Much was expected of Kirby Smart, who has delivered even more

December 7, 2015 Athens, GA: Kirby Smart, right, was given a "Go get em" and a pat on the back by UGA Director of Athletics Greg McGarity before Smart was introduced as the new coach of the University of Georgia during a press conference Monday December 7, 2015. Smart was a former UGA player and coach. Smart replaced Mark Richt after 15 seasons at the helm of the Bulldogs. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Mark Bradley

Credit: Mark Bradley

December 7, 2015 Athens, GA: Kirby Smart, right, was given a "Go get em" and a pat on the back by UGA Director of Athletics Greg McGarity before Smart was introduced as the new coach of the University of Georgia during a press conference Monday December 7, 2015. Smart was a former UGA player and coach. Smart replaced Mark Richt after 15 seasons at the helm of the Bulldogs. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Even the man who hired Kirby Smart didn’t see this coming. “No,” Greg McGarity said this week. “Not at this astonishing level.”

Eight years ago this weekend, Georgia’s athletic director met with Smart at the Hyatt Regency on Peachtree – Alabama had just beaten Florida in the Georgia Dome for the SEC title – to finalize a hire McGarity knew would define his career. Mark Richt had been fired after 15 seasons of winning everything except a national championship. The Bulldogs were in search of the coach who’d win everything.

As Alabama’s defensive coordinator under Nick Saban, Smart had been part of three national titles. Even after taking the Georgia job, he’d stick around and help the Crimson Tide win another. On the morning after Bama beat Clemson in Glendale, Arizona, the UGA alum set up shop in Athens. The quest to unseat his former employer had begun.

“Familiarity was so critical,” McGarity said. “There were no unknowns with Kirby as far as who he was, what he stood for. He was a student at Georgia, an athlete at Georgia. (We’d seen) what he had done recruiting in the state of Georgia against Georgia. He had been on Mark’s staff briefly at Georgia. There were no unknowns there. President (Jere) Morehead taught Kirby in a class.”

That night in the Hyatt, there were few pleasantries. “There was no getting-to-know each other type of conversation,” McGarity said. “It wasn’t, ‘Tell us your story.’ It was more or less, ‘What do we need to do to be competitive on a national level?’”

Georgia will play Saturday for its third SEC title under Smart. Should the Bulldogs win, they surely will be seeded No. 1 in their pursuit of a third consecutive national championship. Only Minnesota is credited with a title three-peat, though nobody under 80 was around to bear witness.

The Bulldogs have won 29 games in succession, the longest streak in SEC annals. Their last loss was Dec. 4, 2021. It was administered by Alabama, the opponent they’ll face Saturday. Now, though, Georgia is favored. It’s ranked No. 1 to Bama’s No. 8.

Richt’s winning percentage at Georgia was .740. That was better than Vince Dooley, better than Wally Butts. Smart’s is .861. Among coaches who have worked at least seven seasons, it’s the fifth-highest in college history. It’s better than Bear Bryant’s. Heck, it’s better than Saban’s.

Smart’s first season saw Georgia lose to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs are 85-10 since. They’ve held the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press poll for 22 weeks, a run topped only by USC. They’ve won the SEC East six times in seven years. They’re 5-1 in College Football Playoff games, the loss coming in overtime against Alabama in a game played Jan. 8, 2018. It seems ancient history.

Getting past Alabama meant Georgia, at some point, had to beat Alabama. On Jan. 10, 2022, Smart’s Bulldogs outscored the Tide 20-0 over the final nine minutes to win the CFP title. The transformation was complete.

McGarity resigned as Georgia’s AD – it was his choice; he wasn’t pushed – in December 2020. He’s now president of the Gator Bowl. He has seen the Bulldogs in person only twice since he exited, both times against Florida in Jacksonville. With bowl pairings coming Sunday, he won’t be at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday. Besides, he said, “I don’t want to do anything to mess up the karma.”

On paper, the Smart hire looked sound: Who better to do as Saban had done than Saban’s longest-serving assistant? But ADs have plucked from the Saban tree for almost two decades and, apart from Smart, only Jimbo Fisher has delivered a national title. (That came at Florida State in 2013. Texas A&M just bought out Fisher for delivering much less.)

McGarity knew even a home-run hire mightn’t have been enough for long-suffering Georgia, but today he rests easy. Smart hasn’t just taken the Bulldogs where they needed to go; he has lifted them to heights few programs have ever seen. “Certainly,” McGarity said, “he has exceeded any expectations that might have been in play.”

There’s only one word for what Smart has done, and it’s McGarity’s word. That word, again, is “astonishing.”

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