The second-by-second countdown clock inside the Butts-Meher building to Georgia’s season-opener Sept. 3 against North Carolina reflected 173 days. All Kirby Smart was concerned about, though, was March 15, the Bulldogs’ opening day of spring football, the 22nd of Smart’s college career and first as a head coach.
That was five days ago. Even that is now ancient history to Smart.
“I’m one of those people that believe when you’re climbing something, you don’t really notice people until you’re at or near the top,” Smart said. “We’re not there. We’re not at or near the top yet. But even when you’re climbing something, every step is just as important as those last two or three. This is not the first step. The first step was the offseason conditioning program. This is one of the many steps. You don’t get noticed, you don’t get recognized until you’re at or near the top. We’re not there.”
Pause right here. Any time there’s a coaching change, anything positive that’s said about the new coach can be inferred as negative toward the old one. Indeed, many times that is true. That’s not necessarily the case here. Mark Richt always talked about the need to work hard every day.
But here is the most obvious difference in the coaching styles. Richt kept most of his criticism private. He inadvertently contributed to the lofty expectations for the season with his unbridled optimism. He talked about competing for championships every year, even when deep down he had to know that might not have been realistic.
Smart is much more candid — refreshingly so, quite honestly. Last month, he apologized for being late to a speaking engagement in Macon, but said he was held up because “I had some guys during offseason workouts who didn’t want to work.”
He specifically addressed the matter of winning and losing to the team before the first practice, telling the players he’s not worried about winning the SEC or the East Division or anything else right now.
“That’s not the goal,” Smart said. “The goal is to get better each and every day. Our objective as coaches is to get the most out of each team we coach. The best way for us to do that is to have the best practice we can have today. Be where your feet are.”
Be where your feet are … where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah. It’s one of Nick Saban’s catch phrases. There’s sure to be more of those coming. You don’t work alongside the best coach in college football for nine years without picking up on some of those tendencies.
Smart isn’t so naïve to think there won’t be more days of sub-par effort. Alabama has them, too. The players are human and they are young. The key is to correct that on the spot. Smart talked about the value of instant feedback. He gave the analogy of how law enforcement people use electronic signs flashing drivers’ speed, which is much more effective than speed limit signs.
“I try to give them instant feedback of what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, accentuate the positives and let them know when they don’t,” he said. “I think people respond better and they respect you more when you do that. That’s what we’re trying to do with our guys.”
Another point of emphasis has been sweating the details. The coaches spent about three hours planning for the first practice to maximize the efficiency. Teams are allowed only 15 spring practices, three of which must be no contact.
“They’re part of discipline. They’re part of doing things right. They’re part of accountability,” Smart said. “If we don’t have accountability and discipline, and if you don’t have that, then you don’t have a very good program.”
Again, perception versus reality. Whether the team was disciplined enough under Richt is debatable. What’s irrefutable is the perception that some of Richt’s teams lacked discipline, on and off the field.
There will be no such perception with Smart.
The biggest question is, “How much talent do the Bulldogs have?” There’s enough to at least compete with Tennessee and Florida in the SEC East. Beyond that remains to be seen. They are thin at offensive line, receiver and inside linebacker. They’re relatively inexperienced at outside linebacker. Quarterback remains an unknown with Greyson Lambert, Brice Ramsey and Jacob Eason.
For now, all Smart cares about is getting a little better each day.
Guerry Clegg: firstname.lastname@example.org, @guerryclegg