At 47 years old, despite two decades of wear and tear from coaching college football, Georgia’s Kirby Smart exudes a boyish enthusiasm on the sidelines. Following a hard-fought win at Auburn in late September, he grinned wildly while cheering on visiting fans dressed in red and black, tossing his visor into the crowd as he walked into the locker room to celebrate with his players.
In many ways, he hasn’t changed much from his days as a Georgia player. Same love for the game. Same boundless energy. Same haircut. Same school.
Defenders Smael Mondon and Javon Bullard weren’t alive when Smart arrived in Athens as a freshman defensive back in 1994. But they know the backstory. Mondon recalled watching a clip of Smart’s playing days during a team-building meeting in camp last summer. Bullard said they’ll occasionally dig up Smart’s old highlights on their own, texting them to mess with their coach.
Mondon said “every now and then” Smart will talk smack about how he could’ve hauled in an interception they missed.
“He’ll rub those picks in your face,” Bullard said, smiling.
Smart might be better known as one of the top coaches in college football now, armed with two national championship rings. But before that, he was one of the best players in the SEC.
Smart will coach Georgia in the Orange Bowl against Florida State on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN), but 25 years ago, he hauled in a league-best five interceptions on his way to first-team All-SEC during his senior season with the Bulldogs. And that was after leading the league with six picks as a junior.
In an effort to better understand Smart’s origins, ESPN spoke to more than a dozen former teammates and coaches. Together, they painted a picture of a brilliant, driven player who they suspected one day would make a great coach. In many ways he was already a coach on the field.
“Thirteen picks?” Bullard said of Smart’s final total, which still ranks in the top 10 at Georgia. “You can’t argue with that. Hell of a career, hell of a DB and one hell of a coach.”
Steve Dennis remembers the marching orders he got shortly after Georgia coach Ray Goff hired him to coach defensive backs in the winter of 1993. “You need to go down there to Bainbridge and check out this DB,” Goff told him. When he got there, Dennis didn’t think Kirby Smart was much of a physical specimen. He was only about 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds at the time. But Dennis found Smart to be quick and intelligent, and he liked that he came from a football family — the son of a longtime high school coach. “Hey,” Dennis told Goff, “I want to coach him.” Smart signed with the in-state Bulldogs and made a strong first impression.
Richard Seymour, Georgia defensive end (1997-2000) and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame: First of all, what I’d say is — and this is no slight to anyone — you don’t see a lot of white defensive backs, right? I mean, it just kind of stood out.
Corey Johnson, Georgia defensive back (1993-96): He didn’t have any muscle tone or anything like that. You would be like, “Man, is there somebody else at your high school that we really want? Or is your dad a coach and somebody owes him a favor? Like, why are you here?”
Glenn Ford, Georgia defensive back (1994-98): I used to cut his hair. I was pretty good with him, Paul Snelling, all those guys.
Matt Stinchcomb, offensive lineman (1995-98) and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame: [His hair] was actually a lot better in college. He’s let it poof out — but I don’t have enough hair to comment.
Ford: He won’t change it. [Laughs.] We used to cut a little bit more on the sides, but … I’m talking about it’s the same Charlie Brown haircut since we’ve been in school.
Dustin Luckie, linebacker (1995-98): He had the khaki shorts and the fraternity shirt, so it looked like just be a normal guy. But I want to get this straight: Even though Kirby didn’t look imposing, he was quite an athlete.
Stinchcomb: Let’s just speak plainly and dispense with all the faux — oh, he’s a heady player and tough over the middle and a good route-runner and a lunch-pail guy and a coach on the field and all that other garbage. He’s a white guy, so you wouldn’t think he would be that fast. But he was faster than people would’ve anticipated.
Champ Bailey, defensive back (1996-98) and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame: The way he was built, you had to be some type of athlete. … You better be good at something. And he returned punts, and I’m like, nobody just goes back there and returns punts unless you are pretty good at it.
Johnson: He enrolled early, and he was just bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, just eager to learn, competitive. He was like a sponge. He wanted to hang around the older guys from both sides of the ball. I can remember him spending a lot of time with Brice Hunter and talking about the receiver side of the ball. He just wanted to touch on every angle that the game had. And that wasn’t really typical of a high school kid.
Brandon Tolbert, linebacker (1993-97): I thought I knew a little bit about football, but you could tell Kirby really knew a whole lot.
Ford: Very, very competitive. I don’t care what it was. It could be marbles, it could be debating. He wants to win ev-ery-thing.
Johnson: He’s still a high school kid and you are out there trying to go 7-on-7 and he would take his lumps. And he didn’t have to; it was not like any coaches were out there watching, but he wanted to get back out there because he wanted to get better. He wanted to be the best at what he did. He never shied away from jumping back up there and trying to apply the knowledge.
Seymour: He was always going to be in the right places. And I think as a safety, we knew he was well prepared. So just as a student of the game, obviously A-plus.
Joe Kines, defensive coordinator (1993-97): When he talked, his teammates listened. And he was fun to be around because he knew what he was talking about. He had been around [football] since he was in the fifth grade.
Bailey: He had a good time. He hung out with the guys. He was never one of those just always in a book.
Tolbert: He was very interested in what you had to say or what anybody had to say about it. He was dialed into that. And I think that helps him today.
Trey Sipe, defensive back (1993-97): He’s a fun guy, and the media never sees that because he’s always Mr. Serious and all that. He can take ribbing. And the group we had, he was one of the younger guys. But, buddy, he was witty and he could give it right back to you, dude.
Tolbert: I can’t remember if it was at lunch or breakfast, but [quarterback Mike Bobo] was just kind of messing around with him. Kirby forgot his napkin or something. He went back up there to get his napkin, and Bobo put a little hot sauce in his drink. He came back, took a sip of it, and I can’t remember exactly what Kirby said, but he jumped in him pretty good. I don’t think Mike ever did it again. Kirby’s got a pretty good vocabulary, so it’s probably one of those words.
Sipe: You couldn’t ever one-up him, man. He’d always have something in the back of his mind that he’d throw at you. You’re like, “Man, what in the world?”
Stinchcomb: He’s got a pretty active mind, a busy mind. Maybe it was him thinking about football or whatever, but it always seemed like there was something else running on his desktop, so to speak. Like, he could be sitting in class and be there in class and capturing whatever’s going on in class, but also have two or three other things that were occupying his thoughts.
Sipe: You definitely didn’t have to be around him very long to realize that he was a pretty smart cat.
Stinchcomb: I always hesitate when I talk about him as being a future coach because oftentimes it’s associated with guys that are out there just because they’re smart and maybe can anticipate and all that other stuff — that was all true — but in lieu of being a good athlete. But the guy was a good player. So even if he was half-witted, he was still a good football player. You could blitz him, he could get a quarterback on the ground. He’d come up and run support. He could play the ball in the air, and just the things that you would look for in a safety and could quarterback the back end and would.
Sipe: When he had a chance to shine, he did. I’ll never forget, we’re practicing, and they throw out the freshmen there to give us a look. It’s a live kickoff. Well, Kirby was back deep and he takes the dadgum thing all the way back for a touchdown. That’s when I knew. I was like, “This guy’s a little different, man.”
Chris Scelfo, offensive line coach (1996-98): He carried himself with this, as we say nowadays, swag. But it was just confidence because he knew what he was going to do every day. You got a consistent person every single day.
Stinchcomb didn’t mince words about what Smart was like in practice. “Obnoxious,” he recalled. “Because, yeah, he’s a talker.” Stinchcomb described Smart as “mouthy” and always “stirring it up.” And his recollection was shared by others. Johnson said Smart often boasted that he was faster than him, to which he’d reply, “Whatever, Kirby.” Ford said, “If he’s right, he’s going to let you know.” It was all in fun, though. Smart was able to talk to anyone about anything, which is how he established himself as a leader at an early age.
Seymour: One thing that stuck out to me was he was a great teammate on and off the field. I remember being a freshman in the lunchroom and him coming and sitting at my table and talking about football and life and his family and where he grew up. It was refreshing to get to know him. He was a football guy, and he was sold out for the game of football. But he understood how to bring people together.
Luckie: That’s his leadership skills. He was probably thinking, “We got to be a family,” and he took it upon himself.
Seymour: He had the ability to connect to everybody, and he was smart in how he did it. He was very natural. You know how when you’re talking to somebody and they’re not trying and just being themselves?
Tolbert: That’s why he is very good at recruiting today.
Seymour: And I thought he had a sense of accountability to his teammates to make sure that everybody is on the same page and have the same expectation level. So it created a sense of, you don’t want to let your brothers down.
Sipe: He’s highly competitive, and if there’s a breakdown, he’s going to let you know.
Ford: That was just who he was. And he was supposed to do that because he could see stuff that we couldn’t see.
Kines: I was walking down the hall one day early and I heard some racket and I thought, “Well, one coach is getting after them.” And I walked on down to the middle of the hall and I looked up, and it was Kirby and four to five defensive backs in there going over the practice tape from the day before.
Luckie: He was like an extra coach, man.
Kines: And you got to understand he wasn’t playing coach. If that were the case, it probably wouldn’t have been worth a dime.
Ford: They called him Smart the Dart; a news reporter gave it to him or something. But he had the right last name because he was smart. He could pick up defenses fast. But again, he was a coach’s son. So his football IQ was really high. Studying film and stuff, he already knew how to do that way beyond us because he had already been doing it with his dad.
Tolbert: He was very good at saying, “Hey, it’s a run,” or, “Watch a bootleg,” or, “Hey, watch the screen pass.”
Sipe: Kirby, he always knew.
Scelfo: After the first week of two-a-days when you put in your base plays, it’s hard to get anything going on offense because Kirby already knew it. It used to piss me off.
Ford: By our last year, it kind of got boring because we knew everything. So [Smart] would always come into the meeting room with the biggest bag of sunflower seeds so we wouldn’t go to sleep.
Luckie: When Coach Kines or someone got stumped, Kirby would help out. He would stump the Schwab sometimes and ask questions other people just weren’t asking. And then he would bring up some things that maybe weren’t thought about by the coaches when they were breaking film down. You could understand why they treated Kirby differently. They treated him like a coach because they knew that he put the work in. He was probably watching as much or more film than them. That’s just how he was cut.
Stinchcomb: He was a guy that definitely had an edge. He wasn’t for everybody, so to speak. How would I put it? I guess blunt is the best way, but that implies intent. It was less intent than being transparently honest. I think it was, “I could filter this, but what good would that do?”
Greg Williams, secondary coach/receivers coach (1996-2000): There were a couple of times where some of the guys weren’t carrying their load and they were having to do drills over again. He got right in a couple guys’ faces on that.
Ford: He could get up under your skin because he would say stuff that would touch you emotionally.
Stinchcomb: What I don’t want to convey is he was a jerk and he was running around spewing off, “You’re not that good.” That wasn’t it at all. But there were definitely times where it was like, “You know what? There’s no reason to mince it, so here it comes.”
Ford: I’d tell all the young guys, “That’s Kirby. If you’re listening to all the words he’s saying, you’re going to get lost. But listen to what he’s trying to tell you because he’s trying to put you in the best position to be successful.”
Seymour: A lot of people have passion, but if you can’t communicate effectively and have it resonate, it can sometimes fall flat. And he’s just the opposite.
Williams: Kirby can yell at somebody and it doesn’t alienate them. Now I’m different. If I yell at somebody, 50 percent of the time I’m alienating the guy.
Ford: Once that play was over, he was moving to the next one. And then you could make a play and he’d be the first one jumping on your back and congratulating you.
Seymour: I always remember him being in the huddle and talking about what was about to happen. As a young player, it was always refreshing for me to be around because now I started to not only just have the ability to play the game but have the ability to think the game too. So that’s what he gave me as a player.
Stinchcomb: What stood out to me even then was a willingness to speak plainly. He was not interested in comforting you with a lie. So if it wasn’t good enough, then it wasn’t good enough. And if it needed to change and it needed to change, and that was true even as a player. That’s not an easy tightrope to walk. That’s a really tricky one to walk, especially when you aren’t the best player in the backfield. And as soon as Champ Bailey set foot on campus, no one would’ve been.
Bailey: I will say my first impression as a teammate was, “Oh, this guy thinks he knows everything.” [Laughs.] Because he wouldn’t shut up. He always had something to say. He always had an opinion. But over time you realize, “Oh, he does know everything.”
Sipe remembered Smart’s debut, which included three sacks against South Carolina in the season opener of the 1995 season. But the team struggled to a 6-6 record, and Goff was fired. Coach Jim Donnan arrived, but he wasn’t the only new face that offseason. A young cornerback showed up and proved to be a generational talent, with Smart as his wingman.
Sipe: I remember the first practice that Champ [Bailey] was at as a true freshman and he was just dominating. I’ve never seen anything like that.
Seymour: Champ’s probably the best athlete that I’ve played with — high school, college or pro. He could do it all: offense, defense, special teams.
Williams: He was Travis Hunter before Travis Hunter.
In 1998, Bailey played more than 1,000 total snaps on offense, defense and special teams, including seven games with more than 100 snaps. A consensus All-American who finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting, he had 744 yards and five touchdowns receiving, 52 tackles and three interceptions on defense, and 261 yards on kickoff returns.
Bailey: [Smart] was my safety. The dynamics between the corner and the safety is your safety gets you lined up.
Ford: Our job was to make Champ not look bad. But Kirby, he was the field general.
Bailey: The guy just knew what the hell was coming, so I would always turn my ear to him. He constantly was the leader I gravitated to.
Sipe: Champ and Kirby had a real special bond. So unique. They hit it off well. Greatness knows greatness.
Bailey: [Smart] would always make comments to me that gave me the confidence that I was going to the NFL. Because he could see it. I remember we were playing Tennessee, we got our ass kicked, but I had to pick that game and he just kept saying little stuff, man. “Man, that’s a big league play. Man, the s— you’re doing today, that’s NFL-type stuff.” To have him in my ear just saying little s— like that, I didn’t understand what he meant until I look back now.
Sipe: Kirby did mentor Champ and helped him feel more comfortable. And I think things like that help Kirby decide, “You know what? I think I can be a pretty good coach if I decide to go this route in this profession.”
Seymour: They both helped one another compete at a high level.
Bailey: The mental side of the game and the preparation, I started getting a jump on that listening to guys like Kirby.
Seymour: Champ’s one of the best athletes of all time, and then you also pair that with him and Kirby always being on the same page. They were just a difficult tandem to go against and compete against for 60 minutes. I knew if we got pressure up front that those guys were going to be one of the ones that intercepted or knocked the pass down.
Williams: When he and Champ were on the same side, I would’ve thrown someplace else.
During their second year together — 1997 — things really clicked. Smart, after posting an interception in each of his first two seasons, became a magnet for the football. He would pick off six passes as a junior and five as a senior.
Seymour: He was a rangy guy. He could flip his hips and run. A lot of times you see a lot of defensive backs, they knock a lot of balls down, but the exceptional ones know how to intercept them and create turnovers.
Bailey: His stat line reveals that he was very much a ball hawk.
Ford: [Laughs.] I tipped about three of ’em to him, so he owes me some assist money.
Bailey: I remember in the end zone he jumped in front of me, took a pick from me. … If he knocked it down, we’d have a problem. So the argument for me is always short-lived because he caught the damn ball.
Scelfo: He made a great interception against Florida when we beat them for the first time in 10 years or so.
Donnan: It’d been so long since Georgia beat Florida and we finally put ’em away there my second year and we were like a 20-point underdog and he and Champ both I think got a pick in that game. All of us were so happy.
Ford: When we beat Florida, he was on all cylinders. He was making those calls, making the checks. “Hey man, watch him, he’s coming this way! Hey man, watch the inside!”
Dennis: Was he Champ Bailey? No. There’s no, “Oh there’s Champ Bailey.” No. “There’s Kirby.” He wasn’t going to Ronnie Lott you and knock your bells out, but he’s going to be at the right place.
Kines: On the goal line against Florida and it’s fourth down and inches to go. We stuck ’em all in there: the two corners got the two tight ends. And he lined up right over center. So they snap the ball, and we were fortunate enough to stop ’em. Everybody comes running off the field and going ballistic. So Kirby ran by me, and I said, “Kirby, who had that tight end?” He said, “Aw, Coach, if I were that smart, they would’ve scored on us.” Some guys might have done that out near midfield and turned someone loose and it would’ve ended with a touchdown. But Kirby had enough ball sense to know.
Sipe: One time we were in man coverage and he had gotten off of his man, and Peyton [Manning] threw him the ball. It was the weirdest thing. How did that just happen? You weren’t even covering your man and you did that. Kirby just peeled off his man, and then Peyton just threw it to him. I was like, “How in the world did you do that?”
But success was hard to come by against Tennessee overall. Smart never beat the Vols during his time at Georgia. Teammates recalled one particular game in which Smart was beaten badly by a then-young running back named Jamal Lewis, who wound up rushing for 232 yards. The next day, coaches replayed a clip, which showed Smart getting stiff-armed and whiffing on two other tackle attempts. “Son!” Kines said in his gravelly Southern accent. “I never seen anybody get run over three times on the same play!”
Ford: Jamal Lewis? Yeah …
Bailey: We got our asses kicked.
Luckie: Jamal was a man amongst boys. He was 245 pounds, running a 4.4. And they had a game plan for us. They were running it down our throats the whole time.
Johnson: I went back after I graduated and it was in the summertime and they were running hills. And I’ll never forget, I was standing at the top of the hill, and when he got up to the top of the hill it was like it was instant. [Smart] said, “Man, did you see the Tennessee game?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “How do you tackle Jamal?”
Williams: Kirby and Peyton Manning were friends because they had gone on several recruiting trips together. So when Kirby visited this school, it was the same time Peyton Manning had visited the school. Well, Kirby didn’t have such a good day up there in Knoxville. It was one of those days where you have ’em covered but Peyton Manning was throwing ’em in there. So the only way you’re going to stop that is to put him on the ground, and we weren’t putting him on the ground. So Kirby had a rough day and I didn’t think much of it. I talked to him a little bit after the game and told him, “Look, you did everything you could. Sometimes s— happens.” Well, the next morning, I came to work about 8:15 and he was sitting on the ground waiting for me right outside the building. In 43 years coaching, that was the only time a player ever waited for me.
Luckie: You can kind of see it on his face. “What could I have done a bit better to stop us from losing this game?” He did hate to lose. I wouldn’t say he was a bad sport, but you could just tell that he was extremely disappointed when we didn’t play the way we were supposed to play or he didn’t play the way he was supposed to play. He wasn’t one of those guys that was cracking jokes on the bus after we took a loss.
Bailey: He’s just a competitive dude, man. He loves to win, and I think the best thing happened to him was learning enough before he became the head coach.
Ford: That dude did everything 1,000 percent. A person in life, he’s supposed to maximize your talent. He came to practice every day and maximized his talent. I don’t remember one practice where he just didn’t give it his all. He loved the game inside and outside.
Bailey: He’s still the same person. [Laughs.] He’s a lot older and probably a lot wiser than he was back then, but I just still see that same type of individual — smart, understands the game, he’s a football guru. Football is his life.
Smart never heard his name called in the 1999 NFL draft. The Indianapolis Colts invited him to camp, but his tryout was short-lived.
Donnan: He went in there knowing it was going to be hard for him to play pro football. I mean, just like anybody, he had some skills and he had good speed, but it’s a tough road to make it in the NFL.
Tolbert: It’s a time where you’re like, “Holy cow. Everything’s kind of gone my way. I went through high school and then college and everybody’s told me what classes to take and what to eat and when to be at practice and all that.” Then all of a sudden that’s gone. But I think Kirby had a deep understanding of what he would be good at. And I think Kirby could have been good at a lot of different things. But I don’t think he could have found that love of football.
Kirby Smart, in a speech to the Terry College of Business in 2018: Peyton Manning’s out there torching me, beating me. I’m getting Marvin Harrison. I’m like, “Man, what am I doing?” I hadn’t seen this kind of speed come flying by me in forever. Well, Vic Fangio was the defensive coordinator. He called me and said, “You’re not going to make it, you know?” I had a guy come talk to me who said, “Will you go over to NFL Europe and play over here?” Which, if you go over to NFL Europe, you have to come straight back after a 12-game season and go straight into camp with the NFL team. I’d seen these guys that had just come from overseas and they were beat up, tired. I said, “Noooo, that’s not for me. I’m going straight into coaching.”
Donnan: His best friend was Mike Bobo. They were roommates and he came back to town. Mike was a GA for me and [Smart] just came over and said, “Hey Coach, I got cut.” And then I went up and talked to Coach Dooley. I said, “Look, can we just get some money for him to kind of live around here and help us? It’d be a big help.” And Coach Dooley helped me out on it. We didn’t have anything [available], but we created a position for him where he was kind of one of the first analysts back in 1999.
After one season as an off-the-field staff member under Donnan, new Valdosta State coach Chris Hatcher offered Smart a chance to coach closer to home in South Georgia. Smart stayed two seasons there before making the short trek over to Florida State as a graduate assistant. The following offseason, he connected with the man who, other than his father, would influence his career more than anyone: then LSU coach Nick Saban.
Kines: It’s like a recipe for a cake. Biscuits got flour and dough — that’s it. Put a little water in there, but that’s it. But then a cake’s got all this kind of stuff. And that’s what Kirby was. He had it all. He had all those ingredients that made him a little special. … I think what he learned from Coach Saban probably could be poured into the mixture and not left out. Kirby was always studying, learning, doing what he was supposed to do.
Ford: I don’t think he missed one place he was at. He hit the mark everywhere.
Tolbert: Kirby was very fortunate in that he jumped around a little bit early, but he was going around with Nick at LSU and in Miami. But then when they got to Alabama, he was there for 10 to 12 years.
Stinchcomb: He was sitting on the launchpad in Tuscaloosa for so long.
Ford: When he got with Coach Saban — they’re almost the same guy. [Laughs.] It just took him to another place. He learned some stuff from Coach Saban that made him who he is today. I know Coach Saban, and Kirby might be a little more over the top than Coach Saban. The way he practices, it’s harder. He’s on another level. He took what Saban did to another power. And it was already enough, but then he took it further.
Sipe: I thought when he got into college football, I was like, “Well, he’ll be great. He’ll do a great job.” But did I think he was going to take us to the national championships? I mean, that’s just amazing what he’s doing there. But yeah, it doesn’t surprise me. I mean, he’s a perfect fit for the University of Georgia. We’re lucky to have him. I tell my friends all the time, “Y’all better enjoy this, because this is the golden era of Georgia football. This is incredible, what’s going on right now.”
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