“A lot had to happen to end up here.”
It’s a thought that occurs to me occasionally in a variety of contexts, in my most contemplative moments. There are so many things that had to happen for each of us to end up where we are in our lives, individually and relative to each other, whether for good or ill.
But it occurred to me this morning in regard to Georgia Bulldog football specifically. Let’s take stock of this program’s current latitude and longitude in the college football firmament.
- The Red and Black are 10-0 and a prohibitive favorite to win not only their last two regular season games, but in a head-to-head matchup with every other college football playoff contender.
- Kirby Smart has the top-ranked recruiting class for 2022 with less than a month until Signing Day, and may have as many as 6 additional national top 100 recruits to add to the fold. He has the top class for 2023 by some estimations.
- Our biggest rivals are by and large in a state of utter program disarray, having either lost faith in their culture changing coach, begun worrying about the eventual end game for their septuagenarian head coach, or the guy who everyone told them was a failure from day one.
And we’re here because Greg McGarity and the rest of the 2015 UGA athletics brain trust made the decision to part ways with the winningest coach Georgia had ever had on a percentage basis, a guy three years removed from playing for an SEC (and very nearly national) title. In order to hire a 39 year old career assistant coach/UGA alumnus.
At the time we here at Dawg Sports were among the skeptical.
Greg McGarity fired Mark Richt because of FOMO over Kirby Smart, and it's the decision which will define him.— Didn’t Blow A 28-3 Lead To Mike Leach (@dawgsports) November 30, 2015
That FOMO remark of course was in reference to rampant rumors that Ray Tanner at South Carolina had his eye on Smart to replace Steve Spurrier. A lot of people didn’t know until today how close he was to getting his man.
We had a GREAT time with Mary Beth Smart and Russ Tanner in studio with Dave and Logan on The Morning Show this a.m.— 960 The Ref (@960theref) November 19, 2021
Check out this radio gold On Demand on our website or free mobile app. pic.twitter.com/aGX8x1jv9A
Mary Beth Smart tells it better than me obviously but, long story short, Kirby and Mary Beth Smart were meeting with South Carolina officials on the Sunday morning when it was announced Georgia would be moving on from the Mark Richt era. I was thinking about all of this before that radio appearance. But hearing about it pushed me toward the keyboard to consider the events of six years ago for your consideration rather than just my own.
I’ve told a few people this story privately, but I’m not sure I’ve ever told it here. In 2014 when Georgia was looking to replace Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was the top target, with discussions of the then-de rigueur “coach-in-waiting” tag. promises to match whatever Alabama was willing to pay, anything to bring the hottest assistant coach in America home to Athens. Kirby Smart wanted to coach at Georgia. He’s always wanted to coach at Georgia. And at that time folks I talked to within the UGA athletic department and the Smarts’ circle of friends from their UGA days felt that he was about to. At least one person working inside Butts-Mehre told me flat out “We got our guy.”
Then things changed. An apocryphal account holds that Smart went so far as to tell Nick Saban that he was going home, only to have Saban talk him out of it by asking why he’d want to go to Athens and get fired with the rest of the Bulldog staff when he could wait a while and go back as the head coach who replaced Richt. I can’t verify that, and neither Smart nor Saban ever would.
But there’s little reason to doubt that if in fact Kirby Smart had come to Athens in 2014 instead of Jeremy Pruitt he would have in fact not been the hot coaching commodity he was in 2015. If Greg McGarity hadn’t acceded to pressure from alumni and boosters who were on the verge of a riot if he let Smart get away, the Top ‘Dawg might have become the Top ‘Cock. Would Smart have jumped ship in Columbia at some point to come home?
Maybe. Of course there’s no guarantee he would have done so in time to coach the Bulldogs in a 2017 season that served as a sort of proof of concept for Smart’s approach. But how many of the Bulldogs he recruited to Athens never would have ended up here? Would Jordan Davis be the centerpiece of Mack Brown’s defense at North Carolina? Would Chubb and Michel and Carter and so many others have stayed for one more run at a special season if 2016 had been Richt’s last year instead of Smart’s first?
In some ways Kirby Smart’s ascension to the top job in Georgia Bulldog football has been inevitable since his days studying his playbook in the SAE house in Athens, poring over coverage calls while everyone else was goofing off in the care-free way only college kids without mortgages, car payments and sore knees can. And after spending nearly a decade as Nick Saban’s prize pupil it was likewise a pretty good bet that when he got his own program he’d recruit ferociously, prepare relentlessly, and focus on the process of building a football powerhouse from the ground up.
But the specific way in which things have coalesced could never have been predicted. And it all could have gone wrong, or at least not quite so right as it has.
What if McGarity had decided Mark Richt had earned at least one more year?
What if Ray Tanner and South Carolina had been a couple of days further along in their coaching search timeline?
What if McGarity had given in to his alleged fondness for, and gone to the mat for, his former University of Florida colleague . . . .Dan Mullen?
What if Georgia boosters or administrators had balked at the items Smart said he had to have to do the job he was being hired for?
With a little hindsight it’s now clear that Georgia is where it is because a mere handful of people did the right thing at the right time. Viewed through that prism this Georgia Bulldog football season isn’t just something to enjoy. It’s something at which to marvel.