Friendship on hold for Bobo, Smart when Georgia, South Carolina play

ATHENS -- The friendship of Kirby Smart and Mike Bobo begins on U.S. 84 in South Georgia. But it was forged in the parking lot of McWhorter Hall on the University of Georgia campus.

Long since razed, the original McWhorter was the athletic dormitory for UGA athletes from the 1960s into the 2000s. Bobo and Smart lived there when they played for the Bulldogs in the ’90s, Bobo as a quarterback and Smart as a safety.

After games, they would meet their families in the McWhorter Hall parking lot on South Campus, where their parents had been tailgating since well before kickoff. George Bobo and Sonny Smart, now retired high school football coaches, would light up the grill again for their boys and friends and teammates after an afternoon of toil at Sanford Stadium.

“Usually my dad and coach Smart would do all the cooking,” Mike Bobo said earlier this week. “They’d be alternating who was frying fish or doing a low-country boil or whatever. It was usually Sonny and George doing the cooking, with other families hanging around. Our families became close during that time.”

ExploreGeorgia-South Carolina: TV, online, radio information

And they’re still close. Officially, Smart and Bobo have coached together only one year, in 2005, when they were both assistants on coach Mark Richt’s staff at Georgia. But they were both on coach Jim Donnan’s staff briefly in 1999, Bobo as a graduate assistant and Smart as an unpaid support staff member.

“Both of them were always good leaders,” said Donnan, who was Georgia’s head coach from 1996-2000. “That’s why I gave them both their first jobs. But I’m proud of them as fathers as well as coaches.”

After battling each other for years as assistant coaches at Alabama and Georgia, Kirby Smart and Mike Bobo will go head-to-head for the first time Saturday as college head coaches. Bobo is the interim head coach for South Carolina (2-6), which will play host to Smart’s No. 9-ranked Bulldogs (5-2) on Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. (7:30 p.m., SEC Network).

“I can sit here and say it’s just another opponent we’ve got to get ready to play and that’s all true, but there’s more excitement in the air because there’s a lot of history there,” Bobo said.

“There’s a lot of people I know on the other side of the ball, not just in Georgia red, but a coach I’ve known since we were childhood friends. ... But we’re going to be ready, and we’re going to be ready to compete.”

It’s going to be a particularly tall task for Bobo’s Gamecocks. He took over for good friend and fellow UGA alum Will Muschamp as interim head coach after Muschamp was fired Nov. 15. Before and since, South Carolina’s cause has been hurt by multiple opt-outs, including three of its four starters in the defensive backfield.

Meanwhile, it remained unclear late into the week whether Shi Smith, the Gamecocks’ leading receiver, will be able to play after he sustained a concussion in Saturday’s 17-10 loss to Missouri. Also, indications are Bobo will start a new quarterback Saturday in freshman Luke Doty.

It’s the continuation of a bit of rough patch for Bobo. He was fired as Colorado State’s head coach Dec. 4 after going 28-35 in five seasons, the last two of which he spent battling peripheral neuropathy. He was hired by Muschamp as South Carolina’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dec. 10.

That’s the role Bobo held with the Bulldogs from 2001-14.

“The guy comes from a coaching pedigree in which his dad is one of the best coaches to coach in our state,” Smart said of Bobo. “He’s grown up in a coach’s family. He’s got thick, tough skin and players like him. Players enjoy playing for him because he coaches hard and with passion and energy.”

That’s just one of the reasons why Smart and the Bulldogs aren’t taking anything for granted Saturday. It was under very similar circumstances that Georgia and the Gamecocks met last season.

Ranked No. 3 at the time, the 2019 Bulldogs were three-touchdown favorites, just as they are this year. The Gamecocks took advantage of an avalanche of Georgia mistakes and miscues to record a 20-17 upset in double overtime. It was the Bulldogs’ first loss to an SEC Eastern Division opponent in three years. Georgia would go on to the SEC title game, while the Gamecocks limped on to a 3-8 record.

Best buddies or not, these one-time UGA roommates are not about to let their relationship affect Saturday’s competition.

“We’re going to go out there and battle our ass off,” Bobo said.

Which brings us back to U.S. 84.

Also known as the Wiregrass Georgia Parkway, that is the main artery that runs through the lower one-third of Georgia from the Alabama state line across to I-95. For most of the previous century and much of this one, the best high school football in Georgia was thought to be played in the small towns that dot that route.

Smart and Bobo grew up playing for rival schools along that route. Smart’s father, Sonny, coached at Bainbridge High. Bobo’s father, George, coached at Thomasville High. Both schools were members of legendary Region 1, for a time in Class AAA and then in Class AAAA. Whatever team came out on top in that region always was in the hunt for the state championship.

That was the case when Smart and Bobo lived there, too.

The Bobos and the Smarts both arrived in South Georgia about the same time in the early 1980s. George and Sonny were assistants for established head coaches before taking over themselves, Smart at Bainbridge in 1988 and Bobo at Thomasville in 1990.

“Highway 84, South Georgia football, a lot of great matchups and Friday night being the most important thing in the town,” Smart reminisced this week. “It’s just kind of in your DNA. It was that way for both of us, and we are both competitive people because of our parents.”

And extremely close to their fathers, as well. It’s not a coincidence that the South Georgia coaching careers of both coaches ended soon after their sons signed scholarships with the Georgia Bulldogs. George Bobo retired so he could watch Mike play after he signed with Georgia in 1993. After a redshirt season, Bobo went on to start 25 games for Georgia from 1995-97.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Kirby Smart signed with Georgia in 1995 and his father also followed him north. Sonny Smart took over as head football coach and athletic director at Rabun County in Clayton, Ga., 90 minutes north of Athens. He hired George Bobo as an assistant.

Meanwhile, Kirby Smart and Mike Bobo became roommates at UGA. They’ve remained close friends, even as rival recruiters and coordinators at Alabama and Georgia, respectively. Always at the center of their relationship has been Bainbridge-vs.-Thomasville competitiveness.

It most intensely manifested itself on Woodruff Practice Fields while they were playing. Smart patrolled the secondary, first with the scout team and later as the starting free safety who would leave Georgia with 13 career interceptions, which remains sixth in school history. Bobo, of course, was running the Bulldogs’ offense.

To this day, neither man agrees on how those battles went. Kirby claims to racked up some interceptions against Bobo. Asked how many, Smart says, “You would have to ask Mike that. He never admits to it. But I have a few fond memories of flipping some balls back to him.”

Bobo counters that “it was one time.”

“He says it was multiple times in one practice,” Bobo said. “But I do remember his little cocky behind running up to me and flipping the ball at me after he picked it off.”

Expect a similar attitude Saturday when Georgia and South Carolina renew their rivalry for the 73rd time. Bobo and Smart will be friends beforehand and afterward. In between, though, they’ll be out to win.

They’re coaches’ kids. It was the way they were raised down there on U.S. 84.

“It’s in your DNA,” Smart said.