Kirby Smart’s game day began like almost every other that he’s had since he’s been at Alabama. But this was anything but an ordinary game.
That’s to say nothing of it being a national championship tilt for the Crimson Tide. Let’s be honest, that’s kind of old hat for those of the houndstooth variety. This was the fourth title game in which Smart has participated in the nine years he’s been at Alabama.
And now he — or rather, they — are 4-0 in those games. The No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide (14-1) hung on to beat No. 1 Clemson (14-1) 45-40 in the the College Football Playoff championship at University of Phoenix Stadium Monday night.
So under the wing of his mentor Nick Saban, Smart has had the pleasure of winning four national championships in the last seven years.
“I don’t think anybody really understands what that is,” Smart said as he stood in an Alabama locker room choked with cigar smoke. “In a world where there is parity and you’ve got to change quarterbacks every other year and kids come and go. It’s just a different world in college football to be able to do that.”
It was the last game Smart was coaching while wearing the crimson of the Tide. As of Tuesday, the only colors he’ll wear will be the red and black of his alma mater, the University of Georgia.
While he was named the Bulldogs’ head coach 36 days ago, the Kirby Smart Era at UGA really begins on Tuesday when he finally sets foot for good in Athens. And he’ll be there bright and early Tuesday morning.
Smart, along with his wife Mary Beth, their 7-year-old twins Westin and Julia, were scheduled to board the University of Georgia’s plane at 6 a.m. to fly back to Athens. Accompanying them on their trip will be Glenn Schumann and Mel Tucker, two members of the Alabama football staff who will be joining Smart and the Bulldogs.
Schumann, a defensive quality control specialist, will be coming as an on-field assistant coach. Tucker, a 10-year NFL veteran who coached the Crimson Tide’s defensive backs and was assistant head coach, will be the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator.
All that was confirmed on the field and in the locker room as Alabama players took turns telling the three coaches goodbye with big hugs and long embraces.
“Got to get to work,” said Schumann, whose exact position is yet to be determined. “Can’t wait to get there. A lot to do.”
There were going to be no parties for any of the outgoing party. Saban infamously gives his teams only 24 hours to celebrate victories. But Smart was allowing even less than that, imposing “a five-hour rule” because they were all in hurry to get to Athens as soon as they could.
Plus, after the track meet Smart and his defense had just been put through, he said he was “absolutely exhausted.”
“I’m going to bed; going to sleep,” Smart said. “I’m tired. Ready to fly out and get gone.”
One reporter asked Smart if this was the perfect way to go out, having won another national championship. But there’s still too much defensive coordinator in Smart to accept that.
“Perfect? Not giving up 40 (points) and 550 (yards),” he said, incredulous. “I hate going out with that kind of performance. Leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But I’m proud for the kids and how they battled and kept fighting.”
Georgia was wasting no time getting its man home. Mike Cavan, Smart’s newly appointed special assistant, and football operations director Josh Lee met Smart and his family in the middle of the field while confetti was still pouring down from the rafters of the domed stadium. At one point, Smart literally formed a huddle with Cavan and Lee and Schumann to exchange a short private message among the celebratory din.
While Smart has maintained that he has been able to keep up with all the demands of both of his jobs, he admitted at the end of this long night there were some things he is regretfully behind on.
“I’ve watched tape and I know a lot about the numbers and what we’ve got scholarship-wise and about the position breakdowns and what we need, stuff like that,” he said. “We’ve had meetings like that. But do I know the kids personally like I want to? No, I do not. That’s where I’m most behind, the personal relationships I intend to have with each and every kid. I hate that because I’ve only had a chance to be in front of them once. I’m going to get started on that as soon as possible.”
Smart’s wife, who played basketball for the Bulldogs, feels more than a little behind, too. Her two older kids are set to begin school at Athens Academy on Wednesday, and she’s eager to get her home set up. Their youngest child, 3-year-old Andrew, remained back in Georgia with their paternal grandparents in Rabun County and didn’t make the trip.
“My first priority is to just get them settled and into a routine,” Mary Beth said. “I’m so thankful for my in-laws and my parents for being willing and able to help out. But it will be nice to be in one place a while.”
In the hours before kickoff, Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity was quite pleased with the way things have worked out. He said he was always comfortable with Smart’s request to continue coaching Alabama’s defense while also leading the Bulldogs’ football program.
“I’m fully confident that while physically he may not have been in Athens during this time, mentally he was doing what he could on behalf of the institution. He was able to multi-task successfully,” McGarity said Monday. “The timing was such, with classes starting (Monday), we had no one on campus during that time other than bowl practice anyway. So as far as recruiting, things of that nature, that could have been handled anywhere. The way the calendar worked out and school not starting til the 11th, all of those things when you look at them as a whole certainly led us to be able to accommodate everyone.”