Kirby Smart’s UGA-Alabama balancing act should be fascinating to watch
Nick Saban has enjoyed a wildly successful run as a football coach since 1972 (four national titles, six conference crowns), immediately following his playing days at Kent State.
But throughout this continuous coaching streak of 43 years — at both the college and pro levels — Saban has never directly jumped from one intra-conference or divisional rival to another the following season.
Oh sure, the Syracuse-West Virginia rivalry had some bite during the 1970s, when the Orangemen (the ‘Cuse nickname way back when) and Mountaineers annually locked horns — as conference-free independents. (Saban spent the 1977 campaign with Syracuse, before joining West Virginia for the next two seasons.)
But amid Saban’s well-chronicled stints (head coach or assistant) with Ohio State/Michigan State (Big Ten), Kent State/Toledo (MAC), the NFL’s Houston Oilers/Cleveland Browns (once-bitter AFC Central rivals) and LSU/Alabama (SEC), the intensely driven coach never made the direct leap to a loathsome enemy.
With such a perpetually mobile, but calculated track record, the present-day Saban doesn’t necessarily bear the look of someone who would publicly support defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, in his dual quest of remaining with Alabama through the College Football Playoff (semifinal clash with Michigan State on Dec. 31) and moonlighting as UGA’s new head coach.
After all, Alabama and UGA are long-standing rivals, bankable pillars of the SEC; and as border-state programs, the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs undoubtedly battle, tooth and nail, for roughly 100 prep recruits every year. We’re talking blue-chippers here, 4- and 5-star talents who can be game-changers at the college level.
As affirmations to that, Saban has been notoriously reluctant to share information with the media or public at large; and Smart, a loyal assistant since 2006 (Miami Dolphins/Alabama), hadn’t uttered a single public word about football over the last nine years — part of the deal when working for Saban — prior to his introductory press conference with UGA.
On the surface, it’s strange that Saban, one of the most secretive, detail-oriented coaches in college football history, would welcome Smart’s in-house existence for another month, with National Signing Day coming in February and the new UGA coach (Smart) possibly recruiting other Alabama coaches/staffers to join him in Athens, Ga.
If this were a military-based feature film taking place inside the Alabama offices … the audience would eventually be treated to a memorable Saban line, in the neighborhood of, “The enemy walks among us.”
And yet, Saban has OK’d the chaotic notion of Smart splitting time between the UGA and Alabama campuses, along with making the occasional trek to Washington state — in hopes of locking down prep All-American quarterback Jacob Eason, who committed to the Bulldogs with Mark Richt as head coach, before wavering on that choice after Richt’s “mutual parting.”
(Eason has apparently pared down his college choice to UGA or Florida. Richt, in turn, has since been named the head coach at Miami, his alma mater.)
Put it all together, and it’s a fascinating turn of events. Even if it doesn’t make total sense in the short term.
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RECRUITING IMPACT: NEW HEAD COACHES
2015 (source: 247 Sports)
Florida (Jim McElwain) — national ranking: 21
Previous years: 9th (2014), 3rd (2013), 4th (2012)
Michigan (Jim Harbaugh) — national ranking: 37
Previous years: 20th (2014), 4th (2013), 6th (2012)
Nebraska (Mike Riley) — national ranking: 30
Previous years: 36th (2014), 22nd (2013), 30th (2012)
Wisconsin (Paul Chryst) — national ranking: 40
Previous years: 33rd (2014), 38th (2013), 65th (2012)
Oregon State (Gary Andersen) — national ranking: 60
Previous years: 63rd (2014), 45th (2013), 44th (2012)
Pittsburgh (Pat Narduzzi) — national ranking: 61
Previous years: 44th (2014), 32nd (2013), 41st (2012)
Houston (Tom Herman) — national ranking: 91
Previous years: 36th (2014), 56th (2013), 57th (2012)
2014 (source: 247 Sports)
Southern California (Steve Sarkisian) — national ranking: 10
Previous years: 13th (2013), 9th (2012), 3rd (2011)
Texas (Charlie Strong) — national ranking: 16
Previous years: 17th (2013), 2nd (2012), 4th (2011)
Penn State (James Franklin) — national ranking: 24
Previous years: 33rd (2013), 46th (2012), 31st (2011)
Washington (Chris Petersen) — national ranking: 37
Previous years: 18th (2013), 23rd (2012), 24th (2011)
Louisville (Bobby Petrino) — national ranking: 45
Previous years: 37th (2013), 45th (2012), 28th (2011)
Vanderbilt (Derek Mason) — national ranking: 46
Previous years: 26th (2013), 48th (2012), 50th (2011)
Wake Forest (Dave Clawson) — national ranking: 65
Previous years: 67th (2013), 66th (2012), 70th (2011)
Boise State (Bryan Harsin) — national ranking: 68
Previous years: 55th (2013), 60th (2012), 53rd (2011)
Last week, we offered a tongue-in-cheek solution to Smart’s time-management quandary with Alabama and UGA: Human cloning.
It may be the only way to prevent UGA’s potential drop in the (subjective) recruiting rankings (regional/national), involving the 2016 prep senior class. (The Bulldogs momentarily own a top-10 slot, stemming from the Richt regime.)
Citing the above mini-section, for the 2015 recruiting class, only Mike Riley (Nebraska) and Gary Andersen (Oregon State) improved upon their new school’s national recruiting ranking from the previous year (source: 247 Sports).
Consequently, Jim McElwain (Florida), Jim Harbaugh (Michigan), Paul Chryst (Wisconsin), Pat Narduzzi (Pittsburgh) and Tom Herman (Houston) posted lower rankings than one year earlier. (To be fair, McElwain led the Gators to an SEC East title in 2015, Herman captured the American Athletic Conference crown and Harbaugh willed the seemingly rebuilding Wolverines to a top-15 ranking by regular season’s end.)
The first-year recruiting results were slightly better for the 2014 coaches:
Steve Sarkisian (Southern California — no longer with the program), Charlie Strong (Texas), James Franklin (Penn State) and Dave Clawson (Wake Forest) enjoyed modest upticks from the previous recruiting classes, leaving only Chris Petersen (Washington), Bobby Petrino (Louisville), Derek Mason (Vanderbilt) and Bryan Harsin (Boise State) as coming up short, relative to the old rankings at their new universities.
Back to Smart: Yes, he’s been granted a 10-day break from the Alabama football office; but even upon his return to Crimson Tide strategy sessions, practices and meetings, there could be some awkward glances/encounters when the subject of “incoming recruits” comes up. (Office tip: Cloaked conversations between co-workers usually occur near the break room/water cooler or behind large doors made of wood.)
It could be a surreal environment in the coming weeks, with coaches and staffers essentially choosing sides, knowing there’s great room for career advancement with both Saban and Smart.
It’s also a human-nature occurrence, even inside offices run with military-like precision. (Note: Smart has announced one official hire — Glenn Schumann, his “right-hand” man at Alabama.)
Bottom line: Saban might have gotten emotional when discussing Smart’s loyalty level at last week’s SEC Championship press conference, but those ties that bind could quickly break (in the short term), if/when Smart infringes upon Saban’s territory as the SEC’s resident Big Kahuna.
Or maybe that will never happen on the mentor’s watch. Including proteges such as Mark Dantonio (Michigan State — upcoming Cotton Bowl/semifinal clash with Alabama), McElwain (head-coaching gigs with Florida, Colorado State), Will Muschamp (former head coach at Florida; now with South Carolina) and Derek Dooley (formerly of Tennessee), a head-coaching pupil has never defeated Saban. Ouch.
And with Saban sitting three, four or five years from potential retirement, the above nugget could be a point-of-pride or private obsession for the coach, in addition to his patented “process” of systematically winning championships.
The new pre-retirement creed: Never relent to the opposition … even the friendliest of foes.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.