Kirby Smart, who is doing double duty as UGA’s head coach and Alabama’s defensive coordinator, spoke to the media for nearly an hour at a press conference Monday for the Goodyear Cotton Bowl.
Here’s the transcript:
Q. Coach, talk about this being a special group. Is that really the parameter that you based your decision to stay and run this gamut out with this team you’ve sweated with and really formed a kinship with over these years?
DC KIRBY SMART: Well, no, not really. The defensive line cornered me in a room and said that if I didn’t say, there would be an altercation. So I was forced. No, I’m just kidding. This group of kids is special to me because a lot of them I helped recruit. Fortunately, the University of Georgia President [Jere] Morehead and Greg McGarity allowed me to coach in this game which I thought was awesome. And University of Alabama allowed me to coach in the game. Because without both those parties being willing to do this, I wouldn’t be able to do it. But at the end of the day, it’s about these guys. And it wouldn’t be fair to them to coach them all season and go through what we’ve been through as a unit and then not coach in this game. It was the right thing to do. Still the right thing to do. So I’m honored that they wanted me to do it and that I was allowed to do it.
Q. Kirby, along those same lines, I don’t think there’s another occupation in the world that would allow you to do what you’re able to do. Why is college football different that you can serve kind of two masters, if you will?
DC KIRBY SMART: I would say it’s different because of the timing of things. Obviously when people are having job searches and that kind of stuff, the timing falls at different times. There’s a big gap from our last game to this game. And a lot goes on in our profession, so you have to be professional about it. 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. But at the end of the day, guys, it’s not about me. It’s about this game and it’s about these players who have earned the right to be here. I know a lot of the media attention wants to go to that, but that’s not what I’m focusing on. I can promise you that. My focus is on getting these guys ready to play and having them ready to play a great game against Michigan State.
Q. Kirby, I know you said your focus is on this game and winning this game. But how difficult has it been for you to balance your new job and the job you’re in this week?
DC KIRBY SMART: It’s really been a timing issue because, I mean, there’s a week where I was on the road recruiting obviously for the University of Georgia. There’s a lot of focus there. And then we got to come back to Tuscaloosa and really focus on the Michigan State game during this recruiting dead period. Obviously it’s a challenge. It’s a time-management challenge. There’s only 24 hours in a day. There’s only so much you can do each day. And once you accept that and know that you’ve got to focus on the task at hand — which the task at hand is to get ready for Michigan State — that’s what we’re focused on here.
Q. Coach, have you talked to Coach [Tom] Herman in Houston? He was in a similar situation last year.
DC KIRBY SMART: I actually didn’t visit with Tom. I visited with other coaches who have done this and took some advice from those guys. But I really haven’t had a chance to visit with Tom about it, no.
Q. Kirby, you mentioned speaking to some other coaches, who did you speak to and what’s what the best advice you got on balancing the two jobs?
DC KIRBY SMART: I spoke to several guys, but the guy that probably meant the most to me was even Dan Quinn of the Atlanta Falcons because he dealt with the playoff run there with the Seahawks and going to Atlanta. And he talked about utilizing his time, cutting a couple hours out of sleep, getting up in the morning a couple hours early, working on the future job, and then allowing the same number of hours to go to his current game plan. And tried to model myself after that. And when you have free time, you sacrifice a little bit with your family. It’s tough because the free time you have, you’ve got to dedicate to your new job. And just managing that is the biggest thing and understanding that there’s an end to this and that you’ve got to move forward.
Q. Kirby, what did you learn about coaching from your father? And when did you stop calling him with questions about defenses? And then the follow-up to that is: When you were recruiting, did you have this kind of strange sense of divided loyalties? You were coaching Alabama but you were recruiting for Georgia. And how did recruits interact with you about that?
DC KIRBY SMART: Yeah, I’ll answer the one about my dad first. First of all, I’ve never stopped calling him asking him questions because he’s a wealth of knowledge. And I’ve got a lot of respect for high school coaches, period. Obviously, they don’t do it for the money. They do it for the love of the game. And there’s a lot of those coaches that I met that are just as good or better coaches than me. And they just weren’t given a lot of the same opportunities. So for my dad, he’s got a wealth of knowledge and a lot of wisdom. And I like bouncing a lot of ideas and decisions off of him. When it goes to the recruiting factor, you’ve got to be in two modes. You’ve got to be able to transition from here to here. So, obviously, when I’m recruiting for the University of Georgia, it’s a one-track mind. I’m recruiting for the University of Georgia. It’s the primary and the only goal at that time. And, no, I don’t have mixed loyalties when I’m recruiting for the University of Georgia because I’m working towards an end goal of building a successful program. But when I’m coaching these guys and I’m in the meeting room with them, I think everyone will tell you I’m 100% there and we’re concentrating on trying to get better and beat Michigan State. Separating those two things has not been difficult because you’ve got to be able to do that in your job. You’ve got to be able to focus on academics one minute, athletics another minute. And you’ve got to be able to transition from day to day.
Q. Kirby, how does this defense compare to some of the others you’ve had at Bama? That might be a tough question for you because you’ve had some pretty good ones.
DC KIRBY SMART: I would say it’s unique in that there’s a lot of good players on it and they’re kind of spread out throughout the defense: Good secondary players, good linebacker players, good front players. But probably the biggest difference, has been one of the most fun to coach. A lot of good kids. They like practicing. These guys enjoy practicing. They get out there. And, I mean, there’s times we’re not trying to go full speed live and they’re out there wanting to tackle, go after the quarterback. The front guys are deep, so they stay fresh. We’ve got really good smart guys in the secondary; outside backers, very experienced. And Reuben [Foster], Reggie [Ragland] and A’Shawn [Robinson] inside get to play a lot. It makes it a little bit different for me because they enjoy practice. While there’s been some good defenses in the past, it was like pulling teeth getting them to go out there but they played good on Saturdays. This group enjoys it. It’s a joy to be around them.
Q. Kirby, Michigan State has kind of developed a stable of running backs. We see what Le’Veon Bell is doing in the NFL. And they have three or four young ones they can run at you. What’s the key in stopping that? Or is Connor Cook still the straw that stirs the drink on their offense?
DC KIRBY SMART: I would definitely say Connor Cook is the straw that stirs it. They’re really good. Their backs — we’ve preached to our guys, they have big, physical backs, not a whole lot different than what we’re used to at Alabama. So when you start talking about a stable of those guys, they’re going to be fresh and they’re going to play a lot of them. They kind of go with a hot hand each game, and each one has a different attribute. But they’re all big, and that’s tough to defend when you’ve got an offensive line that’s as experienced as theirs. Ton of starts. Connor Cook, 38, 39, however many starts it is, and such a good leader, there’s no defense that we can put out there that he hasn’t seen. So for us, that’s the challenge, is being able to control Connor Cook and still stop the run game which they’re stubborn with, they’re patient with. They know what they’re doing in the run game.
Q. Coach Smart, you have several state of Texas players on your team. Since Alabama can basically have anybody they want in the country, what is Alabama’s strategy for recruiting Texas players?
DC KIRBY SMART: Well, basically, we try to control a five-hour radius of the University. But since Texas A&M came into the conference, it’s allowed us a little more open doors into the high schools. They’re more open and receptive because they see the SEC. They get the exposure a lot better. Since the exposure has been created, we’ve had a lot more kids interested in us. And that’s the kind of thing we kind of got used to and just went over to recruit the best players we could to try to get them to come over. And we have been forcing it. We played in the SEC West. So a lot of the attention and the things they see are Alabama-related.
Q. Kirby, when you look at Michigan State, their last two games against Penn State, Connor Cook really did a great job airing it out. And against Iowa, that final drive, they ran it ten, 11 straight times. When you see that on film, just how does that kind of — just dealing with the dual-threat offense, if you shut down one facet, they can hit you with the other. How are you trying to game plan against that?
DC KIRBY SMART: Well, it creates balance. And balance creates difficulty. So you have a hard time. You’ve got to control both those aspects because if you stop one, they can be really strong in the other, like you mentioned. So, I mean, for us any great team we play, you’ve got to try to take something away. And you’ve got to try to mix it up so that they’re not doing one thing too often. And that’s kind of the game plan with these guys. They do a great job. Like I said, we’re not going to put a defense out there now that Connor Cook hasn’t seen. So at the end of the day, it’s not tricking these guys. It’s going out there fundamentally sound, being physical, striking blockers, tackling people, not making this game about something it’s not. It comes down to these kids and executing, and we’ve got to put them in a situation to execute.
Q. Kirby, I know you’re on the defensive side of the ball. But when you have a Heisman Trophy winner, he gets a lot of attention. Just your overall thoughts on Derrick Henry as a player.
DC KIRBY SMART: Wow. He’s an impressive worker. This guy in our off-season conditioning program, he was one of the hardest workers we had. He’s always at high speed. Some of his GPS numbers are the highest on the team. He likes the weight room. Tough, physical, enjoys the game. He’s always been that way since coming out of — down in Yulee, Florida. I respect what Derrick has done, his toughness. I think our team kind of takes on his persona and physical nature. So I think he’s a great player obviously.
Q. Coach Smart, two questions for you. First of all, in 2011 when you faced the Spartans in the Cap One (Capital One) Bowl, that was a team still building. They’re more established today, considerably deeper. Would you talk about the differences. And then, secondly, this is the healthiest they’ve been all year. How difficult is it to game plan when you’re going to see them at a health place that you don’t have on film this year?
DC KIRBY SMART: First question is probably the most difficult one I’ve had because in 2011 — there’s a lot of water under the bridge since then. It’s tough for me to say the difference between that team and this team. But the second question, at full strength, they’re obviously really, really, really talented. They’ve had some guys out throughout the year, backs dinged up, different things. So obviously we wouldn’t want to play them at any less than their best. Same for us, we’ve had some guys dinged, some guys injured that we’re trying to get back. That’s the best way to play somebody, is when they’re at their strength. And we’re looking forward to that.