DALLAS—How did Kirby Smart wind up serving simultaneously as Alabama's defensive coordinator and Georgia's head coach? "The defensive line cornered me in a room and said that if I didn't stay, there would be an altercation," Smart said Monday. "So I was forced."
Smart was absolutely joking, but anyone who has ever looked 6' 4", 312-pound junior defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson in the eye would swallow that story immediately. Robinson is not a man to whom one says, "No thanks." In reality, the reasons for Smart's double duty are both emotional and practical. For Smart, the emotional aspect far outweighs the practical. "I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I had to face Denzel Devall, Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster, Dillon Lee. I've got a special relationship with these guys," Smart said. "To not coach in this game, I couldn't imagine. So it was a no-brainer for me."
But the practical is what makes this arrangement easier than it seems on the surface. Smart's situation is the rare one in which two SEC foes that are bitter rivals on the recruiting trail can enjoy a symbiotic relationship for (they hope) another 14 days. "There's nothing more that's going to help me at the University of Georgia than winning a national title at the University of Alabama," Smart said. "That's my focus and goal right now—to do the best job I can on the task that's in front of me. If you get past that, you get lost."
There is no better advertisement for Georgia football at the moment than having the Bulldogs new coach plastered over every form of broadcast, digital and print media as he prepares to lead his defense on college football's biggest stage. When Alabama faces Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl on Thursday night, the players on Georgia's recruiting board will watch to see how the man who seeks to win their signatures calls a defense against an NFL-bound quarterback. If Alabama's defense plays well, that is great for the Crimson Tide (fewer points for the Spartans) and great for the Bulldogs (the guy they hired is getting it done).
Tom Herman enjoyed that bounce last season while leading Ohio State's offense in the College Football Playoff. By the time he took over full-time as Houston's head coach after the Buckeyes' national title win—which included a few minutes featuring Herman, then Ohio State's coordinator, wearing a Houston hat as he left the field at AT&T Stadium—his name had been mentioned hundreds of times in very prominent places. That only helped him as he launched his #HTownTakeover campaign for the recruiting class of 2016.
The difference between Herman's situation and Smart's is that Houston and Ohio State do not compete for players. Such competition was also limited in the cases of Dan Mullen (Florida to Mississippi State following the 2008 season) and Bo Pelini (LSU to Nebraska following the '07 campaign). But in this case, with two SEC powers separated by a four-hour drive, there will be some overlap. While trying to coach Alabama to a national title, Smart will try to recruit players who (he hopes) will someday upend the Crimson Tide in Atlanta on the first Saturday in December. In several cases, he will try to convince those players to come to Athens instead of Tuscaloosa. The Rivals.com database lists 17 uncommitted players in the class of '16 with offers from and high interest in Alabama and Georgia. Smart said the actual number deciding between those two schools is even smaller. "There's overlap there, but it's not as much as you'd think," he said. "It's four or five kids where we're both their top schools."
Obviously, Smart will not trash Alabama during recruiting calls. Tide coach Nick Saban is his biggest professional influence, and the school has been wonderful to Smart and his family since 2007, providing highly competitive financial compensation and the infrastructure to win the three national championship rings Smart has already collected. "I'm not into saying negative things about Alabama," Smart said. "I don't think there's a negative thing you can say."
Still, Smart made clear that even though he, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Florida's Jim McElwain are branches of the Saban coaching tree who must recruit against their former boss, the former coordinators can differentiate themselves even though their programs are structured similarly to Saban's. In Smart's case, his pitch is simple. "Do you want to play? Because if you want to play, let's go," Smart said. "We need you to come play. If you want to play, come on." Translation: Do you want to sit behind all the five-stars stacked like cordwood in Tuscaloosa or see the field quickly in Athens? Of course, Smart isn't going to say it like that.
Though the situation seems awkward from the outside, Smart said Saban had no reservations about having one of his coaches actively recruiting against him for a month. "We had a conversation about it," Smart said. "We understand the strains and the stresses. Sure, it's tough at times to know we're recruiting the same kids, but we're also both professionals. It's not a negative. It's not go bash each other. Ultimately, those kids have to decide what's best for them, and to each his own." Again, sentimentality and symbiosis won the day. "He wants what's best for the team," Smart said. "He wants to win a national championship. If that's coaching this game, why change something that's been working?"
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Saban, who did not stay to finish at Michigan State after being hired by LSU following the 1999 regular season, is perfectly comfortable with the arrangement and appreciative that Smart will lead the players he helped recruit to Alabama one more time. "It speaks volumes for Kirby's character and all that he has to want to come back and finish when it may not be the most advantageous thing for him and his future," Saban said earlier this month. "To do right by the players and come back and finish and do a good job for the guys who have worked hard for him."
Those players are grateful to have Smart for what they hope will be a two-game sendoff. "Him being my position coach, it means a lot to me," senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said. "I've been with him all four years. And just seeing him grow as a coach and making me a better player, I'm very happy for him and the opportunity that he's getting."
Ragland believes Smart will bring Georgia to a championship level, but he isn't quite sure how he'll feel the first time he watches Smart coach against Saban. "It'll be a bittersweet moment," Ragland said. "All those years he's been around coach Saban, he knows how coach Saban thinks. It'll be a good matchup. Whoever decides they want it more and is tougher is going to win that game every time. He's going to bring his personality and those things coach Saban taught him, and coach Saban is going to bring those things he taught Kirby to do."
Before they become adversaries, though, Saban and Smart will work together in pursuit of one more ring. "You have to be professional about it," Smart said. "You don't have to be enemies with everybody in this profession. And I think that's kind of indicated by how we've been able to handle this and be able to move forward with it."