The Alabamafication of Georgia football: Can Kirby Smart get the Bulldogs over the hump in the SEC?
ATHENS, Ga. — It was the perfect new-coach-story anecdote. After a practice last week, Georgia tight end Jeb Blazevich explained that, as of recently, different position groups have been tasked with tidying the locker room each day. Too much tape hit the floor instead of the garbage can. Too much detritus was left behind for the custodial staff—whose names Blazevich rattled off—and first-year coach Kirby Smart had demanded the Bulldogs clean things up. "We've all been slacking off, getting the locker room a little dirty," Blazevich, a rising junior, said. "That's completely unacceptable."
As Blazevich spoke, whole paragraphs began to take shape. Smart has brought out the metaphorical broom, and he's going to sweep the Georgia football program clean of the laziness that held the Bulldogs back from their national title destiny. This story would write itself.
A few minutes later, Georgia junior tailback Sony Michel answered a question about the same topic. "We actually had that same process last year," Michel said. "Different groups cleaned the locker rooms on different days. It's basically the same culture as last year."
Wait, Sony. You're screwing up the narrative. This is supposed to be about how the old way didn't work and how the new way will work. Now you're telling us the new guy does some of the same stuff the old guy did. What the heck is that supposed to mean?
It means Georgia didn't change coaches—as most schools do—to win six or seven more games per season. The Bulldogs jettisoned Mark Richt and hired Smart to win two or three more games per year. Richt won 145 games in 15 seasons at Georgia. He didn't run the program into the ground. In his final campaign, his team went 10–3. These stats are not intended to suggest Georgia shouldn't have made a change, though. Richt, despite having possibly the biggest recruiting advantage in college football, hadn't won the SEC in 10 years and didn't seem to be getting the Bulldogs closer to a national title. Since SEC and national championships are comparatively reasonable expectations at Georgia, athletic director Greg McGarity made the change.
This is Smart's challenge. He didn't take over a sagging program in need of a major overhaul. He took over a consistently good program that has the potential to be great. In many ways, the job that he accepted is far more difficult than one in which a 5–7 team must be dragged back to respectability. Those last two or three wins are the hardest to get.
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Smart got this job not because he once played safety for the Bulldogs. He got it because he served as the defensive coordinator for the man who knows how to regularly get those last two or three wins. At Alabama, any season that doesn't end with a national title is an abject failure. Smart helped Nick Saban capture four national titles in the past seven seasons. So, like former Saban assistants Derek Dooley, Jimbo Fisher, Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain before him, Smart has been hired to lead a program with the expectation that he will bring Saban's formula and get Saban's results.
Smart probably won't get much time to produce those results before his constituents grow anxious, but given recent history, he won't need it if he is the correct man for the job. Urban Meyer won a national title in his second season at Florida and his third at Ohio State. Les Miles won one in his third season at LSU. Saban won one in his third season at Alabama. Gene Chizik won one in his second season at Auburn. Fisher won one in his fourth season at Florida State. Every national title in the past 10 years has been claimed by a coach who won his first at the school within four seasons.
And Smart has inherited a better roster at Georgia than Saban inherited at Alabama or Fisher inherited at Florida State. Smart's situation is much more similar to what Meyer inherited at Florida and Ohio State and what Miles inherited at LSU.
That's one reason why the Alabamafication of Georgia football began quickly. Richt's program was one of the final bastions of common sense with regard to transfers. Richt's policy was that if a player didn't want to be at Georgia, he was free to go anywhere. If he was an undergraduate, the NCAA would make him sit out a season anyway. Plus, players usually left over a lack of playing time. If a guy wasn't good enough to start at Georgia, why should Richt be afraid of him beating the players who were good enough?
Smart changed that policy immediately. When tailback A.J. Turman requested to transfer, Smart blocked him from being able to instantly receive a scholarship at Miami or any school in the SEC. The in-conference restriction is quite common, and Smart reasoned that releasing a player to rejoin Richt at Miami might open the floodgates for any on-the-fence Richt recruits to transfer.
Smart understands the criticism, but he isn't apologizing. Nor is anyone at the school apologizing for Kirby's Law—not its official name—the 11th-hour addition to an unrelated bill in the Georgia state legislature that changed the number of days college athletic departments have to respond to open records requests from three to 90. The passage of this law says more about politicians in the state than it does about Smart or the football program. Smart met with state officials about the bill and certainly supported it, but the idea came from above him and was something Georgia officials have wanted for a while. Fortunately for citizens of the state, the change affects only college athletic departments and not law enforcement or more critical state agencies, where the citizens have a right and need to know how their tax dollars are being spent. (Though the quickness with which this law passed should worry anyone who hopes to keep those other agencies transparent.) After Kirby's Law passed, Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said this: "I hope it brings us a national championship is what I hope."
Kirby's Law will not bring Georgia a national championship. Kirby, however, might. If he does, none of Georgia football's key constituents will care about the optics of the transfer policy change or the open records change. They'll be thrilled their man did the job he was hired to do. If he doesn't win that national title—or at least a few SEC championships—then he probably will be fired at some point down the line.
Smart knows this, but long-term thinking is antithetical to The Process. The greatest challenge in the Alabamafication of Georgia's program is getting the Bulldogs to think the way the Crimson Tide players do. While Saban's skill at projecting and recruiting talent and then drawing up schemes ranks among the best in the game, his greatest gift is his ability to make a huge group of 18- to 22-year-olds perform consistently. He does this by making them forget the big picture exists. Instead, they concentrate solely on the next play, the next weight-room rep and the next English Composition paper. "The media is going to portray it as 'Are you going to win the SEC East? Are you going to win the national championship? Uh uh," Smart said. "We're worried about practice No. 10. Then we're worried about practice No. 11."
Last week Smart sought a way to refocus his players before a practice. He feared they had hit a wall. He worried some felt too sorry for themselves to pay attention. So, before the Bulldogs took the field, Smart showed them a brief video in which Alonzo Mourning discussed his return to the NBA following a kidney transplant. After hearing about Mourning's fight, a few hours of practice didn't seem so bad. Smart will have to find something else to reinforce that message every day, and he knows he will have to communicate it differently to different players. "That's where Nick is ahead of the curve on everybody," Smart said. "He's got a different way to reach every kid. He's also got every accessory."
Smart has yet to decide if he'll use the same array of consultants Saban uses. (For example, Alabama contracts three different people to serve as mental coaches for its players.) But Smart will absolutely try to mimic Saban's core principle. A few minutes spent talking to his players makes that clear. "Coach Smart always tries to promote that culture where the most important day is today," Blazevich said. "It's not the first time we've heard it, of course. It's definitely helpful to start off a meeting saying I don't care about tomorrow. I don't care about yesterday. I care about today."
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As Blazevich intimated, this isn't the first time the Bulldogs have been told to narrow their focus. Every coach in every sport says this. But not every one wins. Saban is one of the best at making that message resonate, and the success—or lack thereof—of coaches from his tree is telling. Of the Saban disciples who went on to become head coaches, Fisher and McElwain have copied the formula most closely. Fisher has a national title, and his team is 49–6 since 2012. McElwain inherited a dumpster fire at Colorado State and made it respectable, then replaced Muschamp at Florida and won the SEC East in '15 by relying on a great defense and schematically masking the flaws of his offense for the first two-thirds of last fall. Dooley followed his own blueprint at Tennessee and got fired following a 5–7 season and a final recruiting class that included zero offensive linemen. Muschamp followed the formula more closely at Florida than Dooley did at Tennessee, but he didn't copy Saban's habit of stockpiling quarterbacks, and his team suffered for it in '13 and '14.
Smart inherits a better roster at Georgia than the one Saban inherited at Alabama. There are issues, of course. Georgia could stand to be deeper on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and depth is thin behind star tailbacks Nick Chubb and Michel. Also, one discipline issue has already popped up. Freshmen Julian Rochester and Chad Clay were arrested this week on weapons charges because they were firing a BB gun in their dorm room. Compare that to Saban's first 18 months at Alabama, where he inherited a roster much thinner on raw talent and saw one of the best athletes on defense, linebacker Jimmy Johns, arrested for selling cocaine in the parking lot of the football complex. Richt left Smart with a much better situation than Mike Shula left Saban. The question is whether Smart will be as good as his old boss at striking quickly.
One thing Smart probably won't do is suddenly and inexplicably decide to start the third-team quarterback in a must-win game against Florida. Richt did that last year, saying Faton Bauta's running ability could help spark the Bulldogs' offense. But after Georgia didn't run any plays that highlighted Bauta's running ability and lost 27–3 on Oct. 31, it began to become obvious to McGarity that a change had to be made to get the program over the hump. The schematic brain cramp against Florida, the meltdown against Georgia Tech in 2014, the ill-fated final drive in the '12 SEC title game that probably cost Richt a national title—all of those factors contributed to the coaching change.
Now Smart has to make sure his team doesn't suffer from such letdowns. One of his first challenges is choosing how to manage freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. Eason, according to those who have seen him for longer than the brief viewing period that reporters are allotted at spring practice, has the arm to be special. He can make throws few other college quarterbacks can. But does Smart start Eason right away and risk damaging his psyche by throwing him in against SEC defenses too early? Or does Smart start Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey? Lambert started 12 games last fall and won 10. The graduate transfer from Virginia was maligned, but the truth is most SEC coaches would be thrilled to have him on their roster.
If Chubb can return to full speed from the knee injury he suffered at Tennessee last October, he and Michel could provide cover for whichever quarterback Smart and coordinator Jim Chaney elect to start. Could that plus an inexperienced-but-talented defense get Georgia to Atlanta in December? Smart isn't thinking about anything other than today, and like pretty much every coach before him, he doesn't want his players thinking about it, either. Whether Smart can properly frame that message will determine the answer to the question posed above. "I'm trying to get the most out of this practice," Smart said a few hours before a practice last week. "This is my Super Bowl."