UGA’s Smart hire the dual result of repeating history, shaking Nick Saban coaching tree
For the better part of three decades, Nick Saban has reigned as one of the most powerful and influential figures in college football — regardless of his press conference moods.
Happy or crestfallen.
Funny or intractable.
Upbeat or miserable.
Insightful or indignant.
Folksy or contemptible.
Scary … or, uh, less scary.
The whole charisma-spectrum package, which obviously appeals to blue-chip recruits (Alabama claimed either a No. 1 or No. 2 recruiting ranking by 247Sports from 2011 to 2015), has helped transform Saban (four national titles since 2003) into perhaps the most successful college coach of the last 50 years.
But ay the rub: The United States government bans the practice of “human cloning,” meaning that only one college (or NFL) program at a time can hold the honor of employing Saban.
However, as a means of working around the government’s pesky restrictions, a pair of SEC athletic directors have stumbled onto a rock-solid Plan B:
Shake the Saban coaching tree, in hopes of finding a sturdy branch as head coach.
First, there was Florida (Jim McElwain last winter); and now we have UGA.
Which brings us to Kirby Smart, who reportedly accepted the Bulldogs’ head-coaching offer Tuesday: Yes, he’s a Bainbridge, Ga., native and a University of Georgia alum and former Dawgs player (1995-98). But the biggest feather in Smart’s coaching cap is his longtime affiliation with Saban — with LSU (2004), the Miami Dolphins (2006) and Alabama (2007-15).
For the last eight seasons, Smart has enjoyed a prominent role as the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator. It’s also one of the most demanding positions in sports — simultaneously branching out as an elite-level coach/recruiter, while conforming to the unrelenting ways of Saban, a brilliant defensive tactician.
Eight consecutive seasons as Saban’s defensive coordinator? That’s the coaching-timeline equivalent of pre-med (undergrad), medical school and a high-pressure hospital residency. In other words, how could anyone possibly characterize UGA’s Smart coup as “unimaginative” or “unambitious”?
If anything, this hire makes good sense. We should all encounter grueling apprenticeships of a similar intensity.
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NICK SABAN COACHING TREE **Mark Dantonio (Michigan State) -- Five 11-win seasons since 2010 **Jimbo Fisher (Florida State) -- Won national title two seasons ago **Will Muschamp (Auburn D-coordinator) -- Former head coach at Florida **Jason Garrett (Dallas Cowboys) -- Led Dallas to NFC East title in 2014 **Jim McElwain (Florida) -- Recently won SEC East title with the Gators **Derek Dooley (Dallas Cowboys) -- Found niche as quality NFL assistant **Jeremy Pruitt (UGA D-coordinator) -- The next coach at South Carolina? **Bobby Williams (Alabama assistant) -- Former Michigan State head coach
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It’s laughable to think UGA could only pursue the “established head coach” route when tapping a successor to Mark Richt.
Yes, Urban Meyer (Bowling Green, Utah –> Florida), Hugh Freeze (Arkansas State –> Ole Miss), Gus Malzahn (Arkansas State –> Auburn), Butch Jones (Central Michigan, Cincinnati –> Tennessee) and Les Miles (Oklahoma State –> LSU) had previous head-coaching stints before landing at SEC schools. But for every Meyer, Jones, Freeze or Miles … there’s a robust, underrated line of successful SEC head coaches — past and present — who seamlessly jumped from a humble coordinator’s post.
Names like Tommy Tuberville (Miami of Florida, Texas A&M –> Auburn), Dan Mullen (Florida –> Mississippi State), David Cutcliffe (Tennessee –> Ole Miss) … and, oh yeah, Mark Richt!
Has it really been almost 15 full years since UGA officials went rogue and hired a 40-year-old offensive coordinator as their new head coach? The same forward-thinking visionary who in his final outing with Florida State — the BCS championship game in January 2001 — piloted the Seminoles to zero offensive points? (FSU lost to Oklahoma in the so-so championship bout, 13-2.)
Well, the Florida State/BCS debacle aside, the Richt-UGA union (which continues through the bowl season) has yielded considerably more ups than downs over the last 15 seasons. Heck, even Richt’s post-parting news conference Monday had the down-home feel of a passing-the-torch ceremony … even if Smart hadn’t yet been identified as Richt’s successor.
Two SEC championships. Six division titles. Nine 10-win campaigns (with the potential for one more). A sparkling overall record of 145-51. And the still-haunting memory of UGA’s close-call defeat to Alabama in the 2012 SEC Championship Game — which might have led to a national title one month later. Without a doubt, Richt’s successor has very large shoes to fill; and yet, it seems like the Bulldogs executed an intelligent hire.
A Smart choice, if you will.
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There’s an obvious downside to hiring a Saban protege: Outside of the Alabama players, coaches, staffers, secretaries and prospective Tide recruits, few people have a detailed projection of Smart’s coaching personality.
Will Smart be a hands-on leader?
Does he know how to delegate?
How will he handle the local/national media?
Does Smart embrace modern technology (Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Snapchat) during recruiting?
Will his sideline demeanor mimic that of Saban?
Would Smart ever consider succeeding Saban at Alabama once the legendary coach retires to a seat on the ‘College GameDay’ set?
Is he willing to fly across the country at a moment’s notice, as a means of charming/bedazzling one of the nation’s most storied prep quarterbacks?
The last question overtly references the recruiting drama surrounding Jacob Eason, a 5-star quarterback recruit from Washington state. Before the Richt parting, Eason was on track to compete for the Bulldogs’ starting job next fall. But now, Eason has the right to reopen the entire recruiting process as a means of finding a college that boasts the perfect combination of personable head coach/pro-style offense.
That’s where Smart comes in: You don’t survive 11 combined seasons under the Saban microscope without knowing how to close the deal in recruiting circles.
Just like you don’t accept a high-profile promotion at an SEC school — days before turning 40 years old — without understanding the vital importance of having a top-flight quarterback in house. (A recurring problem at UGA over the last two seasons.)
Which brings us back to cloning: It’ll be interesting to see how Smart perfects the interconnected arts of building a staff, cultivating campus relationships at UGA, schmoozing Georgia prep football coaches and chartering flights to Washington state in the coming weeks. And that doesn’t even cover Smart’s remaining duties with Alabama — should he stay with the Crimson Tide through the College Football Playoff.
(The No. 2 Crimson Tide, who rank second nationally in total defense, have a great shot at collecting a fourth national championship during the Saban era.)
Maybe Smart’s handlers should invest in a body double for public appearances, at least for the next few weeks; and preferably one who doesn’t speak much … since the remarkably stoic Smart hasn’t uttered a public word in the last eight years.
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.