Georgia Football

When Will an Apprentice Takedown the Master?

July 17, 2019

HOOVER, Ala. - A grey sports coat paired with some grey slacks. A red tie over a white, tucked-in button-down. 


They were near-identical outfits that Kirby Smart and Nick Saban were wearing. The only thing the two differed in was on the pocket square, which Smart sported and Saban didn’t. The former colleagues were simply rocking classic suits that featured a little bit of their respective school’s color, nothing crazy. 


Yet it seemed more symbolic than that. It was another example of how Saban and Smart’s personalities aren’t just similar, but intertwined. Determined, straight-to-the-point coaches with an unhealthy thirst for winning.


It makes sense. Smart spent 11 seasons as an assistant under Saban. And, in Saban’s experience, his assistants who leave him generally take a lot with them from their time under his tutelage. 


“When they get a [head coach] job,” Saban said about his former assistants. “They do it exactly like we did it.” 


Maybe exactly the same is a stretch. 


Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher in-game style isn’t at all like Saban. Jim McElwain didn’t share the same fiery demeanor that Saban displays. Jeremy Pruitt, albeit only a year in, hasn’t come close to replicating Saban’s recruiting magic.


But when you look at Smart, the program he has built at UGA runs so closely to what Saban has built in Tuscaloosa.


On the recruiting trail, it’s a relentless pursuit of the players they want, no matter who the competition is for those prospects. In practice, those two have a philosophy of making practice even tougher than games. In-game, the two generally share the same strategy: run the ball and wear the other team down on offense, stop the run and force passing situations on defense. They have an almost-weird obsession with special teams, and they both have a singular expectation each season—win a National Championship.


Like their suits, very few things differ between Saban, Smart and their respective programs. Yet, even as the two teams study each other in the mirror, the Crimson Tide have proven more dominant. 


In back-to-back seasons, Saban has dispatched Georgia on two of the biggest stages in college football. 


Darth Vader was once the learner, but he eventually became the master. Smart is still learning, but he’s not Luke looking for power converters, either. He has a 32-10 record in three years, an SEC Championship and a Rose Bowl under his belt. But Smart is by no means the master. That title still belongs to Saban. 


And that’s what matters the most to Smart, whether he says that directly or not. Because as long as he holds that crown, that means Alabama is denying Georgia the National Championship.  


“Although 24 and 5 the last two seasons is good, it's not good enough,” Smart said. “It's not where we expect to be at the University of Georgia… Our mission is to bridge that gap.”


The gap is already extremely narrow. UGA has only trailed for two minutes out of 120 in the two Smart-Saban matchups. But even if the gap is small it is still a gap.


And to bridge that gap, Smart and Georgia know what they have to do—beat Alabama and win a National Championship. It’s either that or a disappointment. 


“I accept the burden that comes with this job,” Smart said. “We got to do more, and we understand that.”


As that burden for the Bulldogs rises, the effort does too. Smart is landing punches on Saban and his dynasty—just not the one. But Saban understands that it’s likely that that knockout strike will get landed on him at some point, whether it’s Smart or another on of his former assistants.


“When they get the opportunity to establish [talent and culture] in their program, they're going to be able to beat Alabama and compete with Alabama,” Saban said. “I think it's a matter of time until those challenges get greater and greater for us.”

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