Passion, perseverance, master motivator, aggressive, leader and builder of young men, and an unyielding work ethic.
All attributes that aptly define the makeup of Kirby Smart, who has taken the University of Georgia to the top of the college football world and fashioned a 66-15 (.815 winning %) head coaching record in his six years at the helm of the Bulldogs.
But Smart, who steered Georgia to a 33-18 win over Alabama in the CFP National Championship Game Jan. 10 in Indianapolis, Indiana and has taken the Bulldogs to two national title game appearances while posting bowl wins in the Liberty, Rose, Sugar, Peach, and Orange, didn’t acquire all those leadership qualities just in his All-SEC playing days and head coaching tenure at Georgia.
Or even in his assistant coaching time at Valdosta State, Florida State, LSU, Georgia, the Miami Dolphins, and Alabama, where he worked under legendary Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban for nine years, the last seven of those being as defensive coordinator.
Nope, one has to go back to Smart’s childhood days – while growing up on the dusty ball fields of Bainbridge, Georgia, a small community with a population of 14,468 that is tucked away in the extreme southwest corner of the state … just a long punt from the Alabama and Florida state lines.
It was there, in Decatur County, where Kirby Smart’s early signs of developing into a future leader began to emerge.
And, mind you, we’re not talking simply on the athletic fields here but, more importantly, in the academic realm as well. Smart, as a young boy, was a go-getter in about every endeavor he undertook.
“I have said this before and I’m sure it’s out there somewhere, when Kirby went into the 9th grade he set himself a goal to be valedictorian of his class,” recalled Sharon Smart, Kirby’s mother. “Well, he did not get valedictorian, he ended up being Salutatorian. That night at his high school graduation, he talked to his fellow seniors and he was challenging them saying, ‘If you set your goal, you might not make it but look where he ended up…second in the class. He couldn’t stand it if he didn’t do the best academically.”
A desire to compete and be good
“Well, I don’t know I can draw the specifics … he always loved to play ball of course,” said Sonny Smart, Kirby’s dad. ” He was always willing to work at it. He just had a desire to compete and a desire to be good. He wanted to be good at whatever he did. That was just always there in everything he did. It wasn’t just any one particular thing. He would come get me to take him out to the rec fields and hit ground balls to him, just extra practice where he would do a lot of work to be good.
Sonny Smart said his son didn’t play football until the sixth grade in school.
“The rec department then really didn’t have football but we did it through the school system and we started with sixth grade. He started playing football there and he was a good player all the way through, He was an exceptional baseball player, he was really good from the time he started playing. He was a gifted athlete but he had a real good understanding of everything that was going on. He was kind of a coach on the field from the time he was nine years old.
Sonny Smart coached at Bainbridge High a total of 13 years. “We came to Bainbridge in 1982. I was five years as the defensive coordinator and eight years as the head coach. Kirby’s senior year, we lost in the Class 4-semifinals to Dunwoody, which went on to win the state that year. We had a real good season that year.
“In high school, he only played safety,” he said. “He played some quarterback in junior high up until the 9th grade. With us at varsity level, we worked him some there as a backup role but he never played. He was our safety and our kind of guy on defense who lined everybody up, that type thing. Kirby was a really good player.
Smart said Kirby didn’t start as a sophomore but played a lot in different situations. “He then started at safety his junior and senior years. My assistant coaches always would tell me I should have been playing him more. Like I say, Kirby was the guy back there that lined everybody up, made the calls on defense, made the adjustments. He was the guy and along with being a good athlete, he had a great understanding of what you were trying to do. He knew the whole picture, knew where everybody was supposed to line up and what their assignments were.”
Not a highly recruited player
The young Smart had several offers to play college football and took a few visits but had his mind set firmly on the school in Athens.
“Kirby wanted to go to Georgia from the time he was five years old,” said Sonny. “Georgia didn’t really offer him a scholarship until late in the recruiting cycle. He was actually up there on an official visit when Coach (Ray) Goff offered him a scholarship. Of course, he accepted it immediately and went to Georgia.”
Smart was to redshirt his first year at Georgia in 1994 and didn’t dress for any of the home games.
“He was discouraged but he then had an outstanding spring practice and going into that redshirt freshman year, he called us before that first game and told us he thought he might play a little bit,” recalled Sonny Smart. “He was on some special teams and that was the game against South Carolina where he had three sacks in that game and from then on, he gained confidence in himself and his coaches gained confidence in him. He knew what to do and could play and from that point on, he played a lot and was a good leader back there, same as he was in high school. He made the calls and adjustments…that’s just Kirby and always has been.”
Smart was named the First Team All-SEC safety in his senior season in 1998. He recorded 13 interceptions in his Bulldog career and led the SEC in picks in his final season. Smart was the first player in UGA history – since the rule was introduced in 1988 – to return a blocked PAT for two points, running the blocked kick back 88 yards against New Mexico State in his redshirt freshman season in 1995.
“I wanted to say that when Kirby started playing, we went to every one of his games but one and we got to see these wonderful SEC campuses,” said Sharon Smart. “We just really love the SEC and you could do a whole article on the campuses and the traditions. We traveled and it was just so much fun, and there was a group of parents that we would always try to feed those guys (UGA players) afterwards if it was a home game. I mean they were hungry and we were excited to see them and all the mommas prepared for those boys. And now when we go to a tailgate – and we don’t do much tailgating—I’m no longer feeding those big ol’ guys. We’re feeding the kids of those guys. We have treats and things for those little boys. Our Andrew (Kirby and wife Mary Beth’s youngest son) and some of them do games out there in the parking lot behind Clark Howell. It’s been such a beautiful transition to Kirby being the little boy playing then to coaching and now seeing his kids out there,” she said.
Great memories of 2017 season
The Smarts, prior to watching their son coach the Bulldogs to a 14-1 record and the 33-18 CFP National Championship win over Alabama this past season, still have special memories of the 2017 season when Smart’s second Georgia team won at Notre Dame, captured the SEC title, won the Rose Bowl in a CFP semifinal game by 54-48 over Oklahoma in one of the most dramatic college games ever played, and then went into overtime in the national championship game against Alabama before losing a 26-24 heartbreaker.
“Oh, my goodness, going to the Rose Bowl that year and also to Notre Dame, seeing Touchdown Jesus, that was on my bucket list,” said Sharon Smart. “That was special.”
“That was just an exceptional year for Georgia fans and Kirby,” said Sonny Smart. ” But you know, you think of all the history there at the University of Georgia. Had they ever played before at Notre Dame? Then the Rose Bowl, back years ago southeastern teams went to the Rose Bowl but in recent history, that just didn’t happen. So that was a very special year. And then winning both games was tremendous.”
No doubts Kirby would make a great coach
“We never had a doubt Kirby could be successful in coaching,” said Sonny. “We didn’t really know that’s what he wanted to do. I don’t think he knew until he got started in it, that that’s what he wanted to do. But he’s always been around coaches and competition in football and when that opportunity came, I really think he felt like I’ll try this and if it doesn’t work out, I could always do something else. But if you go another route, you might not be able to come back to that.
“Kirby has been blessed with a great background. At Georgia he had a great background, especially with Coach (Joe) Kines defensively who worked a lot with him. Then when he went to Valdosta State, he was there with Will (Muschamp). Well, Will had the background of working with a guy named Brother Oliver, who was at Alabama and Auburn. Will had been with him for several years. Then Kirby goes to Florida State and he’s exposed to two years of working directly with Mickey Andrews and Coach (Bobby) Bowden. Coach Kines was the guy that got Kirby to come to Florida State. Then he has that and then he goes to Nick Saban for those years. So when he became the head coach at Georgia, he was well prepared. Kirby had seen a lot of great things and also the things that maybe didn’t work. Kirby’s an intelligent guy and he’s able to take the good and make things his way. And he was primed and he was ready. It was kind of the perfect storm. He really had a good network and background of training to be ready for this position.”
Even after the crushing 2017 national championship loss to the Crimson Tide, there was no doubt in the Smart family that their son would soon have the Bulldogs back in the fight for a national crown.
“We had the confidence he would do that, for several reasons,” said Sonny Smart. “For one, he was able to get great players. I don’t care what kind of coach you are – if you don’t have great players you’re not gonna win that kind of game. So he was able to get good players. They talk about the process of day to day and all that but that’s where it is. It’s so difficult to get to that game,” said Smart. “You may look up some statistics but I believe the college football playoff started in 2014 and in all that time I think only seven coaches have coached in that game. And Kirby’s been in two of them. The deal is to get to the game and then of course win the game. But it’s very difficult to get to the game. And we know that’s his goal. His goal is to be the best and it always has been. That hasn’t changed. It’s been that way since he was six years old. He’s got a process in mind of how to get there and make it happen.
“Yeah, we fully expected it but just because you’re good and get there, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win,” he said. “Just like that game in 2017, we were one snap, one play away. When that ball was snapped, everybody in that stadium would have bet on Georgia to win because they had just sacked Alabama and Alabama didn’t have a very good field goal kicker and everything was just going Georgia’s way. Then one play took it away. That’s just the way the game is played. You just never count on anything. You just go out there and play the game and play the best you can. They were able to get this one (2021 title) and hopefully they can get back there and have another chance. And that’s what he’s working for every day and that’s what he’s been working for every day since he got there. That hasn’t changed and that will not change.”
Smart said Kirby and his staff bringing the team back together from all the Covid problems in 2020 eventually paved the way for the great success the 2021 Bulldogs experienced.
“I remember when they came back in from the Covid year and the kids couldn’t be in the facility and the coaches worked together and that was brought out to Kirby. And I think that’s where all this came from. He said we’ve got kids who don’t even know each other. They’ve never been together. And they started from that point and working on that connectivity and doing things to try to get those kids to know each other, not just football practice, but to know each other as individuals. Due to Covid, they had become like strangers. And they did a lot of things to try and perpetuate that and I think that paid off. They started working on that at that point and it took a year and half to get to it, but it paid off.”
Former Smart UGA teammate Brandon Tolbert
Brandon Tolbert is a former All-SEC outside linebacker for Georgia and played on the Bulldogs’ defense with Smart from 1995 to 1997. He made the All-SEC team in his junior year in ’96 and was captain of the Bulldogs in 1997.
“I went from outside linebacker to defensive end in 1997 so I went from 116 or 120 tackles my junior year to probably 70 my senior year. I was a good SAM linebacker at 6-3, 225 (who also ran a 4.4 40) but I was undersize as a defensive end but we had some depth problems and they moved me there.”
Tolbert said he and Smart were together at Georgia for four years.
“Kirby was redshirted that first year in 1994. So our playing time together was ’95, ’96 and ’97.”
Tolbert said he received the last available scholarship in the Bulldogs’ 1993 recruiting class.
“I think Kirby and me had similar stories regarding that,” Tolbert said. “Me personally, I wasn’t a highly recruited guy. Like I say, I was the last recruit that Coach Goff offered but got in there and kept my head down and worked hard and ended up being a three-year starter and All-SEC in my junior year. A guy named Robert Edwards (former UGA tailback) was the second to the last who was offered. They offered Robert the day before signing day and they offered me like 12 o’clock on signing day. A couple of guys backed out and went somewhere else,” Tolbert chuckled. “Course Robert ended up being drafted first round.”
Tolbert said he could tell early on that Smart possessed all the intangibles to be a solid college football player.
“First when you go to Georgia, you’re just trying to figure out, ‘can I play here?’ Especially the guys who weren’t heavily recruited or guys that were offered in the last week or signing day, you kind of question things,” he said. “But Kirby had an inner belief in himself and he had the athletic ability, the speed and all that kind of stuff. But he was very smart and you could tell he came from a coach’s family and had been around football a lot. So he kind of knew where to be with situational stuff and alignment. He had determination and he knew when he got there he had to work and all, but he also knew that athletically and mentally he could find a way on the field. And,” said Tolbert, “he found the way on the field very early. Back then, young guys would get redshirted and wait a couple of years, and Kirby got redshirted but he played right off the bat his redshirt freshman year and had those three sacks in his very first game.”
Tolbert got drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars. “I ended up in Dallas and played there for the Cowboys for three years but got out there and tore my ACL. I was never hurt at Georgia but I get to the NFL and the injury bug started getting to me. I tore my ACL my second year in Dallas and then tore the other ACL the third year. So that was kind of all she wrote for me in professional football.
“The thing I love about Kirby, and he proved it this year,” concluded Tolbert, “is it doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest, baddest 5-star guy that comes into Georgia, if there’s a kid whether he’s a walk-on, or got one star, two stars or three stars, all the stars don’t matter to Kirby once you get there. If you’re the best player at that position, he’s going to put you in there and that’s what he did at the quarterback position with Stetson (Bennett). And to me, that gives hope to any kid who has dreams of playing at the University of Georgia.”