ATHENS – These aren’t very reflective times for the respective coaches facing off Saturday in the SEC Championship Game, what with everything that’s on the line and all. But as they get set to match wits again, it is pretty interesting to note the incredibly parallel paths that Georgia’s Kirby Smart and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn have taken.
In fact, if not for some special circumstances, Smart might be where Malzahn is, and Malzahn might be somewhere else. Perhaps Arkansas.
Smart and Malzahn were both up for the Auburn job in December of 2012, and Smart actually was considered a favorite for a while.
As detailed a couple of weeks ago in a revealing report by ESPN’s Chris Low, as the Tigers parted ways with Gene Chizik after the 2012 season, Smart was the top choice among members of the school’s search committee, including former players Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan. But Alabama coach Nick Saban asked for only one assurance from Smart, his star defensive coordinator, when he informed him of his intentions to interview at Auburn. Saban asked Smart to stick with the Crimson Tide through the BCS national championship run.
That was OK with Jackson and Sullivan, according to sources in the ESPN report. But it was not all right with Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs. Ultimately, Jacobs got his way. He told Smart the Tigers couldn’t wait.
“It was important to me to finish what I started,” Smart told Low. “The others on the search committee were good with it, I think. But I don’t think Jay could ever get past the thought of the Auburn coach coaching at Alabama for another month and all that went into that. I get that.”
If that sounds familiar, that was the exact scenario Georgia faced in December 2015 when it targeted Smart as its favored replacement for Mark Richt. But the Bulldogs didn’t mind waiting on Smart to finish his obligations with Alabama, which was headed into the College Football Playoff.
After being named Georgia’s coach on Dec. 6, 2015, Smart balanced both jobs for the next couple of weeks before the holidays. Then he embedded himself with the Crimson Tide until they finished their run in the playoffs. He did not show up as the Bulldogs’ full-time coach until the morning of Jan. 12, 2016, when he jetted to Athens from Phoenix after the national championship game along with his wife Mary Beth, their two oldest kids and new UGA assistant coaches Mel Tucker and Glenn Schumann.
“We were interested in the long-term results,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said of the decision to wait on Smart. “In the short term, it meant a lot to Coach Saban and to Kirby, and it was the right thing to do. We have respect for our conference peers, so we saw no reason to not agree with those requests.”
The Bulldogs’ patience appears to have paid off ― for them and for all three programs. The Tide won the national championship following the 2015 season with a win over Clemson. And two years later, both Georgia and Auburn are facing off for a berth in College Football Playoff.
“The truth is it worked out the way it was supposed to,” Smart said. “My experience is that it usually does.”
That comment from Smart was also from that Nov. 9 ESPN article. This week he has been a little more reticent to reminisce.
But both he and Malzahn acknowledged that they have hovered in the same orbits for a good long while now. And, once again, their planets will collide Saturday.
As for those events of nearly five years ago with Auburn, Smart said he hadn’t thought about it much until it was brought up recently.
“In the profession we’re in, you worry about the here and now, and you try to be where your feet are,” said the UGA graduate, who will turn 42 on Dec. 23. “Really all we’ve been thinking about since the arrival here is turning this program into the caliber program we think it should be and developing our team and these young men into better people. That’s been the goal. So, all the other stuff is really in the past.”
Malzahn took pretty much the same tact.
“Well, first of all, I’ve got a lot of respect for Kirby all the way back when he was a coordinator at Alabama, the job he’s done,” Malzahn said this week. “He’s an excellent coach. He’s excellent at adjusting. We [have gone] head-to-head numerous times. I’m not for sure about all the job stuff and all that. I just know that this is a job that I really wanted and I was real happy to get it.”
There’s no question that Georgia is very happy with Smart and vice versa. Auburn certainly is pleased with the job Malzahn is doing at the moment, but that hasn’t been the case all year. After the Tigers lost their second game of the season to LSU on Oct. 14, there was chatter on The Plains of the school parting ways with him.
Even heading into the Iron Bowl on Saturday, there were rampant rumors that Malzahn was going to take the recently opened Arkansas job and return to his home state. Malzahn played for the Razorbacks and once was their offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. There are still people who believe he’ll make the jump if the Tigers don’t beat Georgia on Saturday and qualify for the playoff.
Malzahn addressed all the speculation again this week, although somewhat short of definitively.
“I’m perfectly happy being at Auburn,” he said Sunday. “Like I said [before], we’re playing for the SEC championship, and I’m excited to be the head coach here.”
As for Smart versus Malzahn, the two coaches have waged a lot of wars in their days as coordinators at Alabama and Auburn and now as head coaches. Smart has a 1-1 record against Malzahn as a head coach and is 5-3 all time. They have met three times as opposing coordinators, three times when Malzahn was Auburn’s coach and Smart was Alabama’s coordinator and twice as coaches of their respective teams.
“Obviously, we’ve gone against each other a lot,” Smart said. “I have a lot of respect for Gus. He does a good job.”
Obviously, Smart has done a good job for Georgia, as well. Through the years, as his star rose at Alabama, he had a lot of opportunities to take a different path. It was South Carolina’s acute interest in him when Steve Spurrier resigned during the 2015 season that hastened Richt’s departure from Georgia. Smart was pursued for a number of openings before that, with Southern Miss in 2011 being the most publicly known suitor.
But Saban always advised his protégé to hold out for something better, and Georgia is certainly glad that he did.
“Sure, I mean, I think everybody is ecstatic with the way Kirby has approached the job,” McGarity said Tuesday. “He has started to establish a solid foundation here, and we’re excited about the future of this program.”
About 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, one program is going to be just a little more excited than the other.