ATHENS, Ga. — Had Kirby Smart not made Nick Saban a promise right before Smart left to interview for the open head-coaching job at Auburn in 2012, who knows what the SEC coaching landscape would look like right now?
For that matter, Smart might even be on the home sideline Saturday on the Plains when Auburn and Georgia renew the Deep South’s oldest rivalry.
Either way, Smart is glad that he made that promise.
“I promised [Saban] that I would stay on at Alabama to coach through the national championship game if I got the job,” Smart told ESPN. “It was important to me to finish what I started.”
Ultimately, Auburn hired Gus Malzahn, and one of the factors working against Smart, multiple sources told ESPN, was that Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs wasn’t comfortable with Smart being the Auburn head coach and pulling double duty as the Alabama defensive coordinator for the next month.
“The others on the search committee [Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan] 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,” Smart said. “I get that, and the truth is it worked out the way it was supposed to. My experience is that it usually does.”
He wouldn’t get any argument from the red-and-black-coated masses at Georgia. Smart, in his second season as the Dawgs’ head coach, has his alma mater unbeaten, No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings and absolutely killing it on the recruiting trail. It’s the first time Georgia has been No. 1 in either of the major polls or the CFP rankings during the season since 1982. For perspective, Herschel Walker was still “running over people” between the hedges in ’82.
Smart, who spent 11 seasons working under Saban at Alabama, LSU and the Miami Dolphins, has never been one to get ahead of himself, and he’s not about to start now.
“They don’t measure races at the 60-, 70- or 80-meter mark. They do at the finish, and that’s our goal,” Smart said last week following the Dawgs’ 24-10 win over South Carolina.
He was obviously talking about this season, but there’s the bigger picture, too.
“I tell our kids all the time that humility is just a week away, and that goes for our entire program,” Smart said. “We’re not there yet, not even close. We’ve made progress and are continuing to make progress in a lot of areas. We’ve got good players, and I love the way our kids are working and have bought in. But we don’t have the kind of players Alabama has. They’re the standard, and we’ve got to keep recruiting better players, developing those players and coaching them.”
The irony that it’s Auburn this week for Georgia isn’t lost on Smart, who says the No. 10 Tigers will be the Dawgs’ toughest test of the season. And, yes, Georgia won at No. 3 Notre Dame the second week of the season.
“They’ve got the best defense we’ve faced and a quarterback [Jarrett Stidham] who throws it as well as anybody we’ve faced,” Smart said. “That’s my focus — not what might have been or what might not have been five years ago when I interviewed for the job.”
If he sounds like his old boss, it’s not a coincidence. Smart worked closer and longer with Saban than any of the other current head coaches who’ve branched out from Saban’s coaching tree. Smart is as familiar with Saban’s “Process” as anybody.
“The most important thing I took from him was holding everybody’s feet to the fire, holding everybody accountable, and that goes for every single meeting, every single drill, every single practice and every single day,” said Smart, who was with Saban for one season at LSU in 2004, one season with the Miami Dolphins in 2006 and then nine seasons at Alabama from 2007 to 2015.
“You take on what’s right in front of you and don’t get caught up in everything else.”
It’s precisely that mindset that landed Smart his dream job. He kept his head down and worked, grinded and learned all those years under Saban and paid little attention to the expanding narrative that his head-coaching window might have closed.
He admittedly was selective and passed on several smaller head-coaching opportunities and also passed on opportunities to return to Georgia as Mark Richt’s defensive coordinator.
“I knew the right one would come,” said Smart, who will turn 42 in December. “I didn’t necessarily know it would be this one. This was my school and the one that meant the most to me, but I had a good job making a lot of money at one of the best programs in the country and working for the best coach in the country.
“I didn’t care what anybody else thought, that I should take a head job at a smaller school and then work my way up. I didn’t care that people were saying our defensive success at Alabama was really Saban’s success. None of that bothered me. I was going to do the best job I could do where I was and trust that it was all going to work out.”
It helped that Smart was the son of a coach. His father, Sonny, was a longtime high school coach in Georgia and coached Smart at Bainbridge High School.
“My father was a defensive coordinator before he was a head coach, and that’s what I always wanted to be, a defensive coordinator in the SEC,” Smart said. “Growing up, I learned from him that the best job is the one you have, and that’s the one you put all of your energy and focus into. I never looked at it like my career would be unfulfilling if I didn’t become a head coach at a certain place or by a certain time. I was too busy coaching.”
Smart understood unequivocally what the stakes were when he took the Georgia job. His predecessor, Mark Richt, was fired despite a winning percentage over 15 seasons (.740) that ranks first among all Georgia head coaches. But what Richt hadn’t done was win an SEC championship in a decade. Smart, in his second season, already has the Dawgs headed to Atlanta for a Dec. 2 date in the SEC championship game, but he didn’t come back to his alma mater to play for championships. He came back to win them.
He’s coaching and recruiting that way.
To open the game against South Carolina, Georgia attempted an onside kick. The Dawgs didn’t recover, and Smart was asked about it after the game. His answer only fueled Dawg Nation’s fire.
“I don’t want to be the hunted. I want to hunt,” Smart said.
It’s been a similar story on the recruiting front. Georgia had more than 100 prospects on campus for the South Carolina game, and it was a who’s who on the Dawgs’ sideline before the game. The top prospects from Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee and both Carolinas were in attendance, and the Dawgs already have committed in this class the nation’s top quarterback and No. 1 overall prospect (Justin Fields) and the nation’s top running back (Zamir White), according to ESPN’s rankings.
“Players see what we’ve got going here and where Coach Smart is taking us,” Georgia senior running back Sony Michel said. “They want to be a part of that. Why wouldn’t you?”
Smart coached under Richt at Georgia as running backs coach in 2005, and Smart said they still keep in touch.
“They don’t come any finer than coach Richt,” Smart said. “I still talk to him some, and it says so much about him the way he’s continued to support the kids on this team and support Georgia. The cupboard wasn’t bare when we got here. Now, we had to go sign a quarterback, but we had players. I know a lot of new coaches talk all the time about how they don’t have enough good players when they get there, but I can tell you this place was in better shape than Alabama was when we got there in 2007.”
One of the main reasons Georgia is considered one of the best head-coaching job in America is the wealth of talent in the state. But as Smart points out, everybody all over the country is trying to recruit the state of Georgia, which makes relationships and pinpoint evaluations even more important.
“We’ve got be sure we take the right players, and sometimes that means telling good players from this state that we don’t have room for them,” Smart said.
Additionally, there were 29 players selected in the 2017 NFL draft who played high school football in Georgia. None of those players finished their careers with the Dawgs, although cornerback Brendan Langley and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons started there and transferred elsewhere, Langley to Lamar and Harvey-Clemons to Louisville.
“You’ve got to make hard decisions, but that’s not a bad problem to have,” said Smart, who shrugs at the thought that the Dawgs might be further along overall than most people expected in his second season.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I expected us to be No. 1 [in the rankings], but it doesn’t really matter where we’re ranked right now.”
Spoken like someone who knows a little something about the “Process” and is content to let that process run its course.