Georgia hopes it's found its own Nick Saban

ATHENS, Ga. — When the inevitable became official Sunday afternoon, and the word “Georgia” appeared on the ESPN graphic confirming that the Bulldogs were in the College Football Playoff, there was a brief eruption in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.

Shouts and applause echoed down the previously quiet halls. Everyone knew it was coming, but coaches and staff members were still going to celebrate it. Months in the making for players and coaches, decades in the anticipating for fans, this was a giddy moment.

For head coach Kirby Smart, the moment was fun but fleeting. He loved seeing the Bulldogs in the bracket, but the task of playing Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl semifinals is reality now, and his brain was already pivoting toward that challenge.

“Baker Mayfield, he’s something,” Smart said, his voice a deep mix of Georgia drawl and coach’s rasp. “I’m gonna be having sleepless nights again.”

Truth be told, the 41-year-old already had his personal celebration of this breakthrough season the night before. When the team returned from Atlanta after beating Auburn for the Southeastern Conference championship, Kirby made a quick stop at a Waffle House around 10 p.m. to pick up a to-go order. Then he got home and sank into the couch in the family room with his wife, Mary Beth, and their three children, Julia, Weston and Andrew.

All piled in together on one piece of furniture, they relived the triumph over Auburn and watched the second half of the Big Ten championship game. Last year at this time, at the end of Kirby’s first season as head coach at Georgia, the Smarts were living in a rented home and the Bulldogs were an uninspiring 7-5. Saturday night, in the house they had built and with an SEC title won, it was finally time to slow down and soak it in.

“My wife was just so happy,” Kirby said. “The kids were about to pass out, they were so tired, but they were excited. To have all five of us there on one couch, in our own home, it was just kind of an acknowledgement that we’re at the right place.”

Kirby Smart, Georgia Class of ’99, had come home. And done what he was hired to do.

*****

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart celebrates winning the SEC championship with his players. (REUTERS

The next game is four weeks away, an eternity in the football world, but there was so much to do. That’s why Smart was back in the Butts-Mehre offices Sunday morning, walking the halls in khaki pants and loafers with no socks, a black quarter-zip pullover and a sleepy look. He stretched and yawned, then stretched and yawned again, before settling into a red leather chair in the coaches’ lounge.

Floor-to-ceiling glass windows were on either side. To Smart’s left was an outdoor artificial turf practice field. To his right was the Bulldogs’ new indoor practice field – at the moment, ESPN reporter Maria Taylor was standing on that field, about to go live in the run-up to the revealing of the playoff bracket. The show was on the big screen in the lounge.

In the corner of the room was a trophy for winning the Liberty Bowl last year. There will be newer, better hardware in the room shortly.

Smart glanced at the TV, glanced at his buzzing phone, then ticked off the to-do list for the next 36 hours: interview after interview; a meeting with the players to lay out the practice/workout/academic timeline for the month; consultation with draft-eligible players about receiving NFL feedback and dealing with agents; gathering all available information and intel on Oklahoma; dispatching director of football operations Josh Lee for a Rose Bowl site visit; and then hitting the road Monday for an immediate dive into recruiting. With the new December signing period, there is another urgent dynamic added to the playoff whirlwind.

Like all first-time head coaches, last year was a constant education for Smart. As much as being Nick Saban’s right-hand man at Alabama helped prepare him for the job, it still was all new. Year Two had been much more smooth because he knew what to expect.

“This year has really been easy because everything is the second time – until last night,” Smart said. “Then it’s like, do these interviews, and guys will want to come out early, and the agent thing. It all hit me today, like, ‘Oh my god. Today and tomorrow are going to be a zoo.’ ”

A good zoo, to be sure. The best of all college football zoos. It beats being 7-5 and prepping for the Liberty Bowl.

Georgia’s explosive growth from Year One under Smart to Year Two has a parallel, and it’s one the coach is familiar with: Alabama under Saban. In 2007, Saban’s first Crimson Tide team went 7-6 and lost to Louisiana-Monroe. In 2008, the Tide went 12-2, won the SEC West and lost an epic league championship game to eventual national champion Florida.

That ’08 Alabama team was built on defense, allowing just 14.3 points and 264 yards per game. The offense relied on the running back tandem of Glenn Coffey and Mark Ingram, with a quarterback (John Parker Wilson) tasked primarily with game management and avoiding major mistakes.

Georgia 2017 is built on defense, allowing 13.2 points and 271 yards per game. The offense relies on the running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, with a quarterback (Jake Fromm) tasked primarily with game management and avoiding major mistakes. (That admittedly short-changes freshman Fromm’s performance for the year – he’s sixth nationally in pass efficiency – but his most important job is handing off.)

Smart was an assistant on both those ‘Bama teams. The comparisons to this two-year building process at Georgia are not lost on him.

“I see similarities as far as the buy-in,” he said. “The culture changes start rolling and you see the fruits of your labors from year one. You see guys starting to lead and buy in. That part is there.

“When we took over at Alabama we probably didn’t have the pieces of the puzzle we have here. The cupboard was not bare coming in here. It wasn’t bare at Alabama, but it was sparse, and we recruited our way into it. This year we just kept chopping. We’ve got some good players.”

Most of those good players were recruited by Smart’s predecessor, Mark Richt, whose ouster at Georgia in 2015 sparked considerable controversy. Richt was personally liked and respected by so many people at Georgia, and his 145 victories ranks second in school history to only the legendary Vince Dooley.

But Richt’s tenure was marked by almosts: almost an SEC East champion, almost a national title contender. His Bulldogs routinely seemed to find their way to one (or sometimes two) crippling losses that kept the program from joining college football’s elite.

Thus athletic director Greg McGarity was faced with a difficult choice in November 2015 – retain Mark Richt and likely remain good but not great, or dump him and bring home Smart?

The time had come for Smart to leave Alabama – he was ready to become a head coach. South Carolina took an interest and forced Georgia’s hand. McGarity fired Richt, hired Smart and hoped for the best.

After one transition year, the best has arrived. And in a win-win subplot, Richt has found great success at Miami.

No wonder McGarity was walking the halls of the Butts-Mehre building with a smile on his face Sunday morning. His difficult decision paid off. And he just might have the Next Nick.

*****

Georgia fans have been waiting since 1980 for a national championship. (Getty)

There is a bell tower near downtown here, and the Georgia tradition is to ring the bell after big moments. Anyone can walk up to the white scaffolding and pull the rope, ringing the bell.

It rang almost all night Saturday, to the dismay of the few who actually were interested in sleeping. Downtown echoed and reverberated, as one euphoric fan after another visited the bell and gave that rope an SEC championship tug.

Georgia’s last SEC title came in 2005. Its last national title was 1980. One is achieved and the other remains in play, and a fan base that has watched Alabama, Florida, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee win it all since the Herschel Walker days is wildly excited about joining the club.

Smart knows all about it. His wife and sister are both alums, as well. Nobody is more aware of what’s in play and what it means to the fan base.

“It makes it much more special, because I know the hunger of these people,” he said. “They’re starved. They’re ready to eat. They were just chomping at the bit, wanting something to hang onto. To give them something in year two, the Georgia people are so happy and proud.

“We talked a long time in the fall about being successful vs. significant. They’ve been successful here, let’s be honest. They were not downtrodden. But they were not significant, and significant is where we want to be.”

Significant is where they are. Kirby Smart delivered it, just two years into his Georgia homecoming.

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