Continuing and fought back tears, it was obvious coming to the University of Georgia was about much more than that.
Smart, 39, had just been introduced as the Bulldogs’ 26th head football coach. Looking over at his wife, UGA basketball letterman Mary Beth Lycett, sitting on the front row with their three young children and his parents, all dressed in red, it was almost too much for this tough guy to take.
“The most important thanks goes to my best friend, my teammate and partner for life, my wife,” said Smart, his eyes welling up and voice choked and hoarse from 48 hours of non-stop talking. “She is my rock. And as a coach’s wife, she plays the role of both parents a great deal of time at our home. The best part, she’s a born-and-bred Bulldog. We met here in Athens, Georgia, married here in Athens, Georgia, so it is in a sense a homecoming for our family.”
Smart, a former UGA defensive back and team captain (Class of 1998), was more relaxed and composed as he talked on the side to reporters after the 30-minute, live-broadcast event. He said while he did come to Georgia to live out a professional dream and — quite importantly — to win championships, mostly it was a family thing.
“It’s my mom and my dad and my wife and my family,” he said of his parents, Sonny and Sharon Smart, twins Weston and Julia (7), and son Andrew (3). “That’s my lifeblood. That’s what means the most to me and that’s what I’m sensitive to. Family structure is important to me and I want them to have that. I get emotional when I think about them.”
Actually, standing on that podium was Smart’s first real opportunity to contemplate what has been happening to him. He described the last 48 hours as “a whirlwind.”
During that time, he went from directing the Alabama Crimson Tide’s defense in a 29-15 win over Florida in the SEC Championship game, to meeting with Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity in a room at the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Atlanta, to interviewing with UGA President Jere Morehead Sunday morning, to accepting the head coaching job and it’s $22.5 million payday, to meeting with and talking to recruits, then finally meeting on Sunday night with the Bulldogs’ team he’ll inherit from previous coach Mark Richt.
According to Georgia players in attendance, Smart held up two fingers less than an inch apart and said that’s how far they were from being where Alabama has been as it has won three national championships while he’s been defensive coordinator there.
“That’s what he told us last night, and I think that’s what we all believe,” sophomore tight end Jeb Blazevich said. “We’re all being recruited by both teams. We’re looking forward to the changes that might get us to that.”
Smart hit the ground running early Monday morning. The primary focus is on recruiting and he can’t get to it fast enough. Smart even remarked during his introduction that he was uneasy about wasting time there. Time is of the essence.
Part of his deal with Georgia was being granted the blessing to continue to coach Alabama’s defense through its run in the College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide (12-1) faces Michigan State in the national semifinals in the Cotton Bowl on New Years Eve and, if successful, will play for the national title on Jan. 11 in Phoenix.
But from now until the national recruiting dead period kicks in at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 15, he said his every waking hour and energy will be devoted to being the Georgia head coach.
“To me it’s not that big of a deal,” Smart said of having to work two jobs. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the University of Georgia to get seen through a national playoff spotlight. It’s also good for recruiting. And all those kids that I recruited for the University of Alabama, it’d be hard to sit in these kids’ homes and them think ‘he just quit on those guys.’
“I wanted to stay committed to both programs in that regard. It’s going create higher demand and probably less family time. But I’m willing to do that to sacrifice for this university and finishing right over there.”
Immediately after completing his media obligations at the news conference, Smart said he was going to board a jet to fly to Lake Stevens, Wash., to meet Jacob Eason in person. Eason is the top-rated pro-style quarterback prospect in the nation and has been committed to the Bulldogs for more than a year. In fact, he has already signed a grant-in-aid with UGA, which allows the school unlimited contact with him and gains him automatic academic admittance as an early enrollee in January.
But Eason has been adamant that his initial and strongest attraction to Georgia was Richt. After Richt was dismissed on Nov. 29, Eason took an official visit to Florida and his recruitment – considered paramount to the Bulldogs’ highly-rated 2016 class – was considered back on.
Smart had already spoken to Eason a couple of times before boarding the West-bound plane.
“What a great talent he is,” said Smart, who said he watched Eason throw at an Alabama camp. “A great kid. High character. Unbelievable academic student. I’m really looking forward to visiting with him and his family.”
Smart was cryptic when it came to the formation of his coaching staff. It looks shaky at this early stage. At a time when his friend and fellow UGA alum Will Muschamp has already announced both his coordinators at South Carolina, Smart’s only known appointment has been Glenn Schumann, a support staffer at Alabama who will become a full-time assistant for the first time at Georgia.
Smart downplayed any concern and UGA insiders insist there’s a plan in place.
“It’s a very fluid situation, constantly moving and changing,” Smart said of who he might hire and when. “I won’t put any timetables on anything. Right now we’re worried about getting on the road, getting recruiting, and trying to assemble staff and talking to as many people as we can.”
Staffing and support was a big issue for Smart before accepting the Georgia job. He said he “absolutely” had been given assurances by Athletic Director Greg McGarity that he would be given everything he needs to successful.
That means hiring whomever he believes he needs, deeper salary pools and larger recruiting budgets. Georgia already plans to begin construction on a $30 million indoor practice facility on Dec. 21. But it won’t be ready until after the 2016 season.
“Our staff met this morning and we talked about listening to Kirby and his goals and objectives,” McGarity said after the news conference. “I told Kirby, ‘you’re going to have to help us understand what you want and our job is to make those things happen. The clarity and how that is communicated to us is very important, because we’re facilitators.’”
The main reason Smart was hired is his familiarity with Georgia as a former letterman and as Alabama’s primary recruiter of the state for these past nine years. He said it is with great confidence that he’s able to pull on his red and black pullover with the “power G” over the heart and hit the highways and byways of the state.
He believes the going will be easier than when he was wearing crimson.
“I like being the home team,” Smart said, letting loose a rare laugh. “I don’t like playing on the road all the time. That’s what makes this job so good.”