ATLANTA — In the transition period between when Kirby Smart served as Alabama’s defensive coordinator and simultaneously as Georgia’s head coach in the winter of 2015, things got weird and feelings got hurt between Smart and the Crimson Tide program he served for nine years.
The Tuscaloosa News learned that on his way out the door, Smart took a picture of Alabama’s recruiting board, which hangs in the inner sanctum of the Alabama football building, and showed it to recruits who weren’t necessarily at the top of that board. His message was simple: Alabama doesn’t want you as much as it says it does.
Multiple people close to the Alabama program told The Tuscaloosa News that same story, but none wanted to go on record about it.
The recruiting business is notoriously cutthroat, and coaches do what they have to do to be successful in getting players to their respective campuses; but this instance of negative recruiting felt wrong to those at Alabama, and it left a bad taste in their mouths at the time as it pertains to Smart.
Earlier this week UA coach Nick Saban maintained that just because you compete against someone doesn’t mean you still can’t be friends with them. But the relationship between the two SEC coaches competing for a national championship Monday isn’t actually as rosy as some would paint it. That doesn’t mean the two are hostile to one another, but it also doesn’t mean they’re particularly close either.
Smart has installed The Process 2.0 at Georgia, taking the blueprint from Tuscaloosa and mirroring it in Athens with successful results. Smart has the Bulldogs competing to win a national championship for the first time since 1980. He did that in just two years.
Yet for all the successes he’s achieved since striking out on his own, it’s not unusual for Smart to still call and seek advice from different UA athletic department administrators. He does so more frequently than you’d imagine a coach doing in his second season on his own.
If Smart has made an distinct impression in his program, it’s in his personality. Otherwise, most of what Georgia does, from establishing the culture down to the media rules, has come directly from his time at Alabama.
”Coach Smart learned from Coach Saban,” Georgia outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer said. “But Kirby kind of has his way. Coach Saban has his way. They’re similar but they’re different styles.
“Coach Smart is younger. He’s probably more energetic, relates to the players. But they’re very similar. I think Kirby is probably a little more personable.”
Glenn Schumann coaches inside linebackers for the Bulldogs and has done so since Smart took the UGA job following the 2015 season. Previous to that Schumann was an undergraduate analyst and a graduate assistant under Saban from 2008-15.
He’s hesitant to compare Smart and Saban, and that’s probably wise considering the egos at play and the remote chance his words are misunderstood. He wasn’t even comfortable discussing the work-life balance and if it’s better at Georgia under Smart than it was at Alabama under Saban.
“I don’t like to focus on differences,” Schumann said. “There’s a lot of similarities in the way day-to-day business is conducted. But they’re each their own people. There’s a human aspect to this profession. Kirby’s different than Nick on a personal level, not better or worse, and so that’s the quote-unquote difference.
“I loved working at Alabama. I loved to work. Both people love to work really hard. So if you love to work it’s a great place to be. I relate well with Nick. I relate well with Kirby. I don’t think it’s easier to relate to one or the other.”
Schumann said he doesn’t recall Smart taking the picture of Alabama’s recruiting board. He said recruiting is a tough business and coaches who are successful are expected to get recruits.
“I think everybody understands that you do what you have to do to get players,” Schumann said. “You try to always be positive and not be negative towards one another. I still talk to Mack Wilson now. I love the kid the same regardless of whether he went to Georgia or Alabama.”
Given the level of competition now for elite players, it’s bound to lead to some hurt feelings along the way now and then. That’s likely the case for all the programs in the SEC. Perhaps it just feels more personal with Smart because he used to wear crimson and white instead of red and black.
“Well, you know, look, you don’t have to dislike somebody to compete against them,” Saban said. “I have a lot of respect for all the guys that worked for me and the guys that did a great job for us when they worked on our staff. I’m happy to see them doing well wherever they go, and when we have to play against them, I’m sure they’re doing everything they can to beat us for their team and their players, and we’re going to do the same with our players.
“It’s not personal. It’s not personal. It’s just you don’t – Dabo (Swinney) and I are very good friends, and he never worked for me, but we – we certainly know each other really well. He played at Alabama, and there’s a lot of guys out there that we’ve had to play against in the past. It’s not personal. I mean, it’s just – I don’t dislike the guy that you play against. You compete against him and do the best you can and want to do the best you can for your players on your team.”
Alabama and Georgia don’t play often (the last time was in 2015). And outside of an SEC Championship Game matchup (or another playoff or national title meeting) the teams won’t meet again until 2020. But the programs will meet every year on the recruiting trail, where they’ll continue to battle for the best players in the Southeast.
“That’s probably going to be like that for a long time right now,” Alabama senior linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “I think it’s very ironic. It’s kind of like it was supposed to happen like this. Kirby was one of those types of guys that I felt like if he were able to ever get a head coaching job, he would be great at it. Same how I feel about (Jeremy) Pruitt. They’re great defensive scheme type guys. They’re very aggressive in their play-calling. They’re very smart as far as being to put guys in the right place to be successful. I think that’s the reason why Kirby is having so much success and I think Coach Pruitt will have the same thing.
“I mean, that’s the usual. Kirby does a great job of recruiting. He’s always been like that, so I think now it’s going to be a triangle. You got Coach Pruitt, Kirby and Coach Saban. They’re probably going to be the top coaches in the SEC. So I’m looking forward to that to see how that plays out.”
When he took the Georgia job, Smart not only hired Schumann but also nabbed UA defensive backs coach Mel Tucker to be his defensive coordinator. Does that give Georgia an advantage, given its familiarity with Alabama? Will Alabama have to change its play-call signals for fear that Georgia will steal them?
“You’d have to ask Coach Saban that,” Alabama junior running back Damien Harris joked.
Georgia doesn’t think the familiarity will play a factor in the game.
“Yeah, I don’t know that it’s an advantage,” Smart said. “You know, his tendencies and his strengths are recruiting really good players that are really big and really fast, and then you have to block them, OK, or you have to be able to run the ball against them or you have to be able to defend the wide-outs and the corner – it comes down to a lot more than his tendencies because his tendencies are very similar to a lot of good coaches: smart, good decisions, protect the ball, play great defense, kick your butt on special teams. There’s not a lot of tendencies that he has that are just going to be ground-breaking to allow us a benefit. The bottom line is our players got to go out and we’ve got to play a really good football game to stay with these guys.”
As for recruiting, Smart is going to continue to do what he has to do to get players, no matter the feelings it may hurt. He says Alabama will do the same.
“The cutthroat part is more for media attention,” Smart said. “Maybe you feel that way in recruiting or you feel that way to beat somebody. Yeah, you want to win the game for your players and your program, but I mean it’s not personal for me and their staff. I have a lot of friends on their staff. I respect their staff. It’s not really cutthroat to me.
“The competitive nature is to go win, but outside of that, they’re good people.”
Reach Aaron Suttles at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0229.