Kirby Smart, rumored to be the next head coach at the University of South Carolina, is actually the next head coach at the University of Georgia. Smart has been one of the hottest names in coaching circles for years. Had he not decided to return to his alma mater of Georgia, he almost certainly would have had an offer to be the head coach at another SEC East school, USC. While it seems Smart is a slam dunk hire, there are still plenty of unknowns.
For the Moon
Georgia let go their head coach of 15 years, Mark Richt. Richt won consistently, but he never achieved the success Georgia is looking for. Once they realized Richt couldn’t get them where they wanted to go, the Bulldogs smartly parted ways with him. Right was and is a very, very good coach, and there aren’t many coaches better than he is. In fact, the odds are, whoever succeeds him won’t do as well, but that’s far from a given.
The success of a coaching hire is more difficult to project than is commonly acknowledged. A coach who is successful at one place may be able to translate that success; he may not. A stud coordinator may be a stud coach, but just as often it takes years to transition from one role to another. Program changing players come and go. Sometimes they come to the right school at the right time, and the coach looks like a genius. Other times they sign with another school and missing out on a recruit sounds like an excuse.
There are many factors, and when an administration makes a coaching hire, there is simply no way to know what is going to happen. All an athletic director can do is make a hire that seems to make sense. He can only hire someone who has a plan, some knowledge and some skills and hope that all of those converge to produce success. At this point Kirby Smart checks all the boxes and seems like a very good hire, but there’s no guarantee.
Checking the Boxes
As I wrote yesterday in talking about Will Muschamp, a coach needs to be able to do three things to be successful. He must put together a defense, an offense and find players to execute them. Smart, it is assumed, can already do two of those three himself. He has been an effective recruiter for years, and he has been the defensive coordinator for one of the most dominating and consistent defenses in the country. He only needs to add assistants to help him execute what he knows and find an offensive coordinator to run the offense.
Finding the right coordinator is incredibly important. College football is in the midst of a transition period. Hurry up no huddle, spread attacks have moved from novelty to staple. They come in myriad varieties, and are run with varying degrees of success. They’re becoming so prevalent because, when run properly, they are causing the most trouble for defenses. The pro style attack that had been in vogue for years is increasingly being stopped at the college level.
Georiga’s offense has skewed more to the pro-style than the spread for years. Generally the Bulldogs have had the superior athletes needed to execute the offense, but some have thought the offense held UGA back. It seems unlikely that Kirby Smart will hire a coordinator to run the same offense, but that’s not certain. What is certain is that the OC is immeasurably important. Look at the Will Muschamp years at Florida for an example of what happens when that hire doesn’t produce.
Kirby Smart has been defensive coordinator at Alabama so long that you can be forgiven for not remembering the other Saban coaches who served as DC. You can also be forgiven since the list is generally not memorable. Do these names sound like a who’s who of coaching royalty: Dean Pees, Chris Cosh, Bill Miller, Phil Elamissian and Gary Gibbs? No? That’s because they aren’t. Most of these coordinators haven’t gone on the be head coaches. The one glaring exception is Will Muschamp, a coordinator of three years under Saban, whose success has been marginal.
So, how is it that Nick Saban’s teams always produce stellar defenses with less than stellar coordinators? Could it be that Saban himself is the key to the defensive success? Many think so. Nick Saban didn’t accidentally build winners everywhere he went, and his defensive prowess is well known. Many of his coordinators only served one year with him, for whatever that’s worth.
Is it possible that Nick Saban and not Kirby Smart has actually been the brains behind the Alabama defenses of the last few years? Yes, it certainly is possible, but that begs another question. If Saban was actually running the defense, why did he keep Smart around for so long? Eight years is a long time to be defensive coordinator, especially if he is not bringing any value to the table. For that reason alone, you have to think that Smart was providing something that Saban wanted. Was he running the defense? Was it actually Smart’s? More poignantly, regardless of the answer, can Smart recreate the defensive success from Alabama?
Smart’s Trump Card
No one knows what kind of head coach Kirby Smart will be. He may be a visionary; he may be a bust. He will need to replicate the defensive success he had before; that’s why he’s being hired. He must find good offensive staff to run that side of the ball for him. Those are the questions marks; here is the known. Kirby Smart can recruit.
Being able to recruit is a part of being an effective head coach. It is not, by itself, enough to make a head coach successful. There are plenty of great recruiters who lost lots of games because they couldn’t turn talent into wins. But being able to recruit is the only insurance policy a football program has. You don’t know the answers to the questions about Smart’s head coaching ability in Athens, but if he brings talent, the worst case scenario isn’t that bad.
Assume the worst for a minute. Assume the offensive coordinator doesn’t do well. Assume he can’t find a quarterback for his system and injuries take their toll. Assume Nick Saban was the genius behind his defense, and it doesn’t work in Athens without him. Assume 3 years from now Georgia has gone 21-15. That’s the worst case scenario. What would Georgia do then? They probably go find another coach, and what does that coach do? He starts over. Except, he doesn’t have to start from scratch. He starts with several years worth of Kirby Smart recruited talent. He starts with a roster loaded with key players. That’s a pretty good worst case scenario, and it’s why hiring a career coordinator to run your program isn’t as risky as it may seem.