ATHENS – Looking back on it now, it all makes perfect sense to Andy Landers. But at the time, he really wasn’t sure who Mary Beth Lycett was.
It was November of 1997, and Lycett, then an elite basketball prospect, came to Athens on a recruiting visit with her father, Paul. As was the routine, the plan was to take them to the Georgia football game that Saturday. And this one just happened to be huge. It was against Auburn.
Landers picks the story up from here.
“It was freezing cold,” said Landers, the Bulldogs’ women’s basketball coach for 36 years. “We’ve got blankets, we’ve got the whole deal, trying to stay warm. I go to these football games week after week with recruits, so I’m thinking as we’re sitting there, they’re not going to want to stay very long. But I promise you, I don’t think we ever had a recruit on who was more excited to be at a game than she was.
“She was a big Georgia fan, she was a football fan, and we stayed to the end. She about froze me to death, but she enjoyed every last minute of that game.”
Turns out, Lycett had never been to a major SEC clash.
“My parents had taken my sister and me to a couple of Georgia games when we were young, but they were like small games,” Lycett said in a recent interview. “We never had season tickets or anything like that. So it was very exciting for my father and me to be at a big SEC game. It was a treat, truly, a really cool experience to be able to do that.”
Lycett — who now goes by her married name of Mary Beth Smart — has been to a few big SEC tilts since then. In fact, she ended up marrying one of the boys playing in that game that day at Sanford Stadium. She had no idea at the time, but wearing number 16 and playing safety for the Bulldogs that Saturday was Kirby Smart.
They would marry nine years later at St. James United Methodist Church in Athens. And as Smart’s wife, she has sat in stands all over the country to witness her husband win four national and SEC championships as a member of the Alabama coaching staff.
“It’s become routine now,” she said of attending big games. “But it’s never lost on me. I don’t know how to say it but the grandeur, the grand stage that Kirby’s on, the whole atmosphere, is not lost on me even now. It’s still fun.”
After Kirby Smart was appointed Georgia’s new head football coach on Dec. 6th, he and Mary Beth stand as the First Couple of Georgia football. And the plan is to keep winning those big games.
Now known as Mary Beth Smart – “nobody has called me Lycett in years, not until the last two weeks anyway,” she said with a laugh – she’s still having to pinch herself every now and then to make sure she’s not dreaming.
Ever since they were married in 2006, it has been the intention of the Smarts to be college head coach and wife. But they could never be sure when or where that might be. That it’s now and at their alma mater is beyond their wildest dreams.
“Well, I definitely think it’s surreal,” Mary Beth said.
A 50-day whirlwind
To say the last 50 days have been a whirlwind would be an understatement. After accepting Georgia’s head coaching job, Kirby Smart famously chose to remain Alabama’s defensive coordinator and assist the Crimson Tide on their pursuit of yet another national championship. That mission was accomplished on Jan. 11 when they edged Clemson in Phoenix to claim their fourth national title in the last seven years.
So the Smarts didn’t arrive in Athens as the Bulldogs’ “First Couple” until Jan. 12. And Kirby Smart remains a man on the run. The open period for recruiting resumed on Jan. 15, so moving and getting settled into a new home and a new life has been largely left to Mary Beth.
For now, the family is living in a borrowed condominium in Athens. It’s a loaner from the father of one of Mary Beth’s former UGA classmates. Already furnished and used by the owners only during football season, the four-bedroom flat is serving as headquarters for the Smarts and their three children, 7-year-old twins Julia and Weston and 3-year-old Andrew.
“It’s furnished, so we just moved in some clothes and necessities and we’re kind of just making do,” Mary Beth said in an interview this week. “It’s a blessing and a curse that we know Athens so well, because we know where we want to live. But it’s also a situation where we want to get exactly the right thing, too. So this has afforded us some time to kind of figure it out.”
The truth is, Mary Beth Smart has been preparing for this assignment just as intensely as her husband. For at least the last five years, Kirby’s name has been coming up for vacant head coaching posts all over the country. So Mary Beth knew this day was coming.
A born competitor and a voracious student herself, Mrs. Smart vowed to be ready when this time finally came. So she has leaned hard the last few years on words of Terry Saban, Nick Saban’s wife.
“Kirby’s been training under the best coach in the nation the last nine years, so he’s been learning every single day. But Mrs. Saban also has been a great role model for me,” Mary Beth said. “I can say the last couple of years I’ve saved every email she sent. I’d take notes at her Christmas luncheons. Because I’ve known that Kirby wanted to be a head coach, I’ve tried to prepare myself as much as I can. But, at the same time, I really don’t know what my role is going to be.”
So far, Mary Beth has been out front for Georgia. She has been intimately involved with her husband and the Bulldogs’ coaching staff in on-campus recruiting visits and sits with Kirby when they entertain prospects at Georgia home basketball games.
She has also attended a couple luncheons and dinners and plans to organize a few herself in the manner “Ms. Terry” did with the coaches’ wives in Tuscaloosa.
“As Kirby Smart’s wife at Georgia, I’ll predict this: She’s going to be at the right places at the right times and she’s going to represent the right way,” Landers said. “She isn’t going to look for those places. Those places will seek them out and she will understand them to be those places. And if they’re not, she’s not going to mess with them.”
Miss Georgia Basketball
Of course, long before Kirby Smart was a glint in Mary Beth’s eye, she was a high-profile recruit and player for the University of Georgia. She came to UGA from Morrow High School, where she would earn Class AAA and AAAA all-state honors and receive the ultimate honor of being named Miss Georgia Basketball her senior year.
But success on the college basketball court was not quick in coming for the 6-foot-tall, long-range shooter. She happened to arrive at a time that Georgia had the twins Coco and Kelly Miller and Deanna “Tweety” Nolan in the backcourt. All three would end up being early-first-round WNBA draft picks.
Mary Beth barely played that first season, averaging 4.1 minutes and 1.3 points while playing appearing in 23 of the Lady Bulldogs’ 36 games.
“I had no idea how good they really were, you know,” Mary Beth said. “Until you get in there and you have to play against them every single day. I mean, it was hard.”
Mary Beth soon wondered whether she had made a mistake. She found herself frustrated and angry early in her freshman year.
Her dissatisfaction reached a breaking point during a West Coast road trip in which Landers didn’t put her in until the final minutes of a game in California that Georgia led by 40 points. Afterward, Mary Beth and Landers had it out.
“I said, ‘hey M-B, are you frustrated?’” Landers recalled. “And she said, ‘yeah, I don’t understand why I didn’t get to play more in that game. And I looked at her and I said, ‘Mary Beth, who on this team, which one of those kids, have you beaten in practice and took their minutes away from them?’ I could tell that resonated with her.”
Said Mary Beth: After the game, he said to me, ‘whose playing time have you earned? In practice every day you have to take someone’s time; you have to show me you deserve those minutes. You have to take somebody’s playing time.’ I still think about that.
“In every aspect of life, you’ve got to earn everything you do. Nothing’s easy.”
It took a while, but Mary Beth Lycett would eventually play a major role for Georgia. She started 41 of 51 games over her final two seasons in Athens, and placed her name in the UGA record books while doing so. Today you can find Lycett still listed among the Lady Bulldogs’ all-time leaders in single-game 3-point percentage (.833), career 3-point percentage (.349), average minutes (33.5 in ’02-03), and free-throw percentage (.902 in ’02-03). She also was named Academic All-SEC each of her final three seasons.
“It took me two years but, in hindsight, gosh, it’s kind of the way you want it to happen, to work for it and get a chance,” Mary Beth said. “So if I could re-write it again, I’m not sure I wouldn’t do it the same way.”
Said Landers: “It took a unique person to endure the process that she had to go through. It was tough for her. She’s thinking, ‘OK, I’m Miss Basketball in the state of Georgia.’ Any athlete with those kinds of credentials walks in the door thinking that they’re going to be the next big thing. And little did she know she was going to be sitting on the bench. If you’re not the right kind of kid, you transfer, you create problems. There are lots of negative things that can happen there, but they never did.”
Kirby Smart and Mary Beth Lycett did not cross paths as students at UGA. They are 5½ years apart in age and never met until they were both professionals. Mary Beth was working fulltime in the athletic association’s business office in 2005 when she received a phone call from Smart needing to arrange travel to come in and interview with head coach Mark Richt.
“That was the first time we talked,” she said of Kirby, who was soon hired as running backs coach. “But then he called me all the time, because I guess maybe I was the only number he had. Everything he needed he’d call me.”
That, or perhaps he was already smitten with the young professional. The chance encounters continued.
“The only women’s shower in the building was on the football floor at that time,” Mary Beth recalled with a chuckle. “A couple of the girls I worked with, we’d run at lunch a couple of days a week. So I’d go down to the football floor and walk by his office to take a shower every day. I’d be like, ‘Hey!’”
Their courtship sped up rapidly from there. By the summer of 2005 they were dating, and they would be married one year later. A year after that, they were living in Miami and Mary Beth was pregnant with twins. Weston is named after the city they lived in at the time.
“Very fast,” Mary Beth said. “We are used to whirlwinds.”
Those competitive fires
It was during that year in South Florida that Mary Beth began to re-stoke her competitive fires as a lifelong athlete. While her husband was constantly away at work with Saban and the Miami Dolphins, she was introduced to tennis.
At first it was merely a social outlet. Soon it became another challenging sport to master.
Tennis served Mary Beth well when they arrived on the scene in Tuscaloosa. She made fast friends on the hard court, thanks in equal parts to her social charms and her athletic prowess. She was introduced there to team tennis, and has been collecting hardware ever since.
No one is more disappointed about the Smarts departure in Alabama than the members of her USTA 4.5 team. With Mary Beth as their captain, “Team Smart” won the state championship this past year and advanced into sectionals. She has since been elevated to 5.0, which is just below the highest ranking an amateur can obtain.
Suffice it to say, football recruiting is not the only kind going on in Athens these days. There’s a fairly intense battle waging among local country clubs to get Mrs. Smart in the fold.
“Honestly, I’ve kind of grown to love it,” she said. “Tennis is a really good way to meet people. I made a couple of friends playing tennis in Miami that I still keep in touch with. And now these girls in Tuscaloosa I played with really and truly are lifelong friends. Our families are friends, our kids are friends. Just things you have in common with people.
“Kirby actually brought the kids to watch me this summer. He was, like, ‘wow, this is actually competitive what you’ve been spending all this time on!’”
Mary Beth is also a regular runner. She ran her first marathon this past fall in Chicago, though she doesn’t sound very enthusiastic about doing it again.
“It was kind of a bucket-list thing,” she said. “I mean, I’m glad I did it. It was amazing and awful at the same time. It’s that kind of thing.”
But those are just hobbies and outlets. Mary Beth said her primary focus is their three children.
“I know my most important job is to be a mom, to make sure my kids are happy and grounded and well-rounded,” she said. “But I also know that I have a great responsibility to Kirby and to the university. What exactly that means for me, I don’t know that I can say that two weeks in.”
They’ve enrolled the kids at Athens Academy, a private school, and plan to be fully immersed in academics and extra-curricular activities right away. Both Kirby’s parents, Sharon and Sonny Smart, and Mary Beth’s father, Paul, are a big part of their daily lives. They stand on the ready as baby-sitters and transportation support.
The Smarts place a lot of effort on keeping their lives as normal and grounded as possible.
“She is my rock,” Kirby says of Mary Beth. “As a coach’s wife, she plays the role of both parents a great deal of time at home. The coaching profession is tough on the wives, and she’s done a great job with our children. She’s raised them in a strong Christian home, and that makes me proud.”
Life comes full circle
Though theirs may seem a perfect life, the Smarts have encountered the mountains and valleys that the rest of us do. Three years ago, Mary Beth and her younger sister Anne lost their mother, Linda Lycett, to breast cancer. She was only 62.
Linda Lycett was a longtime English teacher and gifted students’ specialist in the Clayton County school system. Mary Beth actually got to take her class in the seventh and eighth grades at Adamson Middle School.
They had thought their mother had defeated the cancer monster several years before that, but it came back unexpectedly and was unrelenting the second time.
“It was not a fun time,” Mary Beth said. “It definitely puts things in perspective, for sure.”
But it has all brought the Smarts back to exactly where they were destined to be. Landers can look back now and see clearly the signs he missed then foretelling this future for that pony-tailed, 3-point assassin once known as Mary Beth Lycett.
“Here’s the reality when you play basketball at Georgia,” he said. “Every Saturday morning in the fall when we have a football game, we’re going to practice. We’re probably going to practice from 8-to-10 or 7-to-10. That means they got up at 6:30, got over, got taped, got stretched, to be ready to go at 8 o’clock. That’s been consistent every year.
“Needless to say, most of our kids, as soon as practice is over, they’re crashing. They’re going back to the room and hitting the bed. Mary Beth Lycett went to every football game. Mary Beth brought her football clothes to practice. She showered and went straight to the stadium.”
Some things never change.