It seemed like about as many came out for the parade this time. Fewer made their way into Sanford Stadium, which required a free ticket ordered online. But the fans that came in for the official program still managed to fill the entire lower bowl, from the east end moving north around to the south.
More of Dooley Field was utilized for seating dignitaries and donors. Support for the Georgia football program has kept pace with coach Kirby Smart’s rapidly rising star, which saw his career record reach 81-15 in seven seasons as the Bulldogs’ coach after the just-completed 15-0 season. That outpaces his mentor, Nick Saban, over the same span, by the way.
Black folding chairs extended 85 yards, from 15-yard line to 15-yard line across the playing surface. An expansive black stage flanked by bleachers filled with the players who did the work for the third perfect season in Georgia history (joining 1946 and 1980) fittingly was situated in front of the Bulldogs’ home sideline, facing the north stands.
Speakers included Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, UGA President Jere Morehead, Athletic Director Josh Brooks and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. But it was Smart who everybody wanted to hear. Introduced by Morehead, the Bulldogs’ coach was greeted with an extended standing ovation.
“This is a special group,” he said, gesturing to the players sitting in bleachers on either side of the stage. “Most of these young men sat on this stage last year. Every one of them took advantage of the opportunity in front of them. I didn’t hear one guy – not even our very own David Pollack – say that this team would make the playoffs. But they had something different in their minds.”
That comment was in keeping with a sort of revisionist-history theme that was perpetuated inside the Georgia football complex that this team was somehow disrespected and nobody believed in them. The truth is, the Bulldogs opened the 2022 campaign ranked No. 3, and that was the lowest they would be ranked all season.
Star quarterback Stetson Bennett parroted that message. When asked on stage what was the thing he was most proud, he ranted, “Y’all burned us. Y’all kept telling us how bad were going to be. … Then we kept winning and kept embarrassing people, and it was 49-3 and 65-7. I don’t get it. But, screw it, we’ve got two rings, man.”
There were some more poignant comments and moments of levity. Morehead, for instance, turned toward the student section to say of winning back-to-back national championships, “I want you to know this has not always been the case at our institution.”
Kemp, fresh off his second inauguration, paid homage to Smart by espousing the many catchphrases the head coach has created during his tenure.
“Coach Smart is more than a coach,” Kemp said. “He is a teacher, a motivator, a counselor and a professor of the gridiron. He has taught all of us to keep chopping wood, to be wary of pride, to do the duty that lies nearest, to pull in the same direction, that iron sharpens iron, to attack the day, to be connected and be elite.”
At the end of the program, Smart was presented with the four trophies that come with being the undisputed national champion: The McArthur Bowl, the AFCA Coaches’ Crystal Ball, the Associated Press Champions Trophy and, finally, the now-familiar, shiny, gold oblong trophy for the College Football Playoff championship.
“You know, there’s only nine of these, and you have two of them,” CFP chief executive Bill Hancock said during the handoff.
“This is all of ours,” Smart replied. “Love it!”
The trophy presentations and all the speeches were just the cherry on top of an afternoon full of celebration. The real fun was happening two hours earlier on Lumpkin Street, where tens of thousands of fans lined the famous roadway trying to sneak a glimpse, snap a picture or sometimes even interact with their favorite Bulldogs.
Smart and his wife, Mary Beth, rode on the back of a BMW convertible, with their youngest son Andrew bouncing back and forth between the front seat and sitting with his parents. Behind them was another convertible carrying the Hairy Dawg mascot, then came the real stars.
Behind that one was the car carrying Bennett, Christopher Smith and Sedrick Van Pran. Wearing a red sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase “Them Dawgs Is Hell,” Bennett had less parade interaction with the fans than he did last year, when he often hopped off the bed of a pickup truck to pose for selfies. This time, the two-time championship-game MVP waved from a distance on the parade route.
Georgia’s defensive line trailed behind Bennett in the back of a red pickup. Most of Bennett’s offensive line was on the top of an Athens-Clarke County fire engine. Several other pickups followed, with the bulk of the 100-player squad sitting on haybales atop trailers pulled behind 18-wheelers.
Wide receiver Arian Smith shook a champagne bottle and let the contents spew onto the street. Smart led the “Call the Dawgs” cheer for fans before leaving the parade route to proceed to the stadium. Every action brought forth cheers.
Bennett got busy on the lengthy, specially-created Dawg Walk route from Lumpkin through the Zell Miller Learning Center quadrangle and Tate Center Bookstore plaza. He stopped for pictures with fans, played a Redcoat Band members’ trumpet and grabbed a drum-liners sticks and ratta-tatted out a few beats before hustling inside the stadium. When it came to obliging the many TV reporters inside the ropes, Bennett was as elusive as when under defensive pressure, dodging microphones like defensive ends.
Other Bulldogs stopped to talk, red-carpet style. Some turned up miniature bottles of alcohol in full view of TV cameras following their every move. This was, for them, mostly a party.
When Smart was leaving the field at SoFi Stadium following the Bulldogs’ trouncing of TCU, he hoisted three fingers to the Georgia fan section and yelled “let’s make it three!”
He has been more guarded about the prospect of a 3-peat since then, and was Saturday as well.
“It’s easy to try to have a peak performance,” he said. “Achieving success is hard, really hard. Sustaining success is even harder. … Only a select few can maintain a true standard of excellence like this group has done.”