The confetti falling, the fans cheering, the tears streaming down players’ faces, the feeling of absolute pure elation. A championship. This is why Georgia hired Kirby Smart.
Smart’s Bulldogs beat Auburn on Saturday 28-7 in the SEC Championship game to capture its first conference title in 12 years. The win likely places Georgia in the college football playoff. For Smart, it’s his first championship as a head coach, and it ends a feeling of despair that had accumulated on the campus of his alma mater.
“All the credit should go to him,” senior defensive lineman John Atkins said.
Smart always wanted to return to Georgia as its head coach. Plenty of coaches jump at the first opportunity to become a head coach, but Smart waited. He considered other head coaching jobs — even Auburn in 2012 — but never left Alabama. There was always a hesitancy, friend and former teammate Matt Stinchcomb said, because of Georgia. According to Smart’s father Sonny, Georgia is the school Smart wanted to be a head coach at since the day he walked on campus as a freshman in 1994.
As a safety at Georgia, Smart acquired a reputation for his competitiveness and passion. A son of a high school coach, the profession appeared to be in his future. One morning during Smart's senior year, former Georgia defensive coordinator Joe Kines walked down a hallway and heard yelling. He thought it was a coach. The voice was Smart's.
“I walked by and Kirby had all the DBs in there,” Kines said. “We’d had a real bad practice the day before, and he wasn’t waiting for us to get there.”
Smart soon became a coach, first at Valdosta State. During his first interview, he at one point didn't draw the right number of defenders on a white board. He started sweating. Smart got the job — defensive backs coach — anyways, for an $8,000 salary.
A year later, defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (yes, that Will Muschamp) left, and Smart was promoted. After brief stops at Florida State and LSU, Smart returned to Georgia to coach running backs coach in 2005.
Smart left Georgia after one season, learned from Nick Saban and won conference and national championships. A decade passed. He became one of the most highly regarded coordinators in the country. From afar, Georgia watched one of its former safeties win time and time again at another school.
In the meantime, Georgia’s program continued a championship drought under Mark Richt.
The day after Georgia beat Georgia Tech two years ago, Richt was fired. Georgia announced it had hired Smart a week later.
After going 8-5 in Smart’s first season, Georgia steamrolled through the majority of its schedule entering Saturday’s game.
“He taught us how to win,” senior outside linebacker Davin Bellamy said. “He has the formula for winning because of the places he's been, and he brought it here.”
Georgia trailed early in its rematch with the Tigers, but scored 28 unanswered points. The defense held Auburn to 259 total yards. People began celebrating with minutes remaining. Players took time to plan how they would pour ice on coaches.
“You never know a timetable,” former Georgia head coach Vince Dooley said, “but I thought he would get it done.”
After the buzzer sounded and the celebration had begun, Smart, soaking wet, hugged and kissed his wife, Mary Beth. He bent down and embraced his three children. A few minutes later, the crowd roared as Smart stepped onto a stage to accept the championship trophy. Their cheers drowned out his words.
“I’m so proud of him and for him,” Smart’s mother, Sharon, said. “He’s always had dreams and he’s achieved them, one step at a time.”
The win provided validation for Georgia’s decision to part with Richt, the second-winningest coach in school history. It ended a drought, and brought salvation to a starved fanbase. Smart will earn $400,000 for the championship, and to Georgia, the price of a championship is likely worthy every penny.
“I think anytime you make a hire like that, you want to see success,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. “It worked out like we thought.”