Georgia ‘going big’ in football under coach Kirby Smart

Georgia coach Kirby Smart (middle, gray suit) poses with next to UGA President Jere More head and members of the UGA Athletic Association board of directors during the dedication ceremony of the West End renovation project at Sanford Stadium in 2018. (Photo by Chip Towers/ctowers@ajc.com)

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Georgia coach Kirby Smart (middle, gray suit) poses with next to UGA President Jere More head and members of the UGA Athletic Association board of directors during the dedication ceremony of the West End renovation project at Sanford Stadium in 2018. (Photo by Chip Towers/ctowers@ajc.com)

ATHENS — As the late, great Larry Munson used to say, “get the picture.”

Alabama had just won the 2015 SEC Championship game at the old Georgia Dome, and the Crimson Tide were headed to the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to fly back to Tuscaloosa with their latest trophy. Bama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was headed to the airport, too. But instead of accompanying the team on its plane, Smart peeled off with his agent Jimmy Sexton to attend a meeting in a suite at the Renaissance Airport hotel.

Athletic Director Greg McGarity and his top lieutenant at the time, Carla Williams, had occupied a suite there most of the week to conduct interviews for Georgia’s football coaching vacancy. For this particular meeting, though, McGarity was the only other person present. It was 10 o’clock at night.

With all due respect to the other candidates, the job offer and acceptance for Smart were mere formalities at this point. All that was left to be done after the handshake entering the room was for Smart to get assurance that the Bulldogs were willing to “go big” if he was to take over the football program.

“I assured him that we were,” McGarity, now retired, recounted recently. “I just needed him to articulate exactly what that meant.”

Sixty-eight months later, we are all seeing what Smart meant by “going big.” That vision most tangibly has come into focus in the form of steel, glass, bricks and mortar.

ExploreWhat $175 million in UGA facility upgrades pays for
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Part of the Sanford Stadium project covers 120,000 total square feet of new and improved space. These enhancements include a new home locker room for the Bulldogs, a space to host and entertain prospects on game day, improvements to restroom and concession areas below the bridge, and a new scoreboard and upper plaza. The project is expected to take approximately 17 months to complete and is estimated to cost $63 million. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Part of the Sanford Stadium project covers 120,000 total square feet of new and improved space. These enhancements include a new home locker room for the Bulldogs, a space to host and entertain prospects on game day, improvements to restroom and concession areas below the bridge, and a new scoreboard and upper plaza. The project is expected to take approximately 17 months to complete and is estimated to cost $63 million. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
Part of the Sanford Stadium project covers 120,000 total square feet of new and improved space. These enhancements include a new home locker room for the Bulldogs, a space to host and entertain prospects on game day, improvements to restroom and concession areas below the bridge, and a new scoreboard and upper plaza. The project is expected to take approximately 17 months to complete and is estimated to cost $63 million. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

As of this summer, Georgia’s football team moved into a new $80 million operations facility. It’s not finished yet, actually. The back half of the 165,000-square foot, three-story addition to the existing Butts-Mehre complex remains under construction. But the part that’s finished is a wonder to behold, according to all who have dwelled therein.

That building followed the 2018 completion of the $63 million Sanford Stadium West End renovation. That project included the construction of glitzy new game-day locker rooms for players and coaches, an expansive recruiting lounge that overlooks the tunnel the Bulldogs use to run out on to Dooley Field, a 5,200-square foot video board, and a $1 million LED light system.

That followed by a year the official christening of the William Porter Payne and Porter Otis Payne Indoor Practice Facility – aka “The House of Payne.” The massive $31 million structure, which required moving hundreds of tons of dirt to build on the football complex, already had been approved by UGA’s athletic board months before Smart’s late-night meeting with McGarity in December 2015 at the Renaissance.

For those keeping count, that’s $175 million in new facilities.

Seeking commitment

But this wasn’t just about buildings for Smart. It also was about skin-in-the game commitment. It was about top-to-bottom excellence in everything the Bulldogs were to undertake as a football program.

So, in short order, golf carts used for shuffling recruiting prospects around campus were replaced with black GMC Yukon sport-utility vehicles. Later, those were upgraded with Mercedes-Benz high-top sprinter vans.

New support staff was hired almost weekly, it seemed. People were needed to drive those vans, to host prospects’ families and give tours of campus. Others were needed to break down video of prospective recruits as well as the opposing teams set to play the Bulldogs in the fall. Digital equipment was needed to access and process all that video. Offices and desks were required for all those individuals to do their work.

Today, Georgia features one of the largest support staffs in America.

“I remember asking early on, ‘What do all these people do?’ ” McGarity said with laugh. “But after watching them work for a while, it all made sense. He personalized every visit.”

Rather than driving cars into the labyrinth of interstate-highway traffic to recruit the fertile fields of metro Atlanta, Smart and his coaches started renting helicopters to get around. Booking domestic flights out of busy Hartsfield-Jackson airport soon gave way to booking jets out of Fulton County’s Charlie Brown Field.

Not coincidentally, elite prospects out of Tacoma, Wash., Calabasas, Calif., and Las Vegas started to sign with the Bulldogs.

In the matter of a few years, Georgia’s recruiting budget, once middle-of-the-road in the SEC, climbed to the top of the conference. By 2019, the Bulldogs’ recruiting budget of $3.7 million surpassed every program in America by 2019, according to USA Today.

Smart will make $6.8 million this year as Georgia’s head coach. But just as important to him, his staff also is well-compensated. His 10 assistant coaches will make $7.75 million this year, an average of $775,000. With former South Carolina and Florida coach Will Muschamp recently joining his staff, the Bulldogs have four assistant coaches who have been college head coaches.

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Kirby Smart directs the G-Day Game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Kirby Smart directs the G-Day Game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Kirby Smart directs the G-Day Game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Athens. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

All these things were part of “the process” Smart learned over nine years while working under coach Nick Saban at Alabama. Now he was bringing that process to Georgia.

Smart entertained numerous offers to be a head coach during his final few years in Tuscaloosa. But he passed them over until he could find a place that would provide him the same advantages he enjoyed at Alabama. That his last offer came from his alma mater was a bonus, but he still needed those assurances.

McGarity said all those details weren’t specifically discussed during what was a two-hour meeting in the hotel suite.

“I just made the commitment that Georgia would commit to giving him whatever was necessary to go big,” McGarity said. “I told him we would support him, but he would need to define it, to give us a road map, for what that was. Those things are always determined by the coach, but it wasn’t, ‘I’m gonna need this and this and this.’”

Smart said that what Georgia has been doing in football is not extravagant. It’s simply necessary to compete at the highest levels of modern college football.

In other words, if Alabama and LSU are the beasts you want to vanquish, you best have similar weaponry.

“I certainly think we’ve been playing a little catch-up when it comes to the people in our conference,” Smart told donors at the dedication ceremony of the West End renovation. “A lot of the teams in the (SEC) West, obviously, have had these venues for years.”

Getting your worth

Of course, going big has to be funded, and Georgia’s fan base has been more than willing to help with that. For the third consecutive year – and one that included a pandemic -- the Bulldogs are expected to top $30 million in ticket revenue this year.

ExploreEach section in Sanford Stadium has a per-seat contribution requirement

Thanks in large part to the 2015 formation of a donor group known as the Magill Society, all of the aforementioned construction projects have been almost completely paid for by private funds. Other than $10 million from the UGA Athletic Association’s reserves, the stadium renovation and indoor practice facility will be paid off via that group’s five-year pledges. In February, new Athletic Director Josh Brooks reported to the board that $71.5 million of the $80 million needed to build the operations facility – or 89.4% -- already had been raised by Georgia’s development office.

As of 2021, the Magill Society’s ranks have swelled to more than 1,400 members. Each pledges a minimum of $5,000 a year over a five-year period to UGA athletics. They get a point and a half per dollar donated toward ticket priority. But there are tiers within that entity, with donors in a group called The Hedges pledging $100,000 or more per year. Those in the exclusive Silver Circle club have to have given at least $1 million to belong.

In short, the Bulldogs have an extremely motivated donor base.

“They’re definitely a loyal fan base, for sure,” said Matt Borman, Georgia’s deputy athletic director for development before leaving for LSU in April. “They want to help and support anyway they can. Obviously, they’ve given at a high rate over the last four years.”

Now entering his sixth season as Georgia’s football coach, it is clear that Smart now has everything he could possibly need to win. His coaching staff is one of the highest-paid in the country. His recruiting classes all have been rated among the top six in the country, finishing No. 1 two times. And for the fourth season in a row under Smart, the Bulldogs open the season ranked among the nation’s top five teams in preseason polls. They were No. 5 in the coaches’ poll released Tuesday.

Georgia already has reaped some benefits. It won the SEC championship in 2017 and played for it the next two years. The Bulldogs reached the national championship game in January 2018 ,but came up short in the most heart-wrenching way imaginable, losing to Alabama in overtime.

But after failing to win the SEC East last year and missing the College Football Playoff for the second consecutive season, the worm is starting to turn in the minds of some when it comes to the Bulldogs’ program under Smart. Earlier this week, ESPN senior writer Adam Rittenberg ranked Georgia No. 1 in his poll of underachiever teams.

“There are certain programs in college football that just can’t seem to break through, at least not recently, despite some inherent traits (location, history, resources) that set them up for success,” Rittenberg wrote. “How does a program with Georgia’s natural advantages go four decades without winning it all?”

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Aerial view of University of Georgia's sports facilities including new indoor Athletic Facility and new $80 million football operations building (center) on Friday, June 11, 2021. The UGA's athletic department simply is committed to too many other facility projects that have precedence at the moment. Most notable is the $80 million football operations building that has been added to the Butts-Mehre complex. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Aerial view of University of Georgia's sports facilities including new indoor Athletic Facility and new $80 million football operations building (center) on Friday, June 11, 2021. The UGA's athletic department simply is committed to too many other facility projects that have precedence at the moment. Most notable is the $80 million football operations building that has been added to the Butts-Mehre complex. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

caption arrowCaption
Aerial view of University of Georgia's sports facilities including new indoor Athletic Facility and new $80 million football operations building (center) on Friday, June 11, 2021. The UGA's athletic department simply is committed to too many other facility projects that have precedence at the moment. Most notable is the $80 million football operations building that has been added to the Butts-Mehre complex. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

That’s the national narrative for Georgia football heading into Year 6 under Smart. “He better win a natty soon or he’s going to be in trouble,” pundits scrawl.

McGarity was an administrator on Georgia’s staff when the Bulldogs last won a national championship in 1980 and he was part of three titles as associate AD at Florida before returning to UGA in 2010. So that’s always the end goal.

But he insists that winning it all was not part of the deal that he brokered that night at the airport hotel.

“Kirby asked me that night, ‘What are you expecting?’” McGarity said. “And I remember saying, ‘Just to be competitive every year and be in the hunt for an SEC championship.’ That’s what the expectation was. It’s never been, ‘You better win A, B, C.’ If I said that, he probably wouldn’t have come. I just said we’re going to support you and give you whatever you need.”

While that is the type of measured objective one might expect from an administrator, it’s also the expectation of those who contribute to the Bulldogs at the highest level.

Atlanta’s Gary Hill made a fortune in commercial real estate, then as an investor. A longtime executive committee member of UGA’s athletic board, dating to Vince Dooley’s time as athletic director, he remains an active emeritus member.

Hill also is a longtime Silver Circle member as a donor. Here’s what he said he expects from a lifetime of support of his alma mater’s football program:

“I don’t want to come off as I’m saying it’s now or never, because that’s not how I feel,” Hill said. “We want to be in there year in and year out competing for a national championship. When we get the bounce of the ball to go our way, our time will come.

“Up until now, I think you could make the argument that we haven’t had as good of players or as good of facilities and maybe not even as good of coaching as the people who have been winning it instead of us. But, as of today, I don’t think you can make that argument. I think we’re right there with everybody. We just need the ball to bounce our way.”

Hill added that he still firmly believes that Smart is the right man for that job.