Us vs. Them? The tangled history of Georgia’s and Alabama’s coaches

When last Georgia met Alabama, the man who’s now the Bulldogs’ head coach was coordinating the Crimson Tide’s defense. The man who coordinates Bama’s defense was coordinating Georgia’s. The man who coordinates the Bulldogs’ defense was tutoring Alabama’s secondary. The man who handles Georgia’s linebackers was the Tide’s director of player personnel.

Said Kevin Sherrer, who – for the moment, anyway – coaches Georgia’s outside linebackers: “We all came from the same tree.”

Never, however, have branches intertwined so snugly in a game of such magnitude. Georgia and Alabama will play Monday night for the national championship, barely 27 months after the two met in Athens in a game that changed both programs.

When the Tide arrived at Sanford Stadium on Oct. 3, 2015, they were lugging a thumping home loss to Ole Miss. There were thoughts that the empire’s end was at hand. Indeed, the game between the hedges remains the one time since the 2009 SEC Championship game against Florida that Alabama hasn’t been favored.

The Tide won 38-10, with the Bulldogs – via an 83-yard touchdown burst by Nick Chubb – scoring last. If the Faton Bauta game in Jacksonville proved the final straw for Mark Richt, Bama’s blowout in the rain was the penultimate one. On the Sunday after Georgia’s regular season ended, Greg McGarity fired Richt. Six days later, the athletic director interviewed Kirby Smart at an Atlanta airport hotel, hours after Alabama, for which Smart had long worked as defensive coordinator, beat Florida for the SEC title.

Only three coaches from 2015 staffs remain in place – Nick Saban, duh, and running backs coach Burton Burns at Alabama, plus Sherrer at Georgia. Sherrer is about to leave to become DC at Tennessee for Jeremy Pruitt, who was Georgia’s defensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015 and has been Alabama’s since. Sherrer and Pruitt played together at Bama and worked together at Hoover High; Sherrer was the director of player personnel in Tuscaloosa under Saban and was hired in 2014 by Richt to coach Georgia’s linebackers.

(Also FYI: Four members of the 2015 Bama staff -- Smart, Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic, Mario Christobal at Oregon and Billy Napier at Louisiana-Lafayette -- are now head coaches. Everybody wants the next Saban.)

We pause here to apologize. Writing these words doesn’t quite capture the cross-pollination between staffs. For that, we really need a whiteboard with arrows linking names. That said, this isn’t just some dry-erase study in career arcs. These men are about to coach their respective teams in the College Football Playoff final. There are stakes and tactics involved.

This was Mel Tucker, the Georgia DC who worked at Alabama, at Saturday’s media day: “I saw (Bama receiver) Calvin Ridley up close as a freshman. He was hard to cover then; he’s harder to cover now.”

Pruitt likewise got to watch Chubb, Sony Michel and Roquan Smith in practice. “Those were some long days trying to tackle Nick and Sony,” Pruitt said.

As is the case with almost everything in this game, familiarity cuts both ways. Said Tucker: “I don’t know if there’s an advantage. What you see (on film) is what you get.”

Asked if he would share any knowledge about Georgia’s defense – which he did, after all, coach – with Bama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, Pruitt said: “I kind of got my hands full on the other side.”

Sherrer on the programs’ shared tendencies: “We prepare the same way. You know what they’re doing, when they’re doing it and how they’re doing it.”

Given that, wouldn’t it be nigh-impossible to wrong-foot the other? Sherrer said no. Because there’s so much shared knowledge, anything outside the box might resonate. “There might be a possibility of creating an element of surprise,” he said.

Sherrer again: “You need people of similar philosophies and like minds. … Coach Smart learned from coach Saban. They’re similar, but they have different styles. Coach Smart is more energetic in relating to players. The foundation is the same, but Kirby is more personable and approachable, and that’s something the players gravitate to.”

Tucker: “It’s really about people. We have a similar platform, but the personality of the coaches and players I think is different.”

Plot twist: After its media-day session, the Bulldogs boarded buses back to Athens to practice. The workout was to be held in their indoor practice facility, as opposed to an Atlanta site. This is the facility for which Pruitt lobbied, angering some higher-ups in the UGA administration, in an impromptu media briefing in 2014. Yesterday’s must-have had become today’s (slight) competitive disadvantage.

As Sherrer said: “That’s college football. Things change rapidly.”

Another parallel: Pruitt is serving as Alabama DC through the playoff even as he works to build a staff and a program at another SEC school. Sound familiar? “I got to watch how Kirby did it two years ago.”

As of Tuesday morning, Pruitt and Sherrer will again be colleagues. Until then, they’re adversaries – even though they text and speak several times a day. “I told him he really needed to be working on Tennessee this week,” Pruitt said, kidding.

Something else Pruitt got to watch in Tuscaloosa – the noon basketball games among the staff. “Before I retired myself, it was fun to watch coach Saban and Kirby when they were on different teams. Coach Saban would pick the teams, and he’d pick the most athletic guys in the department. Kirby finally got on his team. That’s when I stopped playing. Coach Saban would also call the fouls. Then Kirby started trying to call fouls. There was no way to win.”

This much is certain. Somebody’s going to win Monday night. Said Pruitt: “We’ll either be happy in Knoxville or Kirby will be happy in Athens – or coach Saban will be happy in Tuscaloosa.”

Yep. That about covers it.