Guerry Clegg

Georgia coach Kirby Smart has a perception problem

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart explained his stance on a revised injury reporting policy.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart explained his stance on a revised injury reporting policy. Georgia Sports Communications

Possession is said to be nine-tenths of the law. In college football, perception is nine-tenths of reality. After all, we’re talking about a sport that for decades crowned its so-called champion – and many times multiple champions – based on nothing more than a collection of opinions.

Reality is what we choose to believe.

That’s why Georgia fired Mark Richt after a few big dollar boosters got tired of winning 10 games. Meanwhile, Mike MacIntyre won 10 games at Colorado – and got steamrolled by Washington in the Pac 12 Championship Game – and was named National Coach of the Year. MacIntyre also got a hefty raise and contract extension.

Last week, CBS Sports ranked the 65 head coaches from Power Five conferences and Notre Dame. The top five offered no surprises and little debate:

1. Nick Saban, Alabama

2. Urban Meyer, Ohio State

3. Dabo Swinney, Clemson

4. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State

5. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan

Buried down on the list – close to the bottom, in fact – is Georgia’s Kirby Smart at 54th. Only 11 coaches were deemed worse than Smart by this panel of five writers. (For the record, the writers are Dennis Dodd, Ben Kercheval, Chip Patterson, Barton Simmons and Tom Fornelli.)

Only one of those 11 coaches has much of a head coaching résumé, and that was in the NFL. Lovie Smith of Illinois led the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl.

You could make the alibi that Smart hasn’t had time to establish Georgia’s program in his identity. That’s technically true. And, according to Fornelli, who wrote the accompanying article, lack of experience was a factor.

But again, this is about perception. If the writers had more confidence in Smart, he wouldn’t have come in 11 spots from the bottom, 12th out of 14 SEC coaches, and fifth out of seven coaches in the SEC East. Smart actually dropped eight spots from last year’s rankings.

Here’s what Fornelli said about Smart last year: “It's clear that when it comes to some of our voters, being Nick Saban's right-hand man at Alabama is enough to land Smart a pretty high position in these rankings for a guy who hasn't actually coached a game yet.”

Contrast that to what Fornelli said about him this year: “Smart was ranked rather highly last year for someone who had never been a head coach before, but he had that Saban sheen. Seems some of it wore off over what was generally considered a disappointing 8-5 season in Athens.”

Other than riding Saban’s coattails for 10 years, what exactly has Smart done to make anyone think he’ll be successful, let alone “the next Saban?”

Here’s another perspective. Smart was ranked behind the coaches of six schools he has to play every year – Jim McElwain of Florida, Will Muschamp of South Carolina, Butch Jones of Tennessee, Derek Mason of Vanderbilt, Gus Malzahn of Auburn and Paul Johnson of Georgia Tech.

For what it’s worth, Richt is ranked 15th, ahead of all the above. Let’s be honest. Richt’s first season at Miami was nothing special other than the feel-good story of going home. The Hurricanes were 9-4, but all four losses were in succession after they had jumped into the top 10.

The national perception of Smart is … what?

Great recruiter? Maybe so. His first true recruiting class was generally ranked among the three or four best in the country. His second class thus far is a bit iffy, but it’s early yet. Other than that, it’s disappointing.

Great CEO? Hardly. Most of Bulldog Nation has been dissatisfied with his choice of Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator.

Unifier? This is where Smart has failed inexplicably. Many fans were upset that Smart essentially snubbed them on signing day.

So far, Smart has established a reputation of being aloof and even a bit paranoid. He used his influence to increase the University of Georgia’s time to respond to open records requests from three days to 90 days, then tried to deny playing a key role in getting the law passed.

While you could say that the CBS rankings don’t matter, that’s not entirely true. Smart was hired for one reason only, and that’s to win championships. Anything less will be considered a failure. Failing to win the game of public perception will make his leash that much shorter.