ATHENS, Ga. – The arrangement was partly out of convenience, but it was mostly so close friends could hang out: Kirby Smart, Mike Bobo or Tyson Summers would reach out to the other two and say: I’ll be recruiting down in south Georgia. Let’s carpool.
“We would all plan to hit our schools at the same time,” Smart said. “We would all jump in the car and ride in the car together. We hit the rounds together.”
And yes, often when they were recruiting the same players. Drive together to a high school. Go in and recruit against each other. Then get back in the car and go on to the next place. No big deal.
“There’s not as many secrets, everybody knows who everybody is,” Bobo said, shrugging. “We get a chance to hang out, talk ball, then go see the high school coaches.”
Then that night, the three friends would have dinner, maybe talk football, but probably more about family, their shared pasts and their shared values.
They had gotten in the business just wanting to be high school coaches. Just like all three of their fathers had been. Then something else happened.
They were only assistant coaches during those days of carpooling around south Georgia, which they did for a couple years. But in near-perfect sync, all three have become head coaches: Smart at Georgia and Summers at Georgia Southern, one year after Bobo was hired at Colorado State.
“It’s a neat deal,” Summers said. “The three of us coming up, and kinda believing the same things, all high school coaches’ sons too.”
One could also include a man named Will Muschamp, also a high school coach’s son, good friends with them all, and hired this year as South Carolina’s head coach.
But sometimes the trio doesn’t let Muschamp in.
“He’s from north Georgia. He went to the Darlington school,” Bobo said, with deadpan iciness. “I know he wants to claim south Georgia but he’s from north Georgia.”
OK, but Muschamp does sum up well the path to this point they’ve all taken.
“We all were brought up the same way,” Muschamp said. “I don’t know that any of us were very talented. We overcame that with really working hard at the game and appreciating the game and understanding of the game. I think we’ve got a huge understanding of the game and what you’ve got to do to be successful.”
This whole remarkable connection began almost four decades ago. George Bobo and Sonny Smart had coached against each other for years – Bobo at Thomasville and Smart at Bainbridge – but in so doing formed a mutual respect and friendship. When Bobo retired, Smart convinced him to help his staff at Rabun County.
Their sons Mike and Kirby first met around sixth grade and stayed in touch through the years, and then became teammates at Georgia, Bobo as a quarterback and Smart as a safety.
Tyson Summer’s childhood path and story is more tragic: His father Andy, who coached at Tift County High School, died in a car accident when Tyson was three.
George Bobo knew all of Summers’ high school coaches, who were a bigger part of Tyson’s life after his father’s death. A coach, Warren Field, who was an assistant for Bobo at Thomasville became a coach at Tift County.
“Those coaches in Tifton basically raised him,” George Bobo said of Summers.
Summers, referring to Kirby, put it this way: “I have known Coach Smart most of my life.”
Smart and Bobo both went on to play at Georgia (along with Muschamp), while Summers went to Presbyterian. Smart, when he was at Valdosta State, actually tried to hire Summers there before Smart got a job at Florida State.
A few years later, Smart was hired as running backs coach at Georgia, where Bobo was already the quarterbacks coach. Then Summers was brought on, at Smart’s recommendation, as a graduate assistant. Summers and Smart, both single at the time, roomed together that year.
“I think the biggest bond was the fact we were all at Georgia that one year together,” Smart said. “That was the tie that bonded Tyson in there. I mean Mike and I’s bonds are a bit different. Our families are really good friends and we’ve known each other all our lives. Then Tyson jumped in and we all had the same area recruiting because of where we went to high school. So that was the bond that we all had.”
Smart and Summers left the staff after that season, but the trio stayed close, leading to those carpooled recruiting trips. They all ended up on the coaching fast track, and in the public spotlight, especially Bobo and Smart. The two talked a few times when Georgia had defensive coordinator openings, but Smart stayed at Alabama until Georgia’s head coaching job opened. When Bobo got the Colorado State job after the 2014 season, he hired Summers, who had been at Central Florida, as his defensive coordinator. Then Summers got his own head coaching job at Georgia Southern.
But if you ask Bobo’s father, their ambitions were always more grounded.
“If you ask every one of them, they all wanted to be high school coaches,” George Bobo said.
“Exactly,” Mike Bobo said. “All I ever wanted to do was be a high school coach at a place like Thomasville, where I grew up. It was a great place to grow up because people loved the high school, supported athletics, and on Friday night. All I ever really wanted to do was coach for Thomasville High School, then I got a chance to go to Georgia, and I wanted to come back to coach at a place like Thomasville.”
Alas, now they’re all in high-profile jobs. Since it at least happened around the same time, that’s allowed them some good friends to lean on: Smart and Summers, both first-time head coaches and in the same state, have talked and compared notes, such as how they handled spring practice scheduling. Bobo, a bit further out west, is a good sounding board for both. And the three co-hosted a satellite camp last week at Buford High School. And Bobo and Muschamp could catch up at SEC meetings last month in Destin.
“It’s a lot easier to talk to Mike and Tyson because there’s not a competitive issue there,” Smart said, chuckling. “Although Will and I do talk, and bounce ideas off each other. Ones that are non-competitive.”
Credit for their success, Smart also pointed out, should go to the men they’ve worked for along the way.
“We’ve all worked for really good head coaches: Tyson for George O’Leary, who was really successful, Mike for coach (Mark) Richt, who was really successful, and myself with coach (Nick) Saban,” Smart said. “We all learn from who we work for.”
The next few years will be tougher for all of them. There will be pressure. Smart, Bobo and Muschamp replaced men named Richt, (Jim) McElwain and (Steve) Spurrier. Summers replaced Willie Fritz, who was successful enough he moved on to Tulane.
But they all also know it’s a business. And if they ended up back coaching high school, well, then that wouldn’t be so bad either.
“They’re coaching because of what they got out of high school, and the feeling that they got,” George Bobo said. “And then they all played college football, and they all enjoyed the camaraderie and the friendships that they formed with the guys that they played with. You can’t get that working in a store.”