Kirby Smart knows as well as anyone that context means everything in coaching.
Over the past few years, Smart’s name was constantly thrown into the whirlpool of speculation which always accompanies the college football coaching carousel. Everyone in the industry wondered when Smart would ever leave Nick Saban’s side in Tuscaloosa with the Alabama Crimson Tide. Smart decided that with the Georgia job open, he had a chance to make his big move. He succeeded.
It’s not a routine development — hardly unheard of, but far short of automatic — for a lifelong coordinator to get his first Division I head coaching job at a program of Georgia’s stature. Consider former Mark Richt assistant Mike Bobo. He started his head coaching career at Colorado State. Speaking of Colorado State, that’s where former Saban assistant Jim McElwain worked as a head coach before moving to the SEC and the University of Florida. Speaking of Florida, the Gators hired Ron Zook to replace Steve Spurrier in 2002. Zook had never been a head coach before; his disastrous three-season tenure showed why elite programs take a huge risk when they anoint first-time D-I head coaches.
Florida learned its lesson from the Zook years. Jeremy Foley — who won’t hire another football coach again, now that he’s riding off into the sunset — tabbed Urban Meyer as Zook’s replacement. Meyer proved himself at Bowling Green and Utah before gaining an SEC job. The rest, as they say is history. Foley’s subsequent hire of McElwain — from a Mountain West school — replicated the Meyer process. McElwain’s first season shows that the Gators could very well reclaim SEC East supremacy, all because they remembered that it usually helps to hire a head coach who has been a head coach before. (Spurrier was the head coach at Duke, not to mention in the USFL with the Tampa Bay Bandits, before he was ready to revive his alma mater in 1990.)
The point is plain: Kirby Smart, despite learning at the foot of the master, Nick Saban, must nevertheless account for all sorts of details in his immediate transition from coordinator to “face of the program.” Georgia is a plum job, one of the best places to coach major college football. The SEC West is too loaded to expect the Bulldogs to be a regular SEC champion, but as Mark Richt established in his first decade on the job, Georgia should win the SEC every now and then, and win the East often enough that the accomplishment can be expected once every three years at minimum, ideally every other year. Richt’s tenure started on a fast track, but it ran out of steam, and that’s why — akin to Bo Pelini at Nebraska — nine wins ceased to be good enough.
More is expected at Georgia.
Therefore, Smart should be expected to achieve at a very high level.
The question is: Should Smart face withering heat and scrutiny if he doesn’t get it right in year one?
That’s a very complicated issue.
On one hand, Smart is unaccustomed to being a head coach. He inherits a program immersed in a period of (relative, yes, but still genuine) drift. If Georgia fans can’t accept one year of transition, clutter and inconsistency, they’re not being very realistic. Viewed through this line of argument, Smart deserves some slack.
The SEC East remains conspicuously, substantially, glaringly weak. The division is there for the taking. Missouri’s two-year rise under Gary Pinkel is a thing of the past. Will Grier had to exit Gainesville, robbing the Gators of their ideal situation under center. Butch Jones faces a make-or-break season in Tennessee. It’s a year in which a poor season from Georgia will represent a huge missed opportunity to establish control in the division. Moreover, Smart isn’t replacing a coach who went 6-6 a bunch of times; he’s replacing the man who revived Georgia football and brought it back to (non-Herschel Walker-era) Vince Dooley standards.
If Smart had replaced Ray Goff, he’d get three years on the job without any questions asked. Because Smart is replacing Richt, it is reasonable to say that if he suffers two utterly disastrous seasons, he’s in big trouble, and has no assurance that he’ll get a third year.
In many ways, Smart doesn’t have to get it right in year one… but he DOES have to figure things out by the time year two is over. Smart certainly falls in that subcategory of coaches who could be “two-year firing” victims (think of Mike Riley at Nebraska) if he doesn’t meet expectations.
To that extent, year one in Athens is freighted with a lot of pressure for Kirby Smart.
If context is everything in coaching, that reality seems appropriate for this particular situation.