Bradley’s Buzz: Kirby Smart and the limits of a coach’s ‘control’

Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart speaks to members of the press during a press conference at the Butts-Mehre Building ahead of spring practice, Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in Athens, Georgia. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart speaks to members of the press during a press conference at the Butts-Mehre Building ahead of spring practice, Tuesday, March 14, 2023, in Athens, Georgia. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 19, 2023, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution modified an article that was linked to this column, including the headline, several paragraphs and a quotation. A sentence has also been removed from this column. The AJC explains the reason for these actions here.

A coach of a successful Power 5 program once expressed a desire to give the NBA a try. I asked why he’d want to work in league where players make more money than coaches. He said, “Because you don’t get that call in the middle of the night. That call goes to their agent.”

Kirby Smart makes $11.25 million to coach Georgia. In the wee hours of Jan. 15, Smart took the call every coach dreads. Twelve hours after the Bulldogs celebrated a second consecutive national title with a parade that ended at Sanford Stadium, a car driven at high speed by a recruiting staffer crashed. The staffer, Chandler LeCroy, died. A player, Devin Willock, died.

Six months later, Smart is still fielding questions about his program. Why have so many Bulldogs been arrested for driving above the speed limit, often well above? Does the coach who has won 33 of the past 34 games care about anything except winning games?

On Tuesday, Smart and Georgia athletic director Josh Brooks met an invitation-only group of journalists. The intent was to address a story that, owing to an AJC investigation, has deepened over the months – and surely to go on record ahead of next week’s SEC Media Days, where the audience will be beyond the Bulldogs’ control.

Said Smart: “I’m a firm believer our program is a good program.”

And: “We do a wonderful job of educating our players about sexual misconduct.”

And: “We do not tolerate sexual misconduct in our program.”

What’s he going to say? “Having lost all control of my players, I resign and forfeit my 10-figure salary”? Even if Smart was one for mea culpas – he’s not – a right-thinking person might rightly wonder, “In this era of NIL money and the transfer portal, how much control can a coach have?”

Should Smart seize his players’ car keys and enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew? How many prized recruits would he sign then? How many championships would be won by a roster staffed by lesser recruits? How secure is a coach who goes from winning it all to winning less?

In March, Smart said: “We’ve got complete control of our program.”

On Tuesday, he said: “I’ll be the first to admit we haven’t solved that (speeding) issue or problem. I don’t know that anybody has, but for us it’s important to acknowledge it first.”

College players are human beings. Young human beings tend to view themselves as immortal. NIL has handed 18-to-22-year-olds above-the-table money to buy, as Smart noted, faster cars. You expected a collegian’s dream ride to be a Volvo? You expected a collegian not to want to drive a fast car fast?

Said Smart: “It’s not necessarily the volume of the speeding tickets. It’s the speed of the speeding tickets. … High speeds, according to the Georgia State Patrol, which talked to our team, is where you get the biggest accidents.”

Georgia has the grimmest evidence possible. LeCroy was driving 104 mph. She died in the crash. Willock died. Passenger Tory Bowles was badly injured. Lawsuits have been filed. Jalen Carter, Willock’s teammate, pleaded no contest to charges of racing and reckless driving. Seen as a possible No. 1 overall pick, Carter went ninth in the NFL draft.

And yet: At least eight Bulldogs have been stopped for speeding since Jan. 15. Receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint was stopped three times, twice in Florida, over eight days.

Smart again: “I wish we could prevent speeding issues and learn from a horrific and tragic event.”

Note the word choice: “I wish.” That’s a powerful coach conceding that his control over players ends when one sits in the driver’s seat. That’s not just a football thing. That’s the chilling reality every parent faces.

This isn’t to give Smart a pass. It’s his program. He picked these players. For good and ill, what they do reflects on not just a coach but a university. Smart’s inclination to ascribe great power to his wisdom made him slow to grasp the limits of his disciplinary ways. His eyes have since been opened.

Whatever he’s doing hasn’t worked. In four months, he has gone from “complete control” to “I wish.”

The Bulldogs must do better. Not to get melodramatic, but lives are at stake.

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