A coach named Smart has made Georgia wise in the ways of winning

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

It was 2016, the Monday before Labor Day. Kirby Smart was readying his first Georgia team for its opener against North Carolina in the Georgia Dome. At his pregame media session, he was asked about Georgia’s most recent appearance in the Dome. He said he didn’t remember the game, which was a fib.

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The game had matched No. 3 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama for the 2012 SEC title. It was a de facto BCS semifinal. The Crimson Tide, with Smart as defensive coordinator, beat the Bulldogs 32-28. The frantic fracas ended on a play that lives in both schools’ lore. Aaron Murray’s pass was tipped by the blitzing C.J. Mosley and caught on the 5-yard-line by receiver Chris Conley. Because UGA had no more timeouts, the clock hit 0:00.

On a Monday in 2016, Smart could have turned to the whiteboard and sketched the play the Bulldogs ran and how his defenders countered. He’d called a double blitz off Georgia’s right flank – a “green dog,” in Tide parlance. Mosley did as directed, leaping above Todd Gurley’s block to deflect Murray’s delivery. Defensive back Geno Matias-Smith should have blitzed, too, but for some reason he latched onto Conley. This led to the receiver stumbling.

For Bama, it was serendipity. For Georgia, the narrow loss was one among several that led Greg McGarity to hire Smart to do what Mark Richt hadn’t done – play for a national title. On Aug. 29, 2016, Smart had no time for Memory Lane. He had business to attend, a program to resurrect. Next question, please.

The greater point – with Smart, there’s always a greater point – is that he didn’t come here to win Mr. Congeniality. He came to win, period. He has one national title. He could have another by midnight Monday.

I have no doubt he remembers every defensive set he ever called, same as Greg Maddux recalls every pitch he threw. Smart is – pun intended – wicked smart, and I don’t mean smart by football-coach standards. I mean Mensa-smart. Like Nick Saban, like Mike Krzyzewski, he’d have succeeded in whatever vocation he chose.

How do we know what Smart called his double-blitz back at Bama? Because, at media day before the Alabama played Notre Dame for 2012 title, he stood still for every question this correspondent posed about that final play. As is the case with Smart’s Georgia assistants, Saban’s staffers spoke only at pre-bowl media sessions. Back then, Smart had plenty of time to talk.

When you’re a head coach, you’re talking all the time. It can get old fast. But it’s funny. Ask Bill Belichick about the next game and you’ll get 10 words. Ask about some arcane part of football, and he’ll perform a soliloquy.

Smart can be wonky that way. At halftime against Ohio State, he didn’t give a Gipper speech. He said this: “We have way more rushing yards than they do. When you look at College Football Playoff games, the team that runs the ball better wins almost 95% of the time.”

Afterward, he wasn’t giddy over the breathless victory. He expects his team to win. His players, he believes, have been taught the right way. The right way for Smart is a blend of the old – run the ball, stop the run, pass off play-action – and the new. The sleekest offenses make defenses cover the length and breadth of the field. Georgia is great at spreading out opponents. Oh, and Stetson Bennett throws a nice deep ball.

Aristotle learned from Plato, who learned from Socrates. Smart learned from Saban, but Smart also learned from his dad, Sonny, who’d been a high-school coach, and from Chris Hatcher, his boss at Valdosta State, who ran the Air Raid as Hal Mumme’s quarterback. Smart has taken a lifetime of learning and bundled it.

The biggest moment of the Ohio State game was the timeout Smart called because he saw the Buckeyes aligning themselves in a way that looked odd. The fake punt would have brought a key first down, but the snap came a millisecond after Smart got his TO. “One of those gut reactions,” he said. “I didn’t think we had it lined up properly to stop it.”

A lifetime of watching football – and film, and more film – triggered a gut reaction in one of the biggest games of a coach’s life. Why is Georgia playing for the national championship for a third time in six years? Because their coach is named Smart. Because he is smart.