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When is There Pressure on Kirby to Win It All?

March 1, 2020
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ATHENS - Winning it all is never an easy thing to do. 

Georgia fans and Kirby Smart know that well. They know it in excruciating form, actually. But when does the pressure really start to build on Kirby Smart to win it all? 

He’s recruited so well that players like Jake Fromm, Jacob Eason and Justin Fields have all been on campus in his first four years on the job. And yet the title has elided him - in a way more painful than most. 

First, if folks are wondering out loud why you haven’t won it all yet that means you are doing something right. No one ever said that about Steve Spurrier in Cootlumbia, and I’ve yet to hear that about Dan Mullen in Gainesville. 

What Kirby has done to elevate things at UGA shouldn’t be undersold. This was an institution (UGA) that wasn’t really sold on the power of a winning football program. And by winning I mean winning in a way that get people in Arizona, Nevada and California to notice you. 

UGA may disagree with the notion that they didn’t understand the marketing power of football, but their actions over the last two decades say otherwise. For the bulk of that time the powers that be either seemed in the way, or were used as an excuse for the reason football was stumbling behind the Gators, Tide and much of the rest of the SEC. Georgia wasn’t living up to its potential.

Those days are gone.

UGA has fully embraced the power of football’s reach. Marketing is a very powerful thing. That Kirby is very polished in terms of his presentation of the program, and that it wins, means the university itself has a wonderful one-two punch on TV 14 or 15 times a year to millions (even hundreds of millions) of people around the country. 

I like to put it this way often: 

Please name me the governor of Alabama (without using google). 

Please name me the head coach at Alabama. 

Please name me the governor of South Carolina (without using google). 

Please name me the head coach at Clemson (do you think most people in the country know that Clemson is in South Carolina? They might. They might not). 

Please name me the governor of Louisiana (without using google). 

Please name me the head coach at LSU. 

Football is king. That’s why winning matters so much down here. And that’s why the pressure is always on to win it all. 

With that said, what’s gone on is that Kirby has proven, quickly, that he is a national championship-caliber coach. He’s not growing out of the spotlight. Like Matthew Stafford in 2006, the expectations are high. By the end of the 2007 season, Stafford had shown how good he was, and the proof on the field only raised expectations even more. 

The same thing is going on here with Kirby (and Ohio State’s Ryan Day as well as Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley). He’s making his mistakes in the limelight. 

Heading into year five, Dabo Swinney was coming off his third of five consecutive double-digit losses to the Chickens. That had never happened before in that series. His program was humiliated at the Orange Bowl 70-33 by West Virginia in year four.

Heading into year five, Nick Saban only had one season with more than seven wins during his head coaching tenure. In most of the losses those first four years, Saban’s teams simply were not competitive. 

Heading into year five, Ed Oregon was a punch line. His Ole Miss teams won ten games in three years. In 2017, Oregon’s fourth full year as a head coach (he had been the interim head coach at USC and LSU totaling 16 games), his LSU program lost by 30 points at Mississippi State before returning home to Death Valley two weeks later only to lose to Troy. 

Troy.

All but one (2019 South Carolina) of Kirby Smart’s worst losses happened in his first year as coach. The losses to Vanderbilt and Tech were tough one-point losses at home. Neither as painful as Tennessee’s miracle win that fall. 

Those losses, particularly the Vols’ miracle, were broadcast on national television. Kirby has been in the spotlight the entire time… Oregon’s loss to Troy was shown on ESPNU, which is where TV goes to die. 

Kirby has shown more than the rest of the veteran coaches named above in a shorter amount of time. Yes, the program and brand that Georgia was in 2016 sits above where Michigan State and Clemson were at the time Saban and Dabo took over (State had won 5, 6, 5, 3 and 8 games the previous five years; Clemson had won 9, 8, 8, 6 and 9; UGA had won 10, 10, 8, 12 and 11).

Either way, because of what Kirby has accomplished in his short time in Athens, one has to wonder when the pressure will really be on for him to win it all. Jim Donnan, Kirby’s coach while he played at UGA, was fired for losing three times in a row to Tech… that’s not the sort of pressure Kirby is facing. Mark Richt was let go beucase it had become clear the program had regressed.

Kirby has been given the keys to pretty much anything he wants at UGA (not without him having to make that happen). He’s recruited on a level the SEC has rarely seen. In fact, he might be recruiting at a level college football has never seen if he grabs another No. 1 class this coming winter (Nick Saban’s recruiting juggernaut included Kirby… now Saban going against him, and Kirby is winning). 

The biggest thing that Kirby has done is change the level of imagination at UGA. Georgia should be doing this sort of winning, and more. And that’s what Kirby will be judged by. 

25 years from now, how photos of Kirby Smart lifting a national title trophy will be on display in Athens? If the answer is one or fewer that would be disappointing. He’s good enough to do this. Coaches with lower ability than his have won it all. 

The future is about Kirby attacking the day and bringing it all home. My suspicion is if that happens once it will happen a few times. 

We will see…

Tags: Kirby Smart
 
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