“We’re talkin’ about practice.” That’s the famous quote from former Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson, who spoke those words in disbelief when he found out the media was interested in why he’d missed one of his team’s workouts. Iverson couldn’t understand why a practice could matter so much.
Clearly he’s never spent much time around UGA.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Bulldogs new coach, Kirby Smart, also stepped to a podium to talk about practice — the start of this year’s spring practice, specifically — and the eyes and ears of DawgNation were tuned in as if it was the most important subject that had ever been discussed.
The central theme of Smart’s message was consistent with what he’s said in the past. In January he told reporters the purpose of the offseason was to “create toughness” and to “make kids be comfortable being uncomfortable.” On Tuesday, he added a layer of explanation to those earlier statements by saying his spring practices will be “a totally competitive environment where every position is up for competition.” Then he added, “If you don’t compete every day then you’ll be moved.”
That undoubtedly raises the stakes for every UGA player this spring.
No one should feel his status — whether earned in college under the previous staff or in high school as an elite recruit — is safe. He seems intent on shaking up the program and the quickest way to do that is to shake up the depth chart. Fans should expect some surprises along the way, but what should never come as a surprise is Smart’s willingness to tell it like it is.
The new UGA coach was asked by a reporter on Tuesday to give an assessment of how the offseason conditioning work has gone through the winter. This would’ve been the perfect opportunity for a coach to throw a bouquet to his new team if he wished — to talk about how hard everyone has been working, and how proud UGA fans were going to be come fall. Instead, Smart lobbed a grenade. He said the winter workouts had been “off and on” and that there “were some bumps and bruises in there.”
Imagine being a UGA player and hearing those words. Certainly the players must think they’ve been giving their all, and yet, Smart seems convinced they’ve still got more to give — a higher level of dedication for which to aspire.
It’s in that spirit that the 2016 spring practice and the start of the Kirby Smart era begins. UGA has watched three consecutive seasons go by without winning the SEC East even though the Bulldogs arguably had the most talent in the division in each of those years. That kind of disappointment can deflate a program and diminish the expectations a team has of itself. Smart appears to have already gotten busy trying to change that attitude, and in doing so is pushing his players to change too.
How quickly can that change occur? It’s too early to tell, but what should be clear is this: Smart is no longer the coach trying to straddle dual roles at UGA and Alabama, and he’s no longer caught up in the whirlwind of recruiting that defined his first couple of months of his new job. The plainspoken message he delivered on Tuesday indicates that all of that is behind him. He’s a full-fledged head coach now, and it’s time to get to work.