ATHENS, Ga. — Sonny Smart remembers taking his youngest son, Kirby, to the city pool in Bainbridge, Georgia, in the summer of 1983.
Kirby, only 7 years old, was trying out for the Bainbridge Barracudas swim team. There was just one requirement to make it: A child had to swim the length of the pool without stopping. No matter how hard Kirby tried that first day, he couldn’t do it.
“He didn’t know how to swim and breathe,” said Sonny Smart, a longtime high school football coach in Alabama and Georgia. “He’d swim as far as he could and he’d stop and grab the rope, take a breath and go on.”
Finally, by the end of the week, Kirby swam the length of the pool and made the team.
“Well, how did you do it?” Sonny asked his son.
“I just swam the whole way without taking a breath,” Kirby told him.
Even at an early age, Kirby Smart showed resilience, determination and enough problem-solving to finish what he started. Those attributes are what allowed him to become an All-SEC safety at Georgia during the 1990s and then climb through the coaching ranks to take charge of his alma mater’s program before turning 40.
And now, four years after nearly guiding Georgia to its first national championship since 1980, Smart will have another chance to end the No. 3 Bulldogs’ 41-year drought without a title when they play No. 1 Alabama on Monday in the College Football National Championship Presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App) in Indianapolis.
“He’s always been that way,” Sonny Smart said. “He’s always been very competitive and always wanted to excel. He was that way as a child and it’s the way he is now. I can’t point to any specific reason, it’s just the way he’s made.”
When Sonny Smart moved his family to Bainbridge in the early 1980s, the Bulldogs were the best college football team in the country. After winning it all in 1980, Georgia had chances to win two more national titles before Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker turned pro in 1983. Remarkably, the Bulldogs have been trying to win another one ever since.
Since the FBS/FCS split in 1978, 21 teams have won a national title at the FBS level — and none of them has an active drought longer than Georgia’s. Since the Bulldogs’ last national championship, they’ve finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll 16 times (they’re headed toward a 17th this year), the most during that span among teams that haven’t won a title, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
Smart, now 46, knows winning a national championship is the last step in making his program truly elite.
“If it’s not coming, then what are we doing?” Smart told ESPN before the season. “I don’t look at it from the perspective of winning. I look at it from the perspective of what’s important now, what are we doing now? And I know the people in this organization, the administration, the people in the state, the people that love Georgia and the energy and enthusiasm they have, it’s just always been long overdue, right? I don’t care if you won one year ago, it’s overdue. So, for me, that’s the end game, that’s the goal. That’s what you’re always trying to work toward.”
Even before Smart played for his father at Bainbridge High School, he had one goal: to play football for the Bulldogs. He wasn’t the biggest kid in his class, but he might have been the most competitive. His older brother, Karl Smart, remembers Kirby being determined to “make better grades than Ellen Tipton and to be faster than Willie Ross,” two kids in his second-grade class.
When Karl and Kirby watched the Grand Prize Game on The Bozo Show on WGN as kids, Kirby would get so mad at contestants missing the buckets that he would line up buckets in the living room and throw golf balls into them for hours. When it was time for the Smart brothers to pick up pine cones and rake straw in the family’s yard, Kirby set up paper bags in the lawn and made it a competition. The brothers shared a bedroom until Karl was 13, and they couldn’t go to bed until wrestling to see who could win.
“Honestly, I feel like it was everything,” said Karl, who is now 47 and works as a psychiatric nurse practitioner in Athens, Georgia. “That’s just how he was about everything. He wanted to achieve it. He wanted to be the best.”
Karl, who was one grade above Kirby in school, played football for Bainbridge High as a freshman in 1989. That October, Karl was diagnosed with leukemia. He underwent chemotherapy for months and was hospitalized with complications. In 1991, he spent six days in a medically induced coma after contracting a rare fungal infection in his lungs and woke up on Christmas. Karl returned to the football team as a sophomore, but doctors advised him to stop playing. Kirby decided he was going to have to play for both of them.
As a high school senior in 1993, Kirby led the Bearcats to a 10-3 record and the Class AAAA state semifinals; they lost 28-3 to eventual state champion Dunwoody High. Smart, who had 16 interceptions in his high school career, earned a scholarship from Georgia in 1994. He was a four-year letterman and had 13 picks in college, which still ranks sixth in school history. Playing in the same secondary as Pro Football Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, Smart was named All-SEC and led the league in interceptions as a senior in 1998.
Smart worked as an administrative assistant for Georgia coach Jim Donnan in 1999. As the Bulldogs were preparing to play Purdue in the Outback Bowl that season, Will Muschamp, his former UGA teammate, called Smart and asked if he had any interest in working as the defensive backs coach at Division II Valdosta State. Smart had a couple of other opportunities outside of football and wasn’t sure he was going to take the job. The $10,000 annual salary the Blazers were offering wasn’t that enticing, either.
Muschamp, who is Georgia’s special teams coordinator and will be co-defensive coordinator next season, once joked about Smart’s interview at Valdosta State.
“He put 12 guys up on the board,” Muschamp said. “I thought we were going to be pretty good on defense if he could figure out how to get 12 guys on the field.”
Smart still got the job, and the Blazers went 10-2, won the Gulf South Conference and reached the Division II playoffs in 2000. Smart made quite an impression on Valdosta State coach Chris Hatcher, who now coaches at Samford University.
“We played Southern Arkansas, which ran the wishbone, and won 30-29,” Hatcher said. “We’re all fired up and celebrating, and Kirby is over there going, ‘We’ve got to play Central Arkansas next week and they’re going to throw the ball all over the place. We’ve got to start getting ready right now.'”
LSU’s Nick Saban hired Muschamp as his linebackers coach the next season, and Hatcher promoted Smart to defensive coordinator. The Blazers went 12-1 and allowed eight points or fewer in seven games. After the season, Smart informed Hatcher he was leaving to become a graduate assistant under Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. Smart earned a master’s degree from FSU in 2003.
Smart and Muschamp were reunited at LSU in 2004, when Smart worked one season as the Tigers’ defensive backs coach. When Saban left to coach the Miami Dolphins, Smart returned to Georgia as running backs coach under Mark Richt the next season. He joined the Dolphins as safeties coach in 2006 and then went to Alabama with Saban the next year. Over the next nine seasons, the last eight as defensive coordinator, Smart helped the Tide win four national championships.
Smart became Georgia’s coach after the Bulldogs fired Richt, who had a 145-51 record from 2001 to 2015.
Former Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, who hired Smart, said his initial conversations with his new coach weren’t as much about what the Bulldogs needed to do to catch Alabama as what they needed to do to consistently win at the highest level.
“You found out really quickly that he wasn’t doing things for the sake of doing it because someone else has this or someone else has that,” McGarity said. “He wasn’t like, ‘They’ve got X-amount of people at Alabama, so I need X-amount of people at Georgia.’ It was a great learning experience for our administration to understand and then develop trust. He does what he says he’s going to do.
“They’re not just crazy ideas, they’re ideas that are well thought out and when you see it in place, it makes sense. Kirby was very articulate and very intentional. But it was never because someone else had this. It was always, ‘We need this for this reason,’ or ‘This is why I need these people for this reason.’ He had a plan, he executed the plan and so far it’s playing out.”
Shortly after Shane Beamer was hired to join Smart’s staff at Georgia in 2016, he noticed something familiar about the way his new boss was structuring his program.
“We literally implemented everything Alabama did, from the weekly schedule with the coaches to the practice schedule to the weight room program to whatever,” said Beamer, now South Carolina’s head coach. “It was identical. He didn’t have to say, ‘This is what Alabama did.’ You knew it. A lot of stuff we used even had the Alabama logo on it and was copy and pasted with the Georgia logo on it.”
For the Bulldogs, imitating Alabama was not only the sincerest form of flattery, it was the most efficient way to try to close the gap on the greatest dynasty in the sport’s modern era. Whether it was support staff, recruiting, nutrition, strength and conditioning, facilities or coaches’ salaries, the Bulldogs were suddenly willing to compete with the Tide in any area.
“Give Kirby credit because as he got more and more comfortable, if there was a better way of doing things he would always listen,” Beamer said. “That was six years ago, and I’m sure now there are things they are doing that are better than Alabama. There were things that we did in Year 2 that were different from Alabama. Alabama came up in the sense that they were the SEC champions, they were the team that was at the top in recruiting year in and year out, so that was who you were chasing.”
In his sixth season at Georgia, Smart is still chasing the Crimson Tide and still trying to beat his mentor for the first time. Saban won his first four games against Smart’s teams, including a 26-23 victory in overtime in the CFP National Championship after the 2017 season. Alabama won the game on backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa‘s 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith on second-and-26.
“I remember Kirby saying in the postgame press conference, ‘We’re not going anywhere. We’ll be back,'” Beamer said. “I knew he was right and it took them four years to get back, but they’re back. That game has nothing to do with this game. Give Alabama credit because they did a great job, but that was a tough one to lose. Certainly, even though it has no direct impact on the game on Monday night, I’m sure it’s constantly motivating Kirby and that staff to get back and win.”
So is a 41-24 loss to the Crimson Tide in last month’s SEC championship, which was Georgia’s only defeat of the season.
“Let’s face it, they’re the best football program over at least the last 10 years and maybe more,” Richt said. “There’s a lot of people who try to emulate and imitate what they do for a good reason. You’re going to play a team that has great players, great coaches and a championship spirit and ultimate confidence. You don’t beat them easily. They’re the king.”
Smart isn’t the only former Saban assistant who hasn’t yet beaten him. Over the past 12 seasons, Saban is 25-1 against nine coaches who worked for him. Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher became the first one to knock him off with a 41-38 upset of the No. 1 Tide on Oct. 9. Smart’s teams had leads in each of the four games the teams have played, including double-digit leads in three.
“It’s been games of momentum,” Smart said earlier this week. “They’ve done a good job at momentum in the second half. Each game has been different, and it will never be about he and I. I know he won’t make it that and I won’t make it that, because that’s for [the media] to do that.”
For the program Smart has built over the past six seasons, there’s only one obstacle remaining — finally taking down Alabama and winning a national championship.
“Kirby grew up in that state and played there and knows what it would mean to the people of Georgia,” Beamer said. “It would be extra special for him, I’m sure. It’s where he went to school, where he grew up and it’s the place that was always the place where he wanted to coach. He said it at SEC media days and he’s right: If you continue to recruit at a high level and continue to knock on the door, eventually you’re going to knock that door down.
“They’re eventually going to do it. I don’t know if it’s going to be Monday night or not, but there’s a national championship coming. When it does, it will be extra special for him.”
Even if the Bulldogs don’t get it done on Monday night, McGarity said, Georgia fans have to appreciate what Smart has built in such a short time. His teams have gone 65-15, finished in the top 10 of the CFP rankings and played in a New Year’s Six bowl in five straight seasons, won four SEC East titles and an SEC championship since 2017.
“I think that’s one thing Georgia people should always keep in mind, that this is something that’s going to be normal during Kirby’s time, is to be highly competitive,” McGarity said. “When that door opens up and if it does, that would be fantastic. But it shouldn’t define someone’s career. … There are unrealistic expectations by some people that say, ‘Well, he can’t win the big one.’ My gosh, he’s won a Sugar Bowl, Peach Bowl, Rose Bowl and played for the national championship. It’s just an illustration of what an elite coach we have at the University of Georgia.”
Richt was an assistant coach at Florida State when Bobby Bowden won his first national championship in his 18th season. Penn State’s Joe Paterno waited 17 years. Nebraska’s Tom Osborne needed 22 years. UCLA basketball coach John Wooden didn’t win a national title until his 16th season. It isn’t easy.
“First of all, you’ve got to get in those games,” Richt said. “If you get in those games long enough, you’ll win one, especially if you recruit the way they’ve been recruiting and develop players the way they’ve been developing them. It’s going to happen.”
Like that 7-year-old boy in the swimming pool, Smart is going to keep kicking his feet and holding his breath.
“Alabama is good because they have great players,” Sonny Smart said. “They’re difficult to beat for everybody. When the cup’s full, you can’t fill it up anymore. I don’t think Kirby wants to win that game any more because it’s Alabama on the other side. It wouldn’t matter who is over there, that’s who you have to beat. To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.”