Florida again needs a new coach. Blame Kirby Smart

Georgia hired Mark Richt in December 2000. Only once since have the Bulldogs needed a new football coach. Florida, the only SEC East program with the resources to match Georgia’s, just launched its sixth search of the 21st Century.

Gator fans can still brag about national championships – Florida has won three since the Bulldogs won in 1980 – but that’s where the strutting ends. Florida finished 2-6 in SEC play. Eleven months after his Gators graced the SEC championship game, Dan Mullen is out of work.

Georgia has won the SEC East four of the past five seasons. Florida has won it three times since 2010, when Urban Meyer embarked on his first retirement. The Gators haven’t reached the College Football Playoff. Georgia made the field in 2017 and just missed in 2018. Unless the Bulldogs contrive to lose to Georgia Tech, they’ll make it again this year.

This is Smart’s sixth season in Athens. His teams have lost nine games over five years. Florida has lost nine games since Dec. 11, 2020. Remember when the Gators thumped Georgia last season, prompting some – that’s my hand you see raised – to declare they’d caught and passed the Bulldogs? It was but another in a series of false Florida dawns.

Steve Spurrier left Gainesville in January 2002 to coach the NFL’s Washington franchise. Of the five Florida coaches post-Spurrier, only Meyer lasted past Year 4. Ron Zook and Jim McElwain were gone in three. Will Muschamp and Mullen were gone before their fourth seasons ended. Florida is among the five best jobs in the land. Why is it so hard to fill?

Time was, every SEC school sought the next Nick Saban. As we speak, most every program in the land would be happy with the next Smart. Richt won 10-plus games nine times over 15 seasons, which was very good. Smart has won 10-plus games four times in six. (Due to COVID, Georgia played only 10 games last season.)

Smart is 45. He didn’t become a head coach until 2-1/2 weeks before his 40th birthday. Today he’s third among SEC coaches in seniority, trailing Saban and Kentucky’s Mark Stoops. LSU went 15-0 and won the national championship two seasons ago; it has a vacancy. Tennessee has had three coaches since Georgia hired Smart. Florida is in search of its third coach since Georgia hired Smart.

What happened with Saban coaching tree is happening with Smart’s assistants. Mel Tucker – who spent one year under Saban and three under Smart – has done fine work at Michigan State. Sam Pittman, head coach at Arkansas, spent four years with Smart in Athens. Shane Beamer, HC at South Carolina, spent two. Next up: defensive coordinator Dan Lanning.

It’s hard to imagine Smart leaving Athens for another college job. This is his alma mater. His wishes are the administration’s commands. Georgia has finished second, seventh, fourth and ninth in the final Associated Press poll over the past four years. The Bulldogs are a unanimous No. 1 today. There’s nothing Smart can win somewhere else that isn’t winnable at Georgia.

We stipulate that Smart works in the SEC, where fortunes turn in an instant. The Auburn team beaten by Smart’s Bulldogs for the 2017 league title was coached by Gus Malzahn, who got a seven-year contract extension worth $49 million after the loss. He’s at UCF, his former employer having spent the next three seasons trying to figure a way to buy him out. Malzahn succeeded Gene Chizik at Auburn, Chizik having been dumped two years after winning the national title. The same just happened to Ed Orgeron at LSU.

Since Georgia hired Smart, six different coaches have taken teams to the SEC championship game. Only two – Smart and Saban – remain in place. Over the past five years, Georgia has won the East more times than Alabama has won the West. (To be fair, the West is a tougher division. Also: Bama won national titles in January 2018 and 2021.) Georgia hired Smart to do for it as Saban has done for the Tide. Smart has achieved everything except a national championship. That could arrive around midnight Jan. 10.

The best measure of Smart’s success is the behavior of Georgia’s biggest rival. One day after Florida lost in Jacksonville 42-7, McElwain was fired. That was in 2017. In 2021, Florida lost to Georgia 34-7. Three weeks later, Mullen was fired. Granted, both are odd birds: McElwain had his “death threats”; Mullen didn’t deign to discuss recruiting. Still, when the snooty Gators run through coaches the way George Steinbrenner went through managers, something has gotten under that reptilian skin.

And here every Georgia fan says, “Heh, heh.”

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