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Could Kirby Smart replicate Nick Saban's model of success at Georgia?

By Andy Staples
December 02, 2015

Back in 2012, we published a story about the Sabanization of college football. The premise was that programs everywhere hoped to duplicate Alabama coach Nick Saban's success by hiring former Saban assistants who might replicate Saban's program-management philosophy.

The results of that trend have been mixed. Jimbo Fisher (Saban's offensive coordinator at LSU) captured a national title in his fourth season as Florida State's head coach, won three ACC titles in six seasons, sent 29 players to the NFL draft in three years and is currently 10–2 in what should have been a rebuilding year. Will Muschamp (Saban's defensive coordinator at LSU) struggled to find an offense at Florida from 2011-14 and got fired. Derek Dooley (Saban's receivers coach at LSU) bombed at Tennessee. Jim McElwain (Saban's offensive coordinator at Alabama) resurrected Colorado State, replaced Muschamp at Florida and now has the Gators sitting at 10–2 and set to face Saban's Crimson Tide for the SEC title on Saturday.

So, what will happen when Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart finally leaves The Process nest? Will he wind up on the list with Fisher and McElwain or on the list with Dooley and Muschamp? On Tuesday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Georgia will hire Smart after he finishes his duties with Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. The clues that this move was in the works surfaced on Monday. USC interim coach Clay Helton—who could have been a potential offensive coordinator for Smart at Georgia—was made the Trojans permanent head coach at least six days earlier than he would have been without some sort of leverage point. Meanwhile, Houston coach Tom Herman said on Monday that he had agreed in principle to a deal that will keep him coaching the Cougars. Taking the Georgia job would have been a no-brainer choice for Herman, but not if the job wasn't available anymore.

All signs point to Smart, the 39-year-old Bainbridge, Ga., native who played safety for the Bulldogs from 1995-98 and who has served as Saban's defensive coordinator for the past seven seasons. If hired, Smart will arrive in Athens facing huge expectations. The Bulldogs fired Mark Richt (career record: 145–51) for not winning enough championships. Georgia's next coach will get no honeymoon period; if he isn't an upgrade, he will be in trouble. The numbers do not necessarily support the hiring of Smart. In doing a story on the coaching hire tool created by SportSource Analytics, it was clear that coaching at one's alma mater has no effect on success and that offensive coordinators tend to be more successful than defensive coordinators when jumping to head coaching jobs. But the sample size remains relatively small, so perhaps we should wait and see how Smart fares before judging the hire as a success or failure. The hope is that, like Fisher at Florida State, Smart can replicate the recruiting system, player development program and infrastructure of Saban's program at Alabama.

The Bulldogs tried to incorporate elements of Saban's program in 2014 by bringing in former Saban and Fisher assistant Jeremy Pruitt to run the defense. But, as any Breaking Bad viewer knows, half measures rarely produce the desired result. Pruitt agitated for bigger changes to make Georgia more like Alabama, but that didn't necessarily jive with the culture put in place by Richt. For this approach to work, everyone in the program must be pulling in the same direction.

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And athletic director Greg McGarity had better be ready to spend some money. The Bulldogs are already building an indoor practice facility, but Smart will likely want to beef up the staff with a host of analysts and quality control personnel. When Fisher took over at Florida State prior to the 2010 season, he beefed up the academic advising staff, the analyst/quality control staff and the strength staff. He hired dietitians to monitor what players ate. He also helped raise money for a new dorm for players and for the indoor facility that the Seminoles opened in '13. Muschamp, by comparison, didn't get everything on his wish list at Florida. When he was fired, the Gators had no indoor facility. McElwain, however, got the indoor facility he wanted and has been allowed to create some—but not all—of the support staff positions he wants.

Georgia already has most of what Smart will need, but he'll want more. One thing Saban and Fisher stressed when I interviewed them for that Sabanization story is that program infrastructure is as important, or possibly more important, than a team's X's and O's.

But scheme matters, too. Muschamp would still be at Florida if he'd hired an offensive coordinator who could evaluate, recruit and coach effectively. Muschamp's original sin in Gainesville was hiring Charlie Weis to run the offense, but Muschamp wanted a pro-style scheme that would allow the Gators to control the clock and wouldn't put the defense in difficult spots with quick three-and-outs. Muschamp, who played alongside Smart at Georgia, would likely stress this to Smart. The question is whether Smart will have to ask by calling or by walking down the hall. Smart could conceivably hire Muschamp, now the defensive coordinator at Auburn, to run the Bulldogs' defense. Of course, Muschamp might get his second shot to run an SEC team if South Carolina—which coveted Smart before Georgia swooped in—chooses to hire him.

When deciding how to handle the offense, Smart would be wise to mimic one of Saban's less publicized personality traits. While Saban usually has most of the answers, he is mature enough to admit when he doesn't. He constantly seeks new ideas and ways to solve problems. When that Sabanization story came out, Deadspin wrote a critique of it called "The Sabanization of College Football Is a Total Bummer." The piece posited that an army of Saban clones would make college football boring because Saban favored using a slower-paced offense. "Still—take heart," Isaac Rauch wrote. "There's a positive side effect to any downbeat, cautious game plan: the new, alternate strategy that ends Saban's miserly run of dominance will probably be balls-out awesome. It's cyclical." This criticism ignored the fact that Saban readily admits he doesn't know what he doesn't know, seeks out people who know more and adjusts his program accordingly after soliciting their advice.

This is why Saban ordered Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to juice the offensive tempo last season. It's also why Alabama routinely plays with five defensive backs who all would have been considered cornerbacks in 2012; they make it easier to defend spread offenses. It's also why Saban invited Herman to Tuscaloosa during the off-season. Herman's Ohio State offense shredded Alabama's defense in the Sugar Bowl last January. Saban wanted to understand why so he could fix the problems.

Smart will need to be as open-minded as his former boss. Muschamp would probably admit that he wasn't open-minded enough when it came to offensive scheme and risk-taking at Florida. Smart does have the advantage of experience on both sides of the ball. He did, after all, coach the running backs for Richt's SEC title team at Georgia in 2005. So, if Smart heads to Athens next week, pay particular attention to who he hires to run his offense. If it's someone who runs an offense of this era, that's a good sign for the Bulldogs.

In the days before Alabama faced LSU for the BCS title in January 2012, Smart was asked if he was ready to become a head coach. "I definitely think I'm ready for the next step," he said. "I think it's got to be the right place, the right opportunity. And it's not really presented itself."

That opportunity seems to have presented itself now. And we may soon find out exactly how ready Smart is.

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