Kirby Smart Is a Risky Hire for Georgia, but the Reward Could Be Huge

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterDecember 2, 2015

Kirby Smart
Kirby SmartStacy Revere/Getty Images

The worst-kept secret in college football appears to be out.

According to Chip Towers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will become the new head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs following this weekend's SEC Championship Game between the Crimson Tide and Florida Gators. Towers reported that an official announcement "could come as soon as Sunday or Monday."

Smart steps in for Mark Richt, who was dismissed on Sunday after compiling a 145-51 record in 15 years at Georgia, winning two SEC titles and representing the SEC East in the SEC Championship Game five times. 

A bold move for sure. After all, getting rid of a head coach like Richt who has topped the 10-win mark nine times and posted a winning percentage of .740 as a head coach in favor of one who has never been a head coach at the collegiate level is incredibly risky.

It's not an unexpected one, though.

Kirby Smart
Kirby SmartKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Smart had emerged as the clear front-runner to the point where he essentially was the only candidate for athletic director Greg McGarity, according to Towers, writing for DawgNation.

It's understandable. 

Smart's defenses at Alabama have finished in the top seven nationally in points allowed per game every year since he took over as the full-time defensive coordinator in 2008. He is also a former Georgia defensive back (1995-98) who also spent a year at Georgia as a running backs coach in 2005 andincluding one year on Nick Saban's staff at LSU—he has spent a decade learning from the best college football coach of this generation.

That kind of pedigree and track record for success—three national titles and three SEC championships—has earned Smart a reputation as the hottest assistant in the country and a future star as a head coach.

"When I first heard about Kirby, I thought he would be a really good candidate," former quarterback D.J. Shockley (2002-05) told Bleacher Report. "He was our running backs coach during my last year there, and obviously he's been with Saban for all these years. He's been up for different head coaching jobs, so it'll be interesting to see Kirby in that role."

As ESPN's Chris Fowler noted on Twitter, Smart could be the home run Georgia has been waiting on.

Chris Fowler @cbfowler

Hiring "next big thing" assistant always a risk. You can find Bob Stoops. Or one of the many busts. But #KirbySmart seems ready & good fit

Make no mistake, though. There's only one thing on the minds of Georgia fans: championships.

"I think that the expectations have been built to the point where if you don’t win a championship, it’s kind of miserable around here," Richt said during his farewell press conference, according to quotes emailed by Georgia.

Smart has the resume, recruiting knowledge and familiarity with how to run a program to be the guy who breaks through that glass ceiling in Athens and lands the Bulldogs their first national title since 1980. But there will be some growing pains.

Mark Richt
Mark RichtBrett Davis/Associated Press

Some free, unsolicited advice to Georgia fans, administrators and McGarity: Be patient.

That might prove to be difficult after Jim McElwain just posted a 7-1 conference record and swept the SEC East en route to the 2015 division title in his first year at Florida.

That might prove to be difficult after Gus Malzahn won the SEC West and came within 13 seconds of a national title in his first year at Auburn in 2013.

That might prove to be difficult after Saban, Gene Chizik and Urban Meyer each achieved enormous success in their second seasons at Alabama, Auburn and Florida, respectively.

All of those coaches had one thing in common when they did, though. They were all head coaches before.

Some were successful, of course. Meyer had developed quite a reputation at Bowling Green and Utah. Saban had a national title at LSU under his belt, and Malzahn and McElwain had Group of Five success at Arkansas State and Colorado State, respectively.

Chizik, meanwhile, posted a rather miserable 5-19 record in two years at Iowa State from 2007 to 2008.

Gene Chizik
Gene ChizikBrody Schmidt/Associated Press

All of that experience—whether it was good, bad or a combination of both—is important to the development of a coach. Sometimes, learning what not to do is more important than learning what to do, and Smart will be doing that on the fly in Athens with enough expectations to fill Sanford Stadium.

First-time head coaches in the SEC haven't worked out all that well.

Like Smart, Will Muschamp was also a hotshot defensive coordinator who landed the big one when he became Florida's head coach in 2011. He went 28-21 with the Gators, 17-15 in conference play and aside from the 11-2 campaign in 2012, his four years in Gainesville were disastrous.

Derek Mason was a highly regarded defensive mind when he landed the Vanderbilt gig prior to last season, and he promptly went 3-9 and looked completely lost as a head coach as he played musical quarterbacks for a full season.

This year, despite some offensive struggles, the Commodores were competitive, thanks to a defense that Mason decided to run himself and the success of running back Ralph Webb.

Kirby Smart
Kirby SmartMarvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

It's not like Smart is taking over a project.

With a win in the bowl game, Georgia would reach the 10-win mark for the fourth time in five years. The combination of the win-now mentality of other SEC programs and the high bar Richt left in Athens has virtually eliminated the learning curve that Smart will have to work with.

Yes, there's plenty of talent at Georgia for Smart to step in and field a competitive program right away. The Bulldogs have a loaded backfield, a stout defense that's littered with young talent up front and good receivers to build around like Isaiah McKenzie and Terry Godwin.

The quarterback is a problem, though, and the first task for Smart should be to hire a good offensive coordinator who can not only maximize talent, but also keep the commitment of hotshot Class of 2016 quarterback prospect Jacob Eason.

Yes, aside from Florida, the SEC East is still down and its champion Gators will be without quarterback Will Grier for the first six games of 2016 as he finishes off his year-long suspension.

Yes, you should expect Georgia's recruiting not to miss a beat.

No, you shouldn't expect a division title in Smart's first year.

He still has to find his groove as a head coach. That means clock management, use of timeouts, fourth down decisions, two-point conversions and all other responsibilities of a head coach will be works in progress.

That's not to say that he might not pull a McElwain and shock the world in his first season at the helm. 

It's certainly possible, especially with the talent on the roster. But that shouldn't be the immediate expectation.

As hard as it might sound, Georgia fans, be patient. There's a better chance of Smart working out at Georgia in the long run if you are.

He will find his groove as long as he gets the proper time.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.


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