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Georgia Bulldogs, Kirby Smart Try to Weather the Storm of Turbulent Off Season

March 22, 2023

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ATHENS - Fresh on the heels of winning back-to-back championships, Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs faced tragedy. The loss of Devin Willock and Chandler LeCroy shocked and devastated the program and the entirety of Dawg Nation. 

As details slowly emerged about the nature of the accident that claimed two lives, actions were called into question. Less than two months post-accident the presumed No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, Jalen Carter, left the combine to turn himself in to authorities to answer for his role in the accident. The arrest of Stetson Bennett for public intoxication in the middle of all of this began a groundswell of questions into the culture of the Georgia Bulldog football program.

Social media “influencers” aside, both TV and online media began questioning the culture that Kirby Smart has created. Using the term “win at all costs”, sports media outlets such as ESPN, Saturday Down South and others began to make very declarative statements about what was going on inside the football facility with no more information than what they’d seen posted by other reporters. The all-to-familiar knee jerk reaction was disappointing but predictable. At no point however did any of these outlets actually analyze what the history of this program is and come to a realistic conclusion. But the question remains – does Kirby have a culture problem or have the events of the last couple of months been an aberration?

I’ll start my roundabout way of answering that question with a simple “I don’t think so”. Young men misbehaving is as old as time itself. As my wife says, it’s a miracle that young men live through their twenties. It’s foolhardy to expect these kids, who play a violent game, to behave like monks. Society’s expectation, and that of media, is incongruent with reality. Kirby and staff only have 20 hours of contact per week with their players out of a total of 168 available hours. That’s less than an eighth of the available to attempt to curb potentially illegal activities that will always lead to some sort of negative consequence. Of course, there are other staff members who interact with the players aside from practice and film sessions. Those staff members are assuredly relaying and reinforcing Kirby’s messages regarding behavior. I would posit that if you look at the number of incidents involving players over the last 3 years, you’d see that Kirby’s program is rather well-behaved. 


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Recurring behavioral issues that show problems with culture are rather easy to spot. One would see weekly or monthly issues publicized that present a pattern of misconduct. A recurring pattern of misconduct could definitely create the appearance of culture issues – a culture that anything goes as long as you win. However the issues post-College Football Playoff that are in question don’t, in my mind, represent a culture problem.

A quick story for you – as a battalion commander, my unit had gone months without a reportable serious incident. We trained and operated well and took care of potential or brewing issues quickly and at the lowest level. Then, over the course of three consecutive weekends, we suffered 4 reportable serious incidents. My boss immediately overreacted and claimed I had a culture problem. His reaction was quite similar to the responses from media outlets discussed above. He went so far as to order an investigation into the culture of my unit. What’s interesting about my situation is that in the weeks and months that followed we returned to the mean. Zero reportable incidents. We didn’t have a culture problem. We had folks who should have known better that decided to behave differently than the standard we’d set. Simply we’d suffered a rash of behavior that was out of the norm that had been established. 

My theory here is that the tragic accident along with other incidents is an aberration for Kirby and his program. After watching the short interview with ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, a couple of things immediately came to mind. First, every incident of player misconduct isn’t always known. Second, Kirby is way ahead of potential issues such as street racing and is doing what he can to stem the potential dangerous behavior. The responsibility to behave within the lines drawn is up to the individual players. And how Kirby and staff respond to these recent incidents will ultimately determine just how strong that culture is. 





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Where I have a bit of trepidation with my thoughts though is with Kirby’s public response to the accident and Stetson’s arrest. Prior to Tuesday’s media availability, he issued a statement and done the short interview with ESPN. The statement didn’t say much, while his interview with Schlabach shed a little more light on his personal feelings as well as what his program’s standard is. His retreat within the confines of the Butts-Mehre facility, prior to today, is troubling. Kirby’s comments today were the first true response and was powerful. Stating “it starts with me” is a public acknowledgement of assuming responsibility for standard setting.

However, the preceding almost two months of little communication has created a gap in perception. Public perception of the program can have far reaching effects with fund raising and trust (not saying that’s happening). Weathering the storm of perception is as important as internal changes to ensure kids behave appropriately. Kirby’s focus internally is valid and required, but his public-facing responsibility is just as important. Getting ahead of the issue(s) can tamp down media perception and make this a non-story. Letting it fester can portend further questions and challenges down the road.

The bottom line is I don’t think Kirby has a culture issue within his program. His players have a driving issue, and he has an external communications issue. Both issues are completely solvable. Whether he trusts the media or not is immaterial. It is there and will be there. Chip Towers and crew won’t go away. Public perception will only change based on his ability to communicate with the public message bringers and the end result of fewer and less egregious motor vehicle infractions. Simply continuing to win will possibly abate the narrative, but it won’t make it go away.

Tags: Kirby Smart
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