That coach Kirby Smart has ‘been there, done that’ matters to Georgia players
ATHENS – It has been 20 years since Kirby Smart played on the field at Tiger Stadium, but the fact that he did so in a Georgia uniform resonates with his current players.
“He’s a guy who’s been through it and he knows what it’s like,” junior tight end Isaac Nauta said of the Bulldogs’ head coach. “I think that’s why he coaches the way he coaches. He’s very fiery and passionate. From the older guys I’ve talked to that played with him, they say he hasn’t changed one bit from when he was a player. So, just knowing that he’s got the experience and he’s been through it helps.”
Not only did Smart play in this game, but he played well in it. As a senior and starting free safety in 1998, Smart registered a team-best 12 tackles in a 28-27 upset win as the No. 12 Bulldogs knocked off a sixth-ranked LSU team 28-27 on Oct. 3, 1998.
That might’ve been 20 years and a week ago, but Smart still remembers the experience well.
“I remember the atmosphere and Quincy and Champ both playing well,” Smart said at his weekly news conference on Monday. “But great atmosphere, incredible atmosphere.”
Quincy Carter was a 20-year-old true freshman quarterback for Georgia just returning from a brief pro baseball career. He completed his first 15 passes of the day and finished 27-of-34 for 318 yards and two touchdowns to help the 12th-ranked Bulldogs score the impressive SEC road win.
Meanwhile, Champ Bailey saw action in a total of 96 plays as a cornerback, wide receiver and kick returner. He had 7 catches for 114 yards, 195 yards total offense and scored a touchdown in an incredible display of individual fortitude and conditioning.
Those are the two Georgia players most fans associate with that game. But Jim Donnan, then the Georgia head coach, vividly recalls the impact Smart had on that game.
“Kirby had an outstanding game,” said Donnan, who still lives in Athens and works as a college football analyst. “It was back-and-forth in the first half and, at halftime, he always had a feel for what we could and couldn’t execute. He made a few suggestions that helped us hold the to two (second-half) field goals.”
Jonas Jennings, Georgia’s current director of player personnel, also played in that game as a starting offensive lineman.
Both Smart and Jennings have shared their LSU experiences with Georgia’s players this week. Playing in Tiger Stadium is almost a mythical proposition for players of SEC Eastern Division teams that don’t play LSU as a cross-division rival. Because of the current eight-game SEC schedule model, the Bulldogs will be making their first trip to Baton Rouge since 2008 and won’t return until 2030.
“All of those guys who have played there previous years have told us it’s going to be a great environment and it’s going to be a hard-nosed game,” senior wideout Terry Godwin said. “This is what you come to the SEC for, to play in games like this. It’s going to be a great game.”
Georgia has actually handled itself relatively well in a venue where few visitors have enjoyed much success. The Bulldogs are 5-5-1 paying there, including a 52-38 victory on their last visit and a somewhat controversial loss in 2003.
Of course, Smart would get a lot more experience with the LSU atmosphere after his playing career. He spent a year in Baton Rouge as a young assistant coach on Nick Saban’s LSU staff in 2004. And, of course, Smart would later visit Tiger Stadium every other year as Alabama’s defensive coordinator.
“They’ve got an incredible environment, their fan base is second to none and the atmosphere they create from the time you pull in on buses to playing in the stadium, it’s an awesome opportunity for our team to play on a national stage,” Smart said Monday. “It’s an opportunity for a lot of our guys to play in a venue that a lot of Georgia players never got a chance to play in, and some in the future won’t get an opportunity to play in.”
The Bulldogs are embarking on the toughest stretch of the season’s schedule in the coming weeks. After LSU, Georgia will face Florida in Jacksonville and Kentucky in Lexington before returning home to face Auburn on Nov. 11. That’s four games in a row against ranked teams and a five-week gap between home games.
“There tests are coming up,” Smart said. “Any time you go on the road in the SEC it’s an adventure.”
Nauta is like most of the players on the Georgia roster in that he has never attended a game at Tiger Stadium. However, as a 5-star tight end prospect, he has visited the campus and toured the facilities, just not on a game-day weekend.
But all of them have seen plenty of LSU home games on TV, and the Bulldogs are hearing all about the noicse and chaos they’ll encounter. In fact, UGA will have simulated crowd noise turned up to maximum decibels over speakers each day in practice.
“I heard it’s a crazy environment, so I’m ready to see what it’s like,” Nauta said.
Nauta said the loudest environment he has previously experienced was last year at Auburn when the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs visited the Plains in the regular-season matchup. It’s hard for him to imagine LSU being any louder.
Nauta knows he can trust what Smart has to say about it — and believe what he says about what it might take to win there.
“He keeps it very black and white for you and you know what to expect,” Nauta said of Smart. “He doesn’t lie to us about what things are going to be like. He can’t, because we know he’s been through it. So, that definitely is an advantage for us, I’d say.”
Georgia will need every one it can get this week.