It finally happened.
After years of being linked to some of college football’s top coaching vacancies — most notably in the SEC — Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart agreed to become Georgia’s next head coach, sources told ESPN on Tuesday.
Smart has not signed his contract nor will he be able to do so until after Alabama faces Florida in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday. Sources told ESPN that Georgia is expected to officially introduce Smart as its head coach sometime next week.
So why now? What made the Georgia job so appealing for a coach who seemed more comfortable coaching under Nick Saban than jumping ship to take over his own program?
For starters, a chance to go back home.
Smart grew up in Bainbridge, Georgia and was a safety for the Bulldogs from 1995-98. He began his coaching career as an administrative assistant at Georgia in 1999 and returned as a running backs coach in 2005 before joining Saban’s Miami Dolphins staff in 2006. He followed Saban to Alabama in 2007.
His wife, Mary Beth, is a former Georgia basketball player who also worked in the university’s athletic department. His family also owns a lake house near Athens, so there are obvious personal ties.
But the Georgia job itself is one of the most enticing in college football.
There’s a reason the Bulldogs parted ways with a 15-year veteran coach who has the highest winning percentage in school history. Georgia is expected to be an annual national contender, or at least win the SEC East division, but has failed to do so in recent years. However, the talent is there and the right coach should be able to lead the Bulldogs back to prominence.
Georgia is seventh in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite, which ranks active college football rosters based on former recruiting ratings. The Bulldogs have eight 5-star and 37 4-star prospects on their current roster.
That should make it easier for Smart, who enters as a risk or reward hire. We really know nothing up to this point other than the fact that he’s one of the nation’s top assistants and a defensive guru — although coaching under Saban could be a big reason for that.
And that creates speculation about his hire. The Saban coaching tree has featured several hit or miss hires over the last decade.
For every Jimbo Fisher and Jim McElwain — who saw immediate success — there’s a Will Muschamp or Derek Dooley ,who failed to live up to expectations in their head coaching debuts.
But Smart — like Fisher and McElwain — enters a program that doesn’t need to be overhauled. Georgia is loaded with talent, including Nick Chubb — who before his injury was one of the nation’s best running backs — and strong personnel on the defensive side of the football.
Smart’s hire also has a domino effect in the SEC. Alabama is now without a coordinator who played a crucial role in fielding one of the nation’s most consistently dominant defenses of the last decade. Sure, Saban will have his pick of some of the nation’s best defensive minds, but replacing Smart could be difficult. It’s likely that it won’t stop Alabama’s consistent dominance of the SEC, but it’s possible that the defense will go through growing pains under a new coordinator.
Georgia will also have the advantage of knowing the Tide’s scheme. Smart spent 16 seasons coaching under Saban and should know his tendencies better than any other SEC coach.
If Smart leads Georgia back to prominence, he will have to go through Alabama and his former boss. Again, we don’t know if he will be a successful coach, but with a stacked roster in a weak SEC East division, the odds are in his favor.
Smart could achieve the same success his former colleague McElwain did at Florida in 2015, only it would be less of a shock given Georgia’s returning roster.