Kirby Smart is one of the most highly-respected new coaches in college football and a huge reason for that success. His dominant run has been capped by his team’s victory over Alabama this year, cementing their place as National Champions. But now there are consequences to Kirby Smart’s “gameplan.”
It will be interesting to see what happens next with Georgia after their historic win against the Tide on Monday night.

The “2018 national championship” is the football game between Alabama and Georgia for the College Football Playoff National Championship. The game will be Kirby Smart’s first as a head coach.

Alabama vs. Georgia for the CFP National Championship may be Kirby Smart's seminal moment

ATHENS, Georgia — In the summer of 1983, Sonny Smart recalls bringing his youngest kid, Kirby, to the public pool in Bainbridge, Georgia.

Kirby, who was just seven years old at the time, was auditioning for the Bainbridge Barracudas swim team. There was just one condition: the youngster had to swim the whole length of the pool without stopping. Kirby couldn’t do it that first day, no matter how hard he tried.

Sonny Smart, a prominent high school football coach in Alabama and Georgia, claimed, “He didn’t know how to swim or breathe.” “He’d swim as far as he could, pause, grab the rope, get his breath, and continue.”

Kirby eventually swam the length of the pool and joined the squad at the end of the week.

“How did you accomplish it?” I inquire. Sonny inquired of his son.

Kirby informed him, “I simply swam the entire distance without taking a breath.”

Kirby Smart shown tenacity, persistence, and enough problem-solving ability to accomplish what he began even at a young age. Those qualities helped him become an All-SEC safety at Georgia in the 1990s, then rise through the coaching levels to become the head coach at his alma institution before turning 40.

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Smart will face No. 1 Alabama in the College Football National Championship Presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App) in Indianapolis on Monday, four years after almost leading Georgia to its first national championship since 1980.

Sonny Smart stated, “He’s always been like that.” “He’s always been a fierce competitor who strives to be the best. He was like that as a kid, and he is like that today. It’s not for any particular purpose; it’s simply the way he’s built.”

The Bulldogs were the greatest college football team in the nation when Sonny Smart brought his family to Bainbridge in the early 1980s. Georgia had opportunities to win two more national championships after winning it all in 1980 before Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker moved pro in 1983. Surprisingly, the Bulldogs have been attempting to win another since then.

Thirty teams have won a national championship since the FBS/FCS split in 1978, and none of them has a longer current drought than Georgia. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bulldogs have finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll 16 times since their last national championship (they’re on their way to a 17th this year). Who’s the most among teams that haven’t won a title in that time period.

Kirby Smart has resurrected Georgia, but there is one more barrier to overcome: beating Alabama and winning the national championship. Getty Images/Mark Brown

Smart, now 46, understands that winning a national title is the last stage in transforming his team into a true powerhouse.

“What are we going to do if it doesn’t come?” Before the season, Smart told ESPN. “I don’t approach it with the goal of winning in mind. I look at it from the standpoint of what is most essential right now, what are we doing? And I know the individuals in this organization, the government, the state, and the people that love Georgia and the passion and excitement they have, it’s just been long overdue, right? It doesn’t matter if you won a year ago; it’s past time. So that’s the ultimate game, that’s the aim for me. That’s what you’re always striving towards.”

Smart had one goal in mind even before he started playing football for his father at Bainbridge High School: to play for the Bulldogs. He wasn’t the tallest kid in class, but he was certainly the most competitive. Kirby was anxious to “get higher grades than Ellen Tipton and be quicker than Willie Ross,” two youngsters in his second-grade class, according to his elder brother, Karl Smart.

Kirby used to become so enraged over competitors missing the buckets on The Bozo Show on WGN when he and Karl were youngsters that he would set up buckets in the living room and launch golf balls into them for hours. Kirby put up paper bags on the grass and made it a challenge for the Smart boys to pick up pine cones and rake straw in the family’s yard. Until Karl was 13, the brothers shared a room and couldn’t go to bed until they had wrestled to determine who could win.

Karl, who is now 47 and works as a psychiatric nurse practitioner in Athens, Georgia, stated, “Honestly, I feel like that was everything.” “That was his attitude about everything. He was determined to succeed. He aspired to be the finest in the world.”

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Karl, who was one grade above Kirby in school, was a freshman football player for Bainbridge High in 1989. Karl was diagnosed with leukemia in October of that year. He was hospitalized due to difficulties after months of treatment. After getting a severe fungal illness in his lungs in 1991, he spent six days in a medically induced coma before waking up on Christmas. As a sophomore, Karl rejoined the football team, but physicians urged him to retire. Kirby made the decision that he would have to play for both of them.

Kirby led the Bearcats to a 10-3 record to the Class AAAA state playoffs as a senior in 1993, but they fell 28-3 to eventual state champion Dunwoody High. Smart won a scholarship at Georgia in 1994 after having 16 interceptions throughout his high school career. He was a four-year letterman in college and had 13 picks, which currently ranks sixth all-time at the institution. Smart was awarded All-SEC and led the conference in interceptions as a senior in 1998, while playing in the same secondary as Pro Football Hall of Famer Champ Bailey.

In 1999, Smart worked for Georgia coach Jim Donnan as an administrative assistant. Will Muschamp, a former Georgia teammate, phoned Smart and asked if he was interested in serving as the defensive backs coach at Division II Valdosta State as the Bulldogs prepared to face Purdue in the Outback Bowl that season. Smart had a couple of other employment offers outside of football, and he wasn’t sure whether he’d accept the position. The Blazers’ offer of a $10,000 yearly wage wasn’t exactly attractive.

Smart’s interview at Valdosta State was jokingly joked about by Muschamp, who is Georgia’s special teams coach and will be co-defensive coordinator next season.

Muschamp stated, “He put 12 men up on the board.” “If he could figure out how to get 12 people on the field, I believed we’d be fairly strong on defense.”

In 2000, the Blazers went 10-2, won the Gulf South Conference, and advanced to the Division II playoffs under Smart’s leadership. Coach Chris Hatcher of Valdosta State, who currently coaches at Samford University, was impressed with Smart.

Hatcher stated, “We played Southern Arkansas, which used the wishbone, and we won 30-29.” “‘We’ve got to face Central Arkansas next week, and they’re going to throw the ball all over the place,’ Kirby says. We need to start preparing right now.’”

The next season, LSU’s Nick Saban hired Muschamp as his linebackers coach, and Hatcher elevated Smart to defensive coordinator. The Blazers went 12-1, allowing just eight points in seven of their games. Smart notified Hatcher after the season that he was going to work as a graduate assistant for Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. Smart graduated from Florida State University with a master’s degree in 2003.

Kirby Smart followed in the footsteps of his former employer at Alabama, Nick Saban, when he arrived at Georgia six years ago. Dave Martin/AP Photo/Dave Martin/Dave Martin/Dave Martin/Dave Martin/D

Smart and Muschamp reconnected at LSU in 2004, when Smart served as the Tigers’ defensive backs coach for one season. Smart returned to Georgia the following season as the running backs coach under Mark Richt when Saban departed to coach the Miami Dolphins. In 2006, he became the Dolphins’ safeties coach before joining Nick Saban at Alabama the following year. Smart helped the Tide win four national titles over the following nine seasons, the last eight as defensive coordinator.

Smart took over as Georgia’s coach after Richt was sacked by the Bulldogs following a 145-51 record from 2001 to 2015.

Former Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, who hired Smart, said his early discussions with his new coach were more about what the Bulldogs needed to accomplish to consistently win at the top level than about catching Alabama.

“You immediately saw that he wasn’t doing things just because someone else had this or that,” McGarity said. “He didn’t say, ‘They have X number of people in Alabama, therefore I need X number of people in Georgia.’ Understanding and then developing trust was a tremendous learning opportunity for our administration. He follows through on what he claims he’ll do.

“They’re not simply wacky notions; they’re well-thought-out concepts that make sense when seen in action. Kirby was well-spoken and well-intentioned. It was never, however, because someone else had it. ‘We need this for this reason,’ or ‘This is why I need these individuals for this reason,’ it was always the case. He devised a strategy, carried it out, and it seems to be working so far.”

Shane Beamer recognized something similar in the way his new employer structured his program shortly after joining Smart’s team at Georgia in 2016.

“We essentially replicated everything Alabama did,” Beamer, now the head coach of South Carolina, recalled. “From the weekly routine with the coaches to the practice schedule to the weight room program to anything.” “It was exactly the same. ‘This is what Alabama did,’ he didn’t have to say. It was obvious to you. A lot of the materials we utilized had the Alabama logo on them and were copied and pasted with the Georgia logo.”

Imitating Alabama was not only the finest form of flattery for the Bulldogs, but it was also the most effective strategy to narrow the gap on the sport’s greatest dynasty in the modern age. The Bulldogs were now eager to compete with the Tide in any area, whether it was support staff, recruiting, nutrition, strength and conditioning, facilities, or coach compensation.

“Give Kirby credit,” Beamer added, “because as he became more comfortable, if there was a better way to do things, he would always listen.” “That was six years ago, and I’m sure they’re doing things today that Alabama isn’t doing. There were several things we did in Year 2 that were not done in Alabama. Alabama came up because they were the SEC champs and the club that was always at the top of recruiting year after year, so that’s who you were following.”

Smart is still hunting the Crimson Tide and hoping to defeat his mentor for the first time in his sixth season at Georgia. Saban defeated Smart’s teams in his first four games, including a 26-23 overtime win in the CFP National Championship game after the 2017 season. Alabama won the game on a 41-yard touchdown throw from backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith on second-and-26.

“‘We’re not going away,’ Kirby said in the postgame news conference. ‘We’ll be back,’ says the narrator “”Beamer” said. “I knew he was correct, and it took four years for them to return, but they did. That game has no bearing on this one. Give Alabama credit; they performed a fantastic job, but it was a difficult game to lose. Even if it has no direct bearing on Monday night’s game, I’m sure it’s continually driving Kirby and his staff to come back and win.”

Georgia’s sole setback of the season was a 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game last month.

“Let’s face it,” Richt remarked, “they’re the finest football program in at least the previous ten years, if not more.” “For a good cause, a lot of individuals want to copy and replicate what they do. You’ll be facing a squad with superb players, coaches, championship spirit, and unwavering confidence. It’s not easy to defeat them. They’ve ascended to the throne.”

Smart isn’t the only former Saban aide who has yet to defeat him. Saban has a 25-1 record versus nine coaches that have worked for him in the last 12 seasons. Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M was the first to dethrone him, defeating the No. 1 Tide 41-38 on Oct. 9. Smart’s teams led in each of the four games they’ve played, with three of them having double-digit leads.

Smart remarked earlier this week, “It’s been games of momentum.” “In the second half, they’ve maintained their momentum well. Each game has been unique, and it will never be a competition between him and me. I know he won’t make it that way, and I won’t make it that way either, because it’s up to [the media].”

Kirby Smart is a fierce competitor. In the CFP semifinal, he scolded Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett for letting the time run out in the first half instead of shooting for additional scores while the Bulldogs were already up 27-3. USA TODAY Sports/Sam Navarro

There is just one remaining challenge for Smart’s program, which coach has constructed over the previous six seasons: beating Alabama and capturing a national title.

“Kirby grew up and played in that state, so he understands what it means to the people of Georgia,” Beamer said. “I’m sure it would be extremely wonderful for him.” It’s where he went to school, where he grew up, and where he’s always wanted to coach. He stated that during SEC media days, and he’s right: If you keep recruiting at a high level and keep knocking on doors, you’ll ultimately knock them down.

“They’re going to do it eventually. I’m not sure whether it’ll be Monday night or not, but a national championship is on the way. It will be extremely wonderful for him when it happens.”

Even if the Bulldogs don’t win on Monday night, McGarity believes Georgia fans should be proud of what Smart has accomplished in such a short period of time. In five consecutive seasons, his teams have gone 65-15, finished in the top 10 of the CFP rankings, and participated in a New Year’s Six bowl, while also winning four SEC East championships and an SEC championship.

“I believe one thing Georgians should always keep in mind is that being very competitive is something that will be common throughout Kirby’s time,” McGarity said. “That would be amazing if and when that door opens up. However, it should not be used to define a person’s career…. Some individuals have unreasonable expectations, claiming, “Well, he can’t win the big one.” He’s played in the national championship game and won the Sugar Bowl, Peach Bowl, and Rose Bowl. It’s simply another example of how good of a coach we have at the University of Georgia.”

When Bobby Bowden won his first national title in his 18th season, Richt was an assistant coach at Florida State. Joe Paterno of Penn State had to wait 17 years. Tom Osborne of Nebraska required 22 years. John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, didn’t win a national championship until his 16th season. It isn’t simple.

“First and foremost, you must participate in those games,” Richt stated. “If you stay in those games long enough, you’ll win one, particularly if you recruit the same way they do and develop players in the same manner they do. It will take place.”

Smart, like the 7-year-old youngster in the water, will continue to kick his feet and hold his breath.

Sonny Smart stated, “Alabama is excellent because they have terrific players.” “For everyone, they’re tough to defeat. You can’t add more to the cup once it’s full. Because it’s Alabama on the other side, I don’t believe Kirby wants to win that game any more. It doesn’t matter who is over there; you must defeat them. You have to beat the greatest to be the best.”

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