Kirby Smart was a four-year letterman at defensive back for Georgia and a first-team All-SEC selection as a senior.
Photo: AJC File
Photo: AJC File

Does having an alumnus coach matter?

Steve Spurrier remembers coming back, after all those years away, and seeing the familiar faces. Professors who were still around. Athletics staffers who had never left.

Phillip Fulmer recalls how the great times felt even greater, because it was home. And how the bad times felt worse, because it was home.

Ray Goff talks about how comfortable it feels. At first. Then how familiarity breeds contempt.

Ralph Friedgen tells how personally he took it when the rich fellow alumnus said something bad about their football program. And how happy Friedgen was to prove him wrong.

There’s something different about being the head coach at the school from which you graduated, where you played and grew during formative years. It can be special. It can give you an advantage.

And it can be risky.

» Head coaches' alma maters

So as Kirby Smart takes over at Georgia, his alma mater, those men, who each spoke to the AJC/DawgNation this week, know exactly what Smart is going through, and what lies ahead.

“It’s not just a job,” Fulmer said. “It ends up being a mission.”

‘A WONDERFUL MIRACLE’

Smart was hired because Georgia wants him to do what Mark Richt couldn’t, win a national championship. But if Smart leads his alma mater to the title it would be a rare feat.

Fulmer is the last head football coach to win the national championship at his alma mater, Tennessee in 1999. Prior to that it was Spurrier, at Florida two years earlier. Alabama’s Bear Bryant is the only other head coach to do so (albeit six times)  since Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy in 1949.

It’s also not common in general to take over at one’s alma mater: Smart and Missouri’s Barry Odom – also a new hire – are the only ones in the SEC. And only 18 out of 128 head coaching jobs in FBS are alumni, including the man Smart replaced at Georgia. Mark Richt is now back “home” at Miami.

Timing can be everything. Spurrier called it “somewhat of a wonderful miracle” that Florida had an opening after the same 1989 season in which he led Duke to an ACC championship.

» Read more about Kirby Smart's transition to Georgia on DawgNation

“It certainly was a dream come true,” Spurrier said this week. “When I got into coaching I never even thought I’d have any chance to be the head coach at my alma mater. I was just hoping to maybe be a head coach somewhere, have a decent career, make enough to support a wife and three kids. But, yeah, it worked out pretty well.”

So how much does it help to take over at the same place you played, to know the ins and outs, and where the bodies are buried? Opinions differ.

Spurrier, who just wrapped up an 11-year tenure at South Carolina, a place he hardly knew, isn’t sure how much being a UGA graduate will help Smart.

“I think it’ll help make him welcomed around campus, booster clubs and things of that nature,” Spurrier said. “But will it help him win games? I don’t know. Usually that comes down to a bunch of really good ballplayers, and solid coaching, and a good quarterback. Those kinds of things are I think far more important than whether you’re an alumnus of the school.”

To that end, Ray Goff thinks it will help Smart initially. Goff, who coached Georgia from 1989-95, is the last full-time Georgia football head coach who was also an alum. (Bryan McClendon, Georgia’s interim coach in this year’s bowl, will also count in the record books, UGA says.)

“Kirby knows the state of Georgia, his dad was a high school coach, he recruited the state of Georgia for Alabama,” said Goff, who still lives in the Athens area. “So if you were going to have a vacancy here, he’s a great guy to take it. He’s got relationships in Georgia through his father, from recruiting for Alabama over here. You know, he’s a great hire in all those categories. And he really is a great person, too.”

Then there’s Fulmer and Friedgen. Each took over their alma maters under different circumstances. Fulmer, like Goff, was promoted from within. Friedgen came back to Maryland after being away for many years. But each thinks coming home helps. It takes away some of the mystery and on-the-job learning.

“You know the people that are decision-makers, you know the culture of the university. You know where the pitfalls can be. You know everything, pretty much. It’s a real advantage,” said Fulmer, Tennessee’s head coach from 1992-2008. “In some ways it can also be a tremendous amount of pressure when things don’t go well. You take it even that much more personal, too. But you’re very proud of what you do accomplish when you do well.”

SIMILAR TO KIRBY – ALMOST

Yes, Maryland and Georgia are two very different football programs. But Friedgen’s arrival back home at Maryland in 2001 most closely parallel’s Smart’s return. It was Friedgen’s first head coaching job. He had been away for more than a decade, but he had been a coordinator at another conference school (Georgia Tech).

“But from the day I took the job it was like a flashback to when I was in school there,” Friedgen said. “I definitely think it helped in my instance because Maryland is such a different place than any other place, and I kind of knew the ins and outs. As I said in my last press conference, everybody goes in there thinking it’s like every other place and, by the third year, they realize it’s different and then it’s too late. So I was pretty astute on that one.”

» Read more about Kirby Smart's transition to Georgia on DawgNation

Friedgen also knew enough to try to get a much-needed donation from another alum, who at the time was the head of Outback Steakhouse. The initial meeting didn’t go well, and stuck with Friedgen in a way that it might not have if he didn’t own a Maryland diploma.

“He said: ‘Ralph, Maryland football has never been that good and I don’t want to be any part of it,’” Friedgen said. “I want to tell you, the hair on the back of my head stood up. I was so (ticked) off.”

Later that year, as Maryland was about to play Clemson in a game that could clinch the ACC title, Friedgen called the man back, reminded him of the statement, and invited him to the game. He came, and picked up the tab for a bowl luncheon.

“That’s the type of thing that I was proud of, that people that never thought much of Maryland would come back, that we would fill that place,” Friedgen said.

WHEN IT’S STILL A BUSINESS

There’s another benefit to a school hiring an alum: They’re less likely to be looking for another job, at least in college. Spurrier left for the NFL, but there was never much danger he or Fulmer would go to another college team.

“You kind of overlook some of the warts at times, when it’s your place,” Fulmer said. “We didn’t have many, but we got to a place that was more difficult on some things than should have been, than had been.”

Friedgen said he was offered the Georgia Tech job in 2002, after his first year at Maryland, when George O’Leary left.

“In hindsight I probably should’ve taken it,” Friedgen said. “Because the Georgia Tech people treated me great. But I didn’t do it because I felt a loyalty to the players (at Maryland). … It wasn’t like I was looking for jobs every year either. I hung in there through the good times and bad times.”

But when you’re an alumnus, that can also make the end worse, as Friedgen, Fulmer and Goff all know.

Goff was fired after the 1995 season. Fulmer was forced out midway through the 2008 season, Friedgen was fired after the 2010 season. One of the first people Friedgen heard from was Fulmer, who told him he knew how he felt, but that there was life after football.

“In college football, the odds are overwhelming that at some point in this game, you’re going to get fired,” said Goff, who has flourished in the business word the last 20 years. “I’m not harping on that, but it happens. Look at the last nine or 10 coaches at Georgia. And if it’s your alma mater, it’s very difficult.”

Friedgen pointed out that the same year he was fired, so were Randy Shannon at Miami, and Dave Wanstedt at Pittsburgh, who were also alums of those schools.

“So basically if you don’t win – and hell, I went 9-4 my last year and won coach of the year and got fired — it really doesn’t matter much in the end whether you’re an alumnus or not,” Friedgen said.

Friedgen later said in a radio interview that he had burned his Maryland diploma. It was a joke. The diploma is still intact. But the only time he’s been back since his firing was as Rutgers offensive coordinator: Rutgers won.

Said Goff: “They have to do what’s right for them and I understand. But it’s a very difficult thing because their heart and their soul and passion is for their university. When they say they don’t want you anymore, that’s tough. Everybody wants to be liked, everybody wants to be successful. But what is success? Everybody’s got a different interpretation of it.”

The first thing Smart said at a press conference last week – the first one in which he was no longer splitting time at Alabama – was that it was “good to be home.” UGA has posted billboards around the area with Smart’s picture, saying “welcome home.” While he’s been on the recruiting trail, his children have been staying with family in Georgia.

When he recruits this month, Smart can tell them personally what it’s like to suit up in red and black. When he speaks to his team, he can tell them that he has also sat in those seats, and walked that campus.

“It’s good on both ends. When you don’t do well you’re extra disappointed, when you do well I think you’re even more elated,” Fulmer said. “It’s one of those things where you just feel very passionate, very loyal to your school. I mean, UT and I’m sure Steve feels the same way, gave me an opportunity to get an education, and start a life off in something that turned out to be really special. And I’ll forever be grateful for that.”

But Friedgen had a warning for Smart.

“If you do well, it’s great,” he said. “If you don’t do well it’s not gonna matter if you’re alumni or not.”

» Read more about Kirby Smart's transition to Georgia on DawgNation

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