Kirby Smart: He’s smart. He’s successful. He’s also underrated

12/31/21 - Miami Gardens - Georgia head coach Kirby Smart takes a bite out of an orange after beating Michigan 34-11 to win the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium to advance to the national championship game on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, in Miami Gardens.     Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

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12/31/21 - Miami Gardens - Georgia head coach Kirby Smart takes a bite out of an orange after beating Michigan 34-11 to win the Orange Bowl at Hard Rock Stadium to advance to the national championship game on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, in Miami Gardens. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@

It’s the morning of Jan. 11, 2022. Georgia has just won its first national championship since Jan. 1, 1981. The Bulldogs beat Alabama 31-27 the night before. A gracious-in-defeat Alabama fan says to a UGA backer: “Great game, huh?”

Says the UGA fan, shrugging: “We’d have won by 20 if we’d played the right quarterback.”

Says another UGA fan, having overheard the discussion: “We’d have won four in a row if we’d played Justin Fields.”

This is, we emphasize, an imagined conversation. (The part about a gracious Bama fan was meant as a tipoff.) That’s not to say such a dialogue is entirely fanciful. The run-up to the Orange Bowl saw Georgia’s coaches having to defend their choice of quarterback. That quarterback would become the game’s offensive MVP. Postgame coverage held that the unloved Stetson Bennett had Proved His Coaches Right.

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Credit: ArLuther Lee

Credit: ArLuther Lee

But this, we also emphasize, isn’t yet another in a string of Stetson-Bennett-Isn’t-Really-So-Bad missives. We’ll save that for when he’s named offensive MVP of the College Football Playoff final. This is about Kirby Smart, the best coach ever to be deemed an utter imbecile.

This will mark Georgia’s second appearance in the national championship game in four seasons. Smart was hired to take the Bulldogs where Mark Richt could not. (Had there been a playoff in place a decade earlier, things might have been different.) Smart’s record as a head coach – which he’d never been before 2016 – is 65-15. His record over the past five seasons is 57-10. That’s a winning percentage of .851.

And yet: His record against Alabama is 0-4. That’s a losing percentage of 1.000.

Smart isn’t the easiest guy to defend. If he has admitted being wrong about anything, the moment has eluded this observer. He’s stubborn. He enjoys having the last word. (Name a coach who doesn’t.) The fake field goal in Baton Rouge was a great call. The fake punt against Bama was greater still. It wasn’t his fault neither ploy worked.

Still, Nick Saban lost to Auburn on a no-chance field goal that was returned for the winning touchdown. Saban saw a fake kick snuffed by Clemson in the championship game two years ago. No coach wins ‘em all. John Wooden was in his 14th UCLA season before his Bruins reached the Final Four, which wasn’t yet known as such. He would retire with 10 national championships.

We grade coaches on their records, duh, but over time their records are a function of process. Smart has done everything Georgia could have asked – dominate the SEC East, recruit at the highest level, hire capable assistant coaches – except beat Alabama/Saban. We note for the record that Saban is the greatest coach in the history of college football. He’s also 70. He can’t coach forever.

Smart is 46. He can go a good while longer. It’s unknown what program will be the next Alabama – there mightn’t be a next Alabama – but any list of possibilites must include Georgia. That’s how well Smart has built.

Had Saban not changed quarterbacks at halftime on the night of Jan. 8, 2018, we’d view Smart differently. He’d have been a national champ in Year 2. He’d have answered the questions – about beating Bama/Saban – we still pose today. But that narrow loss, followed by another narrow loss to the same opponent 11 months later, threw open the door to second-guessing. Should Fields have been promoted above Jake Fromm? Didn’t Dabo Swinney have the foresight to pick Trevor Lawrence over Kelly Bryant? Isn’t JT Daniels a bigger talent than Bennett, the former walk-on?

All of which leads to this: Is Smart a coach who gets the little things right but botches the big thing? The belief here is that a coach whose team is in contention for a championship most every year will, sooner or later, become a championship coach. How long did it take Tom Osborne? Were Smart regarded in the industry as someone lacking in brainpower, would so many sharp assistants and gifted recruits keep hitching their wagons to his? Would those players perform with such focused fury and attention to detail?

Georgia has won 13 games this season. Only the first, against Clemson on a neutral field, was close. In the Bulldogs’ loss, they led 10-0. Then Alabama – of course it was Alabama – came storming back, and we all, this correspondent included, wondered why Daniels wasn’t deployed. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken said last week that sticking with Bennett was his choice, but nothing about Georgia football isn’t subject to the head coach’s veto.

Five weeks later, here we are again. The sport’s dominant program against its closest facsimile. Teacher against pupil. Georgia fans – well, some Georgia fans – live in fear of the moment when Saban will do something smart and Smart will do something dumb. Still, it’s noteworthy that the cold-eyed folks who set the Vegas line have reinstalled the Bulldogs as favorites.

Smart makes $7 million a year. His administration has given him whatever he wants. His record tells us he’s among the best in his cutthroat business. There’s no way such a coach should be underrated by a subset of constituents, but doggone if that’s not how it feels.

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