Kirby Smart Is the Nick Saban Clone Georgia Needed to Become the Next Alabama

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterJanuary 8, 2018

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, right, speaks during a press conference next to Alabama head coach Nick Saban ahead of the NCAA college football national championship in Atlanta, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. Georgia and Alabama will be playing for the championship on Monday, Jan. 8. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

ATLANTA — The confetti was falling a week ago in Pasadena, California, and everyone and everything Georgia was bathing in all things Rose Bowl championship.             

Except Kirby Smart.

There he was, annoyed as all get-out, screaming at his operations manager that the celebration of Georgia's biggest win in nearly 40 years—the one he delivered as a second-year coach—was spilling over into Kirby time.

Or, more specifically, the result of winning was taking time away from from the process of winning.

"Let's get to the stage," Smart yelled as he was being pushed and led to the postgame celebration platform, "and get the heck out of here."

This is the coaching monster you've created, Nick Saban.

This meticulous, demanding perfectionist who can't enjoy a win unless it's the last game of the season. Sound familiar?

Now you have to deal with him.

"They're the same person," says Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans, who's had Saban as his head coach for four years and had Smart as his defensive coordinator for the first two. "It's scary."

That's why it's no stretch to see Monday night's national championship game between Georgia and Alabama as the beginning of what likely will become a fight for the soul of not only the SEC, but of college football.

For all of Saban's success as a college coach—for all the championships and the recruiting dominance and the assistants he developed and sent from the nest—he never before had a former assistant who showed the ability to take the famed Saban "Process" and consistently implement it somewhere else.

Never has a former assistant had so much success so early, certainly not at a university with the financial and administrative support to match Alabama on and off the field.

Never has a former assistant looked like so much of a dead ringer for his former boss.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

"I don't buy all that stuff," Smart says. "This isn't about he and I. It's about these players and this game."

If it were just about this moment, this game, the idea of the pupil surpassing the teacher may not be so recognizable. In fact, this national championship game could get ugly for the Bulldogs in their first shot at playing for it all since 1980.

Alabama is healthy, motivated and playing at its peak level, and Georgia's personnel hasn't quite caught up to what Saban has developed.

But even if it doesn't happen this year, there's little doubt Georgia will get there sooner rather than later.

That's what makes this first game so intriguing. Not necessarily because of what is, but because of what could be.

Smart is polishing off a recruiting class that includes six 5-star recruits—a number only Alabama pulled off in the previous five seasons (doing it four times)—amid a class of 23 high school players that ranks as the best in the nation.

Smart convinced the nation's No. 2 overall player, quarterback Justin Fields, to sign with the Bulldogs even though Georgia has a freshman quarterback in Jake Fromm who is already a star and will play at least three years in Athens.

Smart with QB Jake Fromm, who threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.
Smart with QB Jake Fromm, who threw for 210 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.Wade Payne/Associated Press

Smart is barely three recruiting classes into his tenure at Georgia, and he's already mastering the fuel for the Process. For all of the talk about Saban's Process, it goes nowhere without stars.

For years, Saban has convinced elite high school players to sign with Alabama, knowing they'd be packed behind other elite players on the Tide roster like game-day traffic on Interstate 459 in Tuscaloosa.

Smart's first priority when he arrived in Athens two years ago was keeping 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason in the fold. Eason had committed to former coach Mark Richt and was wavering, even visiting rival Florida in the final weeks before signing day. Smart convinced Eason to sign with Georgia, and then a year later, he convinced Fromm—a 4-star recruit—to sign with Georgia over Alabama even though Eason threw 16 touchdowns in his first season.

Fields, who could've played anywhere he wanted, has now signed with Georgia, is enrolled early and will participate in spring drills.

"I can't wait to compete with my teammates," he says.

If that sounds familiar, consider this: Tailback Najee Harris was the nation's No. 2 overall high school player in 2017 and signed with Alabama despite depth and talent at the position (Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs). While he played sparingly this fall, he'll likely be the Tide's feature back in 2018.

This is how it works when everyone is aligned with the same vision and there is no interpretation of anything connected to winning. From the way you line up on the field to where you sit in a meeting, there is zero room for uncertainty.

One of Saban's favorite books is Stoics, a book on the philosophies of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. It sits in his office, and he often refers to it when finding ways to strengthen and motivate his team. Aurelius' personal writings are based on his philosophies and what affects the human condition. One specific ideal personifies the Saban Process: Control what you can control, not what you can't. If nothing else, that gives you a chance to perfect what you can.

That mantra—control what you can control—is heard over and over at Alabama. And now at Georgia. Smart dropped it into a press conference over the weekend like he was saying his own name. "We have to control what we can control." It's drilled into players, coaches and anyone associated with the program, from the student managers washing practice jerseys to those at the highest levels of administration at the university.

"I don't know that you ever really learn the process," Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran says. "Day to day with [Saban] is very simple, and I don't think it's much different with Kirby. I explain this to anyone who walks through that door: Your expectation of what you have to do for your job, what you can control, has to be higher than his. It's a choice. Are you going to become great, or are you going to coast?"

When Smart arrived at Athens, the program was stale and coasting. Richt had averaged nearly 10 wins a season, but Georgia struggled to beat its rivals and hadn't won the SEC in more than a decade.

Though it was difficult to sell the idea of firing the beloved Richt—and as much public scrutiny as Georgia absorbed—it had to happen to change the fortunes of a program with all of the intangibles to win big. South Carolina was closing in on hiring Smart, and Georgia had to make a move.

When Smart arrived for his first meeting at Georgia, he found a program happy to win nine or 10 games a year, not passionate about getting to 11 or 12. Or more.

"From the moment Kirby walked in the door, you could just tell from his whole demeanor that he's all business," says Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta. "You could sense it. He wasn't playing around. We needed that kick in the ass."

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Wouldn't you know it? Georgia is trending along the same line as Alabama under Saban. The Tide won seven games in their first year under Saban in 2007, and then they went 12-0 during the regular season before losing in the SEC Championship Game a year later.

Georgia won eight games in Year 1 under Smart, and then won the SEC this season.

"If you're looking for a difference, the presentation is different," says Georgia linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer, who also worked for Saban. "[Smart] is younger, probably a little more energetic, more relating to players—and players gravitate to that maybe a little bit more."

An example: Not long after his team finally had gotten through that postgame celebration at the Rose Bowl, Smart was leaving the locker room with a few of his star players to head for a press conference. They were going out, media members were going in, and the two lines bottlenecked and stalled.

Smart, annoyed again, yelled to no one particular, "Let's go! Hurry it up! These players need their sleep!"

The monster Saban created, and the monster he must now deal with.

"I have heard that before," Cochran says.

Is it right?

"It's exactly right," he says.


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