Looking way ahead: Might Kirby Smart be UGA’s coach for life?

The announcement of home-and-home games with Oklahoma got me thinking, for which, apologies in advance. Georgia will play in Norman in 2023; the Sooners will grace Sanford Stadium in 2031, a date so distant that no collegian just drafted – not Kyler Murray, not Deandre Baker – can say with certainty he’ll still be playing football for a living. But those young men aren’t the focus of my wondering. Kirby Smart is.

If the man coaching Georgia is still coaching Georgia in 2031, he’ll be in his 16th season. And so, apropos of not much, I asked myself: What are the chances Smart sticks around that long?

By every measure, he has it going. His second Georgia team played Alabama for the national title and almost won. His third missed the playoff by the width of another blown lead against Bama. His fourth will be ranked no lower than No. 3 in most every preseason poll.

We’re seeing it again: When Georgia finds the right coach and that coach finds the right players, the Bulldogs are a mighty fortress. You can count the programs possessing comparable resources on one hand and three fingers – Alabama, Florida, LSU, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, USC. Coaches who get it going at such places rarely exit for another school. If they leave of their own volition, it’s for the NFL.

(Urban Meyer is the obvious outlier, having coached Florida before retiring to spend time with his family, then opting to spend more time coaching Ohio State, which he no longer coaches. He’ll be at USC before the year’s out.)

You could see Lincoln Riley leaving Oklahoma for the pros. He has coached the two most recent Heisman Trophy winners, both quarterbacks, both the No. 1 overall in their respective drafts. When NFL owners dip into colleges, they tap offensive schemers, such as Steve Spurrier or Chip Kelly. (Or, yikes, Bobby Petrino.) Pete Carroll, a defensive guy, went from the Patriots to USC before heading back to the NFL. Saban, who served under Bill Belichick with the Browns, is the only 21st century example of a defensive-minded mostly-college coach being handed an NFL franchise. That lasted two years.

Kliff Kingsbury is your case study. Having just been fired by Texas Tech didn’t deter the Cardinals from hiring him as head coach. The only guy as important in the NFL as the head coach is the No. 1 quarterback, and Kingsbury is a quarterback whisperer. Not many NFL teams would view Smart, a career defensive man, as a savior in a league where offense is essentially everything. That’s no knock on him. That’s the way of the league.

If a Georgia coach doesn’t leave for the NFL, where does he go? Mark Richt wound up at Miami, but he never would have left Athens had he not been fired. Indeed, Richt was the first Georgia head coach since Johnny Griffith, whose three-year tenure bridged the 22 years of Wally Butts and the quarter-century of Vince Dooley, to coach again. (Griffith’s rebound job was as a Bobby Dodd assistant at Georgia Tech.) Butts and Dooley never coached after Georgia. Neither did Ray Goff or Jim Donnan.

Maybe Smart would leave Georgia for Texas, say, though we note that the Austin incumbent just outflanked the Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl. Maybe Smart might feel the urge to follow Saban in Tuscaloosa, though we know such a man is doomed. And Georgia is, not incidentally, Smart’s alma mater. He has been handed almost everything he wanted since taking over, and it’s hard to imagine any UGA president or athletic director being disinclined to grant the coach’s wishes, so long as he keeps winning at the rate of the past two seasons.

Therein lies the catch. Smart’s second and third seasons – going 13-2 and 11-3, winning the SEC once and playing for the conference title a second time, finishing second and seventh in the Associated Press polls – don’t look much different from his predecessor’s Years 2 and 3. Richt’s 2002 team went 13-1, won the SEC and finished third in the AP poll; his 2003 crew was 11-3, losing to Saban’s LSU in the SEC title tilt and finishing seventh per AP. In May 2004, it was impossible to imagine a time, no matter how distant, when Richt wouldn’t be the toast of the Classic City.

The difference between Smart and Richt after three years is that Smart’s Bulldogs have played for a national title. (Had the College Football Playoff been in place, Richt’s second team might have.) There’s no reason to believe that Smart, having come so far so fast, won’t finish the drill, as it were. If/when Smart takes Georgia to the summit, would that make him coach for life?

In contemporary college football,such a thing exists only for Saban and maybe Dabo Swinney. It didn’t for Philip Fulmer or Larry Coker or Mack Brown or Gene Chizik. It didn’t for Bobby Bowden or Jimbo Fisher, both of whom won titles at Florida State. (The was coach-in-waiting for the former, who wanted Jimbo to wait a while longer.) It didn’t for Meyer at either Florida or Ohio State.

Fans love you when you win; if you win less, they love you less. (There’s the story of Richt at Georgia in 14 words.) The job is frazzling. Going by hire dates, the second-longest-tenured SEC coach is Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, who has worked six seasons. His brother Bob was the longest-tenured FBS coach when he stepped aside at Oklahoma in June 2017 after 18 seasons. Bob Stoops was under no real pressure. But he was 56, and he was done.

That’s the other part of this: Would Smart want to be coach for life? He’s 43. To coach Georgia in Athens against Oklahoma in 2031 would entail coaching at 55. For him to hold this job that long would surely mean he’d have won everything worth winning and then kept winning, which would mean he could be like Saban and stay as long as he pleased. (Might need a new hip, though.)

Do I believe Smart will be coaching Georgia in 2031? Assuming that’s what he wants, and assuming he tempers his love of fake kicks, yes. But, had you asked me in 2004 if Richt would be coaching Georgia in 2016, I’d have likewise said yes. So maybe I’m not the guy to ask.