ATHENS — I was strolling across UGA’s North Campus this past Friday evening like I often do with my son when we saw the lights and heard music booming out of Sanford Stadium. So we headed down toward it to inspect.
Turns out that Georgia’s coach was utilizing the facility for his annual Kirby Smart Football Camp. I actually knew it was going on, in retrospect, but I never really pay much attention to these things. I’ve always envisioned such endeavors as money-making propositions for coaches and their assistants. Of course, they do provide some very real and special instruction for the young campers that attend them. But other than that, they don’t demand much in the way of “news coverage.”
So when my son and I saw the four UGA buses lined up on the Reed Plaza and the gates open into the stadium, we ventured in to get a closer look. Of course, my 9-year-old immediately wanted to know “is Kirby Smart here?”
Not wanting to get his hopes up, I explained that at these coaches’ camps, the head coach typically doesn’t do a lot of the hands-on coaching. In fact, I told him, most of the time if they show up at all it’s at the beginning and the end. They might say a few words and then head on out to dinner with the family.
Imagine my son’s surprise when we reached the bottom of the 120 steps on the lower level of the stadium’s north side. He immediately pointed out the visored man down in the northwest corner end zone throwing the football with a couple of little kids.
“Isn’t that Kirby down there?” my son asked, knowing the answer.
We headed down to that end, and sure enough, there was Georgia’s coach tossing the ball with his youngest son Andrew and his friend Knox Langley. While he wasn’t actually coaching campers at that moment, he was offering some very pointed instruction to these two primary-age children. And with his wife, Mary Beth, and a niece at his side, Smart was making the rounds to four makeshift fields laid out horizontally between cones between the hedges. Every now and then he’d stop and make a kid’s day by giving him a quick pointer about one thing or another, telling him “good job” or say something over the speakers.
I kidded Kirby about actually coaching at his own football camp.
“Always coaching,” he quipped.
All the while, music blared out of the stadium’s sound system, all the resident lights flashed and shined. It was quite the sight, with eight teams of kids competing in four games simultaneously right on the same field their beloved Bulldogs utilize six times a year. Turns out, Smart and his fellow coaches were hosting a record number of kids in this youth camp. More than 400, unofficially.
Now don’t misunderstand, this is not like those elite prospect camps or combines that Georgia will host three or four times before the summer is over. This one is for little kids, who get to choose between staying overnight at the camp or simply attending as day-campers.
And while it does bring a lot of cash to Smart and the coaches that work and organize the camp — up to $275 apiece for the overnighters, $225 for the day camper — it’s really more about building goodwill and branding within a generation a young people.
And no doubt, there are always a few, maybe dozens, who grow into full-fledged prospects in the not-too-distant future. You already could identify the ones who were a little taller, moved a little faster, threw the ball a little harder. You can bet Smart and his assistants know who they are.
Kirby said he was pleased with turnout, but wanted more. Always the competitor, he pointed out that Nick Saban’s camp at Alabama sometimes draws 800.
And that, Smart’s competitive nature and focus on the future, was really the takeaway of our little experience Friday night at Sanford Stadium.
Behind that west end zone where Kirby was coaching his son, there were fences and dirt and huge cranes. The buildings, concession stands and Gates 1 and 10 that once occupied that space beneath the bridge are completely gone already. There’s nothing there now but the lone-standing grandstand with Georgia red clay all around it and the giant scoreboard. The scoreboard will remain through the 2017 season, then be dismantled immediately afterward to be replaced by a bigger, grander version before the ’18 season.
Of course, beneath that, Bulldog fans know there will be a new $63 million locker room and recruiting lounge. It’s something Smart asked for and was granted from the athletic association’s board of directors. It will be online and functioning for the 2018 season.
Along with the $30.2 million Indoor Athletic Facility that was entertaining all those wide-eyed Bulldog hopefuls last week, Kirby Smart definitely has his eye on the future.
For him, it can’t get here quick enough.