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From the tree: How recruiting successes of Smart, Collins were first seen together at Alabama

Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins (left) and University of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart worked together over 10 years ago under Alabama head coach Nick Saban. Now the two are battling it out in the recruiting arena.
Georgia Tech head coach Geoff Collins (left) and University of Georgia head coach Kirby Smart worked together over 10 years ago under Alabama head coach Nick Saban. Now the two are battling it out in the recruiting arena. Graphic by Jenna Eason

There was once a time that Alabama wasn’t atop the college football throne, and a time where Nick Saban wasn’t having success. It may be hard to remember such a time, but the year was 2007. Saban started his first year at the program’s helm, the first iPhone was released and people across America were first experiencing the rush of running onto the dance floor when Soulja Boy’s lone hit “Crank That” blasted through a set of speakers.

That was when he was thrust into a head-coaching role in the midst of a tumultuous situation. The Crimson Tide was entering the final season of a five-year probation enacted in 2002 after the program was caught red-handed due to prospects being paid by university boosters.

After February 7, 2007 passed, Saban had a full complement of scholarships and was direct in his intention to find assistants who could recruit elite prospects. His first answer was arguably his most-successful assistant: Kirby Smart, who joined Saban from LSU and was the defensive backs coach at Alabama for one season. The other was Geoff Collins, who was recommended by then-outside linebackers coach Lance Thompson and held an off-field position as director of player personnel.

“If you’re in Georgia and following SEC football at all, you already know who the best recruiter in the country is,” said Todd Alles Sr., Alabama’s director of football operations while the two were on staff, referencing Smart. “Then Geoff’s name was brought up, and what you see is what you get.”

Twelve years later, these Saban assistants who were once trying to find their place are now bitter rivals. Smart enters his fourth season at Georgia while Collins welcomes his first in a homecoming to Georgia Tech. Smart and Collins carry similar approaches from knowledge gleaned after recruiting an elite-level 2008 class at Alabama, and it now creates another dynamic to a historic in-state rivalry.

Georgia and Georgia Tech find themselves on two different levels of success, but a year working alongside each other in Tuscaloosa gave Collins and Smart a blueprint on how it can prosper.

“A lot of what we do with recruiting structure and how we attack it is based off of what coach Saban has done at Alabama,” Collins said in a press conference on Jan. 10 after announcing most of his Georgia Tech coaching staff. “We were lucky to be a part of that initial setup that has had a lot of success.”

Building Alabama’s elite class

Ahead of the 2007 season, Collins and Smart were on two different pedestals, at least in the public eye. In Alabama’s 2007 media guide, Smart was the first defensive coach listed under Saban’s two-page biography. Meanwhile a rundown of Collins’ career was the last to be found among the staffers.

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A rundown of Geoff Collins’ career was the last to be found among the staffers in a Alabama media guide from 2007. University of Alabama

Inside the bowels of the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility, however, these two were seen as vitally important in significantly-different roles. Smart was the defensive mastermind for the Crimson Tide and garnered tremendous respect from Saban, evidenced by a eight-year stint as the coordinator and multiple national titles during that span.

“Kirby was like a son to Nick. He was one of the few people I saw win an argument with him,” Alles said.

Collins, who always craved an on-field position and would sneak into Smart’s defensive meetings at times, focused on working behind-the-scenes and being the instrumental part in recruiting that so few knew about — he was the researcher. Collins would find miscellaneous bits of information about these prospects, such as their interests, backgrounds and anything else that would make it easier for coaching staffs to have in-home visits.

It was done with a relentless fire, too, and is seen mirrored in his approach to a new start at Georgia Tech.

“I used to kid him and say, ‘I think you have an IV with caffeine in it and it’s running through your veins,’” Alles said. “This guy has a motor like nobody’s business. If you walk with him, then you’re running and he’s walking.”

Collins’ relentless demeanor was intertwined with the well-documented persuasiveness of Smart to land a prospect, and the results were undeniable when the two had a chance to work together on the recruiting trail. It resulted in signing a 2008 class that has fueled Alabama’s ascent to a dynasty.

Saban’s first full recruiting effort at Alabama featured names that are likely plastered across the athletic complex as some of the Crimson Tide’s best. Some of those household names included Atlanta Falcons’ wide receiver Julio Jones, New Orleans Saints’ running back Mark Ingram, New England Patriots’ pass-rusher and recent Super Bowl LIII champion Donta’ Hightower (a three-star in that class) and a host of others. According to 247Sports.com, it was slotted as the third-best class nationally in that cycle.

Beyond the ranking, however, is the number of players drafted into the NFL. There were 10 in the group of 2008 signees, tied for the second-most in program history (11 came out of the 2013 class). Since 2008, the Crimson Tide has signed eight classes with the No. 1 ranking by 247Sports, and work of Collins and Smart served as the catalyst.

“They know the recipe,” Ingram told The Telegraph on Dec. 30 after the Saints lost to the Carolina Panthers. “They come from Alabama, so they know what it takes to build a championship-caliber program.”

Once the 2008 class was complete, Collins and Smart parted ways as the former Alabama staffer who worked in the shadows went to UCF for an on-field role under legendary coach George O’Leary. It was a goal for Collins to do so, and he obviously hasn’t stepped away from it since. At the time of his departure, Saban commended Collins for a “tremendous job” in a UCF press release.

Even after many years atop the recruiting throne, Collins and Smart’s 2008 efforts may still resonate with the iconic Crimson Tide head coach.

“(Saban) really struggled with Geoff leaving,” Alles said. “He had immense respect for Geoff leaving and the job that he did. Geoff (and Kirby) had a lot to do with that class.”

Rebirth of an in-state rivalry

A lot has happened in the respective careers of Smart and Collins since their brief days in Tuscaloosa ended, and it was so long ago that Georgia’s fourth-year head coach couldn’t recall much from them. They’ve clashed in-game (highlighted, for Collins at least, by his Florida defense allowing seven points to the Bulldogs in a 42-7 drubbing in Smart’s first season) and on the recruiting trail as Florida and Alabama contended for CeCe Jefferson, Calvin Ridley and Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Florida won on Jefferson and Smart’s staff won on the other two, so maybe it’s a tie between them. Nevertheless, there’ll now be many more contests between Smart and Collins in both areas. Georgia and Georgia Tech carry an illustrious football rivalry history, and the Bulldogs lead the 113-game series 67-41-5.

“This is the last time I will ever write anything in red, just so we’re on the same page,” Collins said in his introductory press conference in December. He said it was implemented when he worked with O’Leary at Georgia Tech and UCF.

But there’s a recruiting aspect in this rivalry that is newly-implemented. Unlike the previous staff led by Paul Johnson, there’s a priority of signing the “elite” prospects as Collins put it and contending with the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. That’s not to say Georgia Tech has matched the level of Smart in recruiting yet as the Bulldogs signed the second-ranked 2019 class and the Yellow Jackets finished 51st with one four-star pledge.

So, there’s an obvious gap. But there’s a similar approach from each of the in-state coaches that stems from that coveted group signed in 2008. Collins said that he uses a roster management sheet from Saban, and takes many other tidbits to recruit from a similar perspective.

Collins possesses some differences though as he allows his personality to show in nearly every recruiting encounter. He has a massive social-media presence and likely tweets, retweets and interacts more than any coach in the country. He has been to Europe (which paid off by the way as he signed Sylvain Yondjouen from Belgium) and spends every free moment at the closest Waffle House — maybe there’s a high tolerance for the All-Star Special?

“He does a tremendous job. He’s a bowling ball of energy,” Smart said shortly after Collins was hired at Georgia Tech. “I mean if you hadn’t already noticed, he’s very much a go-getter in recruiting. He enjoys that part of it. He’s also a good football coach, and what he’s been able to do in his career, the places he’s gone, he’s shown that success. I’ve got a lot of respect for Geoff.”

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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart during Pro Day at the UGA Indoor Athletic Facility in Athens, Ga. on Wednesday, March 15, 2017. (Photo by Cory A. Cole) Cory A. Cole Special to the Telegraph

Georgia’s new staff began the same way in December 2015: glitz-and-glamour of helicopter rides, visiting top prospects from across the country and using the pitch of becoming an upper-echelon program. For Georgia, it worked. After one 8-5 season, the Bulldogs are among the nation’s best and are set to compete for national titles in nearly every season.

“(Smart) has a track record, and you can’t deny where he comes from,” Georgia defensive tackle Julian Rochester said. “He has the accolades and knows what he’s doing. You follow along with it.”

While Collins hasn’t seen the results of a top-rated class while Smart has three, there are signs of Georgia Tech reaching the level of its foe in Athens. In the past week, the Yellow Jackets signed Rome four-star running back Jamious Griffin and Miami transfer wide receiver Marquez Ezzard (formerly a four-star out of Stockbridge). Those were both Georgia recruiting targets at one time, and Ezzard was a Bulldogs’ priority. Both programs were in final contention for three-star tight end Brett Seither, and Georgia landed his services.

Georgia Tech’s early success stems from a revived philosophy, which athletic director Todd Stansbury said was a key part in hiring Collins.

“Our brand should be as strong as anywhere in the country, and it’s going to be,” Collins said. “We will evaluate talent and leave no stone unturned. Wherever there’s an elite player, we will actively recruit them.”

Georgia and Georgia Tech will begin a revived rivalry with head coaches determined to be among the best. While they’ll go against each other on a number of occasions (the first on Nov. 30 in Atlanta), their triumphs can be traced back to when they were once together.

“They’re both cut out of the same mold,” Alles said. “... Geoff will take it to the next level. It wouldn’t surprise me if he became as competitive as Alabama or Georgia.”

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