Kirby Smart was almost never a Dawg. Georgia fans can thank Ray Goff — and Tennessee

Kirby Smart barking instructions before Georgia’s 2016 spring game.
Kirby Smart barking instructions before Georgia’s 2016 spring game.

Eight games into what has all the trappings of a dream season for unbeaten and top-ranked Georgia, coach Kirby Smart, who today enters his 24th month at the helm, has led the Bulldogs into rare air.

On Tuesday evening, Georgia found itself atop the College Football Playoff poll. The ascension is a testament in large part to Smart.

Smart, who will turn 42 two days before Christmas, is in his second season as head coach at his alma mater, where he played four years as a defensive back in the mid-to-late 1990s.

But Smart almost never played for the Bulldogs.

An October 1998 profile that former Telegraph reporter J.J. Cooper wrote about Smart, then a senior safety for the Dogs, described Smart’s playing philosophies, his views on recruiting and his work ethic, all of which appear to have served him well in two decades as a coach.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart. Brett Davis AP

In high school at Bainbridge, Smart was a 5-foot-10, 175-pounder. College recruiters all but overlooked him. But then Georgia coach Ray Goff called Smart on the eve of signing day.

A McEachern High star named Steve Johnson had turned down the Dogs in favor of Tennessee. Georgia had a scholarship to give. To that point, only Furman and Georgia Southern had offered Smart scholarships.

The Telegraph’s ’98 profile of Smart mentioned how what some high school players might consider a slight didn’t faze Smart:

“It’s weird,” Smart said. “I wasn’t even worried. Coach Goff called and said, ‘I know it’s last minute, but if you want a scholarship, it’s yours.’” Smart accepted before hanging up the phone. He gets some vindication from the fact that he’s proven himself. Ironically, Smart has started 16 games for Georgia, while Johnson had only three starts with the Volunteers entering this season. “I had people all around my hometown tell me I couldn’t play college ball. Coaches at other schools said I was undersized. Even coaches make mistakes. They didn’t think I could play at this level,” Smart said. “I know how recruiting is. I’d seen guys who were great athletes turn into busts. Robert Edwards was going to Georgia Southern because he wasn’t offered until right at signing day. . . . It happens sometimes. You can’t measure a guy’s heart, his intangibles and his work ethic.”

The ’98 profile also declared Smart “a lightning rod of controversy” and brought up how he was run over three times by Tennessee’s Jamal Lewis in a game the year before:

The Georgia safety doesn’t go out of his way to stir up trouble. But it seems that his very presence on the field brings out the strongest of opinions. Bring five Georgia or Southeastern Conference fans together and you’ll hear both sides. Some say he is one of the most underrated defensive backs in the league. They point to his six interceptions last year, his nose for the ball and his ability to do a little of everything. They also point out that he was a second-team All-SEC selection last year. Others say he’s one of the most overrated safeties in the league. As evidence, they bring up his impersonation of a speed bump as Tennessee running back Jamal Lewis ran over Smart three separate times last year in Knoxville. “I get it both ways because I’m not 6-foot-2, or 6-3. I’m not the big safety. They don’t see that. I’m more of an old school safety,” Smart said. “But I have just as many tackles, as many interceptions, maybe more. I’m around the football. Last year against Tennessee I missed Jamal Lewis three or four times, but some other guys may have been blocked.”

The Telegraph’s story from nearly 20 years ago noted how despite being “a little light for an SEC safety,” Smart had a knack for finding the ball.

Smart said he didn’t much care for being known as “heady but unathletic.”

“I run a 4.4 (40-yard dash),” he said. “I get a lot of grief. I hear them on call-in shows say I’m not fast enough. It’s basically because I’m white. I haven’t had a problem here. There hasn’t been a situation I’ve been in where I couldn’t keep up. Last year with Ole Miss’ Jon Avery, I ran with him from sideline to sideline, and he’s the fastest there was in the SEC.” This season, Smart has 15 tackles (sixth best on the team) and four passes broken up. He’s also angry with himself, because he figures that he should have two or three interceptions. Smart was a little unhappy with himself against Wyoming. Three separate times he had interceptions in his hands and dropped them. Once, the ball was knocked out by Champ Bailey, but he should have snagged the other two pickoffs. “I pride myself on catching them when I get a chance too,” Smart said. “But I haven’t had many opportunities that I’ve missed.”

Joe Kovac Jr.: 478-744-4397, @joekovacjr