Kirby Smart did as he was, uh, coached.
At Sunday’s final press conference before Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs tries to put a dent into Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty, he seemed to thank everyone in Atlanta from the College Football Playoff staff to hotel housekeeping. He dutifully praised the Crimson Tide as “the landmark of college football” for more than a decade. He paid proper homage to the master he served for 11 impactful seasons at three different stops, nine of those years in Tuscaloosa.
Yes, Kirby Smart is the next Nick Saban.
Better yet, Smart, some say, is Nick Saban.
Or at age 42, he has every opportunity to become Nick Saban. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, 48 but already with a title in his pocket, might have an even better chance to accept that mantle. Urban Meyer’s only 53 and has three rings. Jimbo Fisher, 52, has one. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, 34, has none but a great rep and is coaching at a traditional powerhouse.
But Smart’s the most like Saban, more than any of the other 11 former Saban assistants to went up against the master and failed. One keen observer of both compared them to the dynamic tandem of Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry off the New York Giants staff who went off on their own and won seven championships with the Packers and Cowboys, often doing battle. “They knew each other inside out, same as these two,” he said. “Kirby’s most like Nick of anybody from that family tree.”
Saban and Smart are both ruthlessly competitive, exhaustive workers and endlessly devoted to holding their organizations to a standard few others can hope to match. And it’s hardly coincidence rumors surfaced that Smart used inside Alabama recruiting info to push prospects like three-star Tyler Simmons to Athens.
As Crimson Tide strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran told me, “They’re like the same person. They’re robots.”
Of course, which of the other 129 FBS football programs are not looking for a Saban clone as they attempt to duplicate the impossible task of matching his unparallelled success with four national championships in the last nine years. Five of the other 13 SEC head coaches are former Saban coordinators, including current defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who takes over Tennessee on Tuesday.
But it’s Smart who spent the most time with Saban, learned and absorbed every nuance and strategy from Saban and who now hopes to use all that institutional knowledge to beat Saban. They play golf together. They both love hanging out at the lake. They played pickup basketball games together and, as Saban pointed out, on the same team.
“Kirby was always on my team,” Saban said. “I’m kind of the commissioner of the league, so I kind of pick my team. I also pick the guy on the other team that’s going to guard me, and I call all the fouls. So we don’t lose much.”
Yeah, there’s that they have in common, too.
Saban’s advice to Smart when he left for Georgia was to “Be your own man. Be yourself. Do it the way you think it ought to be done. Don’t try to be somebody else.”
Saban’s shooting for his sixth national title as the best college coach who ever lived. At 21-6, Smart’s won two more games in his first two seasons than Saban did at Alabama. And Saban didn’t win his first Tide national championship until his third season, but then Smart inherited a richer roster from Mark Richt, who’d still be at Georgia if his Bulldogs’ attempt to unseat the Tide in the 2012 SEC title game hadn’t ended at the 5-yard line as time ran out.
Smart schooled under the fiery taskmaster who first as a defensive back at LSU after being recommended by another Saban protege Will Muschamp. Why shouldn’t he copy every Sabanism, whether it’s his prickly personality or his obsessive attention to detail.
On Sunday, Smart said the two coaches had tried to schedule a movie for their teams at the same time and the same theater.
“I’m just doing whatever he did,” Smart said of Saban.
That really wasn’t a joke. Why, Smart had petitioned the CFP for permission to hold practices for Monday’s title game at their home facilities in Athens an hour-plus away from Atlanta instead of at rival Georgia Tech’s facilities or at Mercedez-Benz Stadium. Before beating Oklahoma in that Rose Bowl classic.
Maybe Smart can one-up the master. Saban said Sunday, “It’s like playing against yourself. They do a lot of the same things on defense that we do.”
It didn’t go unnoticed that Smart took four Tide assistants with him to Georgia, including his new defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker.
”Kirby is a very, very high-energy, very intense — he loves football,” Tucker said. “He’s always trying to find a way to make it better for the players, always trying to find a way to find a competitive advantage.”
On the surface, both coaches have been more than deferential and complimentary, but there seemed a stiffness and some distance between the two as they posed with the national championship trophy Sunday. It’s business.
Oh, and the movie Smart’s players planned to see?
It’s “12 Strong” about a Special Forces team in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks.
“We’ve got a special release,” Smart said, then added, “I think Alabama was able to watch it last week.”
The Tide did, staying one step ahead. The battle renews Monday night.