It’s unusual to fire a college football head coach who won nine games in a regular season.
It’s even more unusual for that same coach to lose his job after posting the best winning percentage in program history and having been revered by a sizable portion of the fan base.
But that’s what happened at Georgia, when the powers that be decided the Mark Richt era had finished. Georgia’s first choice, Kirby Smart, accepted the job rather quickly, and a program shift during the past eight months has transpired.
Accepting a high-profile job has been a long time coming for Smart. He spent nine years as an assistant under Alabama head coach Nick Saban — the past eight as his defensive coordinator.
Smart learned under the best and coached his final game with Saban in the College Football Playoff national championship. That’s the main reason there’s so much excitement for Smart’s arrival, even when there was plenty of sadness in the fan base following Richt’s dismissal.
But Smart knows he has to win. A program can’t just replace a coach who won nine or 10 games a year with someone who doesn’t improve upon that mark. Smart will be tasked with not only winning the vast majority of his games but winning the big ones and competing for SEC championships.
That’s why Georgia made the move from Richt to Smart. And even Smart knows that if he doesn’t improve the win total, the excitement he feels around him now will fade. In February, appearing at the Macon Touchdown Club Spring Jamboree, Smart made mention of such, saying that if he doesn’t get the job done, he won’t be the coach of choice to speak the next time around.
“I’m on a honeymoon, right?” Smart said. “You see that standing ovation? If I don’t win enough games next year, they won’t even invite me back.”
Smart is the latest Saban disciple to land a head coaching job and the second in as many years to do so in the SEC East. Florida’s Jim McElwain, who spent three years at Colorado State before taking over the Gators’ program, led his team to an SEC East title in his first season in Gainesville.
Saban said he takes pride when his assistants go elsewhere and do well, which is what Smart will hope to do in his first head coaching opportunity.
“There’s a lot of excitement for me because these guys have opportunities, and we want to see them do extremely well in the opportunities that they have,” Saban said. “I think it reflects favorably on our program and what we’ve done, and those guys all did a fantastic job for us.”
This offseason has included a quite a few firsts for Smart. He hired his first coaching staff, made the rounds on his first speaking circuit, attended his first SEC spring meetings and spoke at his first SEC Media Days.
Smart has been thought highly of by other SEC coaches for being a great defensive mind.
“He’s been around quality football for as long as I can remember,” LSU head coach Les Miles said. “In those meeting rooms, his questions are very pertinent. I think he’s ready to coach.”
Like any new coach taking over a college program, there has been an adjustment period. Smart has admitted on more than one occasion that the day-to-day responsibilities took some time to get used to. Smart had to win his players over and get them to buy what he’s selling as a head coach, which sometimes can be difficult.
For the most part, he has succeeded. Only a handful of players — Johnathan Abram, A.J. Turman, Jake Edwards, Nick Robinson and Tim Kimbrough — have elected to transfer from the program. Quarterback Faton Bauta also transferred but announced his intentions to do so before Smart was officially hired.
“As far as the players being used to me and me used to them, I think that comfort level is there,” Smart said. “I was probably more present this summer than I’ve ever been before just because I’m the head guy, and I wanted to be as close as I could to the players. I think they’ve seen more of me and been around me where they’re comfortable with the demands that we have, the expectations that we have. Now it’s meeting (the expectations) and doing it every day in practice.”
But by no means has Smart taken it easy on his players. Pool Day, in which a practice was canceled so the players could go swimming and diving at the Ramsey Student Center, was scrapped. In 95-to-100 degree weather, Smart can be seen screaming at the top of his lungs at players dripping in sweat.
Smart has been demanding and oftentimes has shared his displeasure with the media about a particular player’s performance.
“It’s just constructive criticism,” outside linebacker Davin Bellamy said. “We’re in a business where you need tough skin. If you’re not doing what you have to do, you will be called out.”
It has been a while since Smart was in a position where the team he was coaching wasn’t a preseason favorite. Georgia was picked to finish third in the SEC East by reporters attending July’s SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama.
Now that he’s coaching his alma mater, Smart is hoping to move Georgia to the next step it’s come so close to reaching but could never achieve.
“Character, toughness, determination, a lot of those factors,relentless effort. That’s what we talk about all the time,” Smart said. “That’s what we’re going to sell this program on. Making sure every kid is buying into the team aspect of that. Once you get that, you can achieve every goal you want.”
Head coach: Kirby Smart (first season as a head coach).
2015 record: 10-3, 5-3 SEC.
Returning starters: Eight on offense; five on defense.
Players to watch: Nick Chubb (Jr., RB); Sony Michel (Jr., RB); Isaiah Wynn (Jr., OL); Greg Pyke (Jr., OL); Terry Godwin (Soph., WR); Trent Thompson (Soph., DL); Davin Bellamy (Jr., OLB); Lorenzo Carter (Jr., OLB); Dominick Sanders (Jr., S), Malkom Parrish (Jr. CB).
Outlook: Georgia’s in a unique situation with a new head coach after a 10-win season. But Smart will look to use his experience at Alabama — four national titles in nine years — to get Georgia over the hump to where it competes at a national level every season.
Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina in Atlanta
Sept. 10 Nicholls State
Sept. 17 at Missouri
Sept. 22 at Mississippi
Oct. 1 Tennessee
Oct. 8 at South Carolina
Oct. 15 Vanderbilt
Oct. 29 vs. Florida in Jacksonville
Nov. 5 at Kentucky
Nov. 12 Auburn
Nov. 19 Louisiana-Lafayette
Nov. 26 Georgia Tech