The art of hiring a first-year coaching staff

Kirby Smart called his first staff at Georgia "first-class, really competitive."

ATHENS – The first thing Vince Dooley had to do when he was hired as Georgia’s head coach was assemble a staff. The second thing was to find a table that staff could meet at.

They eventually found what Dooley called a second-hand table, and they sat on metal folding chairs.

“But by the third year we won a championship and we got some cushions on our chairs,” Dooley said.

A new coach has to hire a staff on the fly, making a series of important hires in a short span. And yet history has shown at Georgia that a first staff can often be the best.

Mark Richt’s first staff in 2001 would do the same thing as Dooley: Win two SEC championships in five years. When many of those assistants eventually moved on to bigger things, it was the inability to adequately replace those coaches that ultimately may have been Richt’s downfall.

Dooley, hired in 1964 to take over a moribund program, put together a staff that won two SEC championships over the next five years. And many of those assistants, including the legendary Erk Russell, remained with Dooley through a national championship 16 years later.

“My first staff was probably as good a staff as I had,” Dooley said this week.

Now Kirby Smart hopes to replicate that.

It wasn’t an easy process. For a month after being hired, Smart split his time: On the one hand coaching Alabama’s defense through the national championship, on the other interviewing and hiring Georgia assistant coaches.

The resulting staff includes a couple that within the industry were regarded as home-run hires: Sam Pittman (offensive line), Shane Beamer (special teams and tight ends) and James Coley (receivers). The coordinators (Jim Chaney on offense and Mel Tucker on defense) have had mixed success in the past, but mesh well with Smart’s philosophies. There are up-and-comers: Glenn Schumann (inside linebackers) and Dell McGee (running backs). And there are the two who were retained, Tracy Rocker (defensive line) and Kevin Sherrer (outside linebackers).

“I was able to assemble a first-class, really competitive (staff),” Smart said recently. “A lot of coaches have coached in the SEC. They have SEC experience.”

But ability to recruit, Smart made clear, was key.

“There is no greater challenge, let me tell you, than to recruit in the SEC,” he said. “You bring yourself into the state of Georgia, or the state of Florida, and you go recruit, every single school in the country will be in Georgia to recruit. Every big-time school will fly into Georgia to compete for a kid. And it’s competitive. It’s tough. It’s a war out there. You better have guys ready to go to war and compete and be able to sell your program and what you have to offer.”

There are some parallels between Dooley and Smart’s first staffs. They both retained two assistants, in Dooley’s case Frank Inman and Ken Cooper. And the rest of the staff was very Southern-oriented, with recruiting in mind.

Erk Russell was Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 1964-80. (AJC FILE PHOTO).

Russell had been the defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt, and Dooley knew him well, but not as well as he knew the man he hired as his offensive coordinator: Bill Dooley, his brother, who had been the offensive line coach at Mississippi State.

Blood only goes so far. While much of the staff remained together for the next 16 years, Dooley left after three years to embark on his own head coaching career, at North Carolina, then Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.

Two other members of that staff went on to become head coaches: Russell at Georgia Southern, and Cecil “Hootie” Ingram at Clemson.

Years later, Dooley was athletics director when he hired Richt. The one thing Richt mentioned about his staff in the interview process was that he wanted to bring Dave Van Halanger, the strength and conditioning coach at Florida State. Otherwise Dooley didn’t know much about Richt’s plans.

It ended up being a blend of veteran coaches (Neil Callaway, John Eason) and young up-and-comers (Mike Bobo and Willie Martinez) and one retained assistant (Rodney Garner). The key hire ended up being Brian VanGorder, who built a strong defense for four years. It was when VanGorder left that it became hard to sustain it.

“That’s what happened to coach Richt after VanGorder left. There was movement of changing coaches over a period of time,” Dooley said. “The nucleus of your staff with some consistency I think is helpful for success over the long haul.”

Now Dooley has watched from afar as Smart assembled his first staff. He knows Pittman and Chaney, who worked under Dooley’s son Derek at Tennessee. Ticking off the names of the other seven assistants and their backgrounds, Vince Dooley pronounced it a “very experienced staff,” and “quite a contrast to my first staff at Georgia,” which was much greener.

“These were coaches that I knew, and they were coaches that were just happy to be there,” Dooley said. “Today’s market, you’re gonna go hire somebody that is experienced, and certainly I think Kirby has a good staff.”

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