“When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.”
Star Wars (1977)
ATLANTA — By any measure, Kirby Smart has done a remarkable job in two short seasons as Georgia’s coach.
The former Bulldog, an All-Southeastern Conference defensive back in 1998 with 13 career interceptions, has his alma mater in Monday night’s CFP championship game in just his second season in charge. And in the heart of Dawgs Country, no less, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
There’s just one little road block for Smart and the Bulldogs, a little team from Alabama coached by Smart’s Jedi master, Nick Saban.
This is new territory for Smart but familiar ground for Saban. Not just being in the national championship game. This is his sixth trip, one at LSU and five at Alabama.
The familiar ground is this stat: Against his former assistants-turned-head coaches, Saban is 11-0.
Here’s the breakdown of Saban’s assistants-turned-victims (some of them are now ex-coaches, too):
- 0-3: Jim McElwain
- 0-3: Derek Dooley
- 0-2: Will Muschamp
- 0-2: Mark Dantonio
- 0-1: Jimbo Fisher
Saban brushes off that daunting number like Alex Bregman nonchalantly turning a double play, or like Dave Aranda tipping the valet a $20 after a night out to celebrate his fat new contract as LSU’s defensive coordinator.
“I think if the coaches that I coached against before had our team and our players, they would have beaten me as a coach,” Saban said Saturday at CFP media day. “We had an established program. Those guys had worked for me and gone on to try to create and build a program. It wasn't always exactly a level playing field in terms of who had the best players and all that.”
Nice try, Nick. But who tilted the playing field in his direction in the first place?
Saban did it in part by surrounding himself with talented coaches. In Smart’s case, Saban recognized his talent and gave him his big career break.
After graduating from Georgia, Smart worked for a season there as an administrative assistant before serving two seasons at Valdosta State as defensive backs coach then defensive coordinator. He was at Florida State from 2002-03 as a graduate assistant before Saban tapped him to be his defensive backs coach in 2004, Saban’s final season at LSU.
“Kirby was young, and I like hiring young guys and helping them develop in our system and teaching them what we do,” Saban said. “He was a secondary guy, and we were looking for a secondary coach. Some of the other coaches on the staff knew him. Will Muschamp and Derek Dooley recommended him highly.
“I was very impressed with him from Day 1. He was very bright. He learned quickly. He did a fabulous job.
“I remember wanting the job, but I wanted the job because I was a GA,” Smart said. “I didn't want the job because it was Nick Saban. I wanted the job because I didn't have a job, and it was my first career SEC job, so it was a great opportunity for me.”
After Saban left LSU for the Miami Dolphins, Smart spent one season as Georgia’s running backs coach, then went to the Dolphins to work for Saban in 2006. He followed Saban to Alabama in 2007 and remained there until getting the Georgia job 2016.
Certainly Smart learned from Saban — but unlike some coaches who have worked under successful mentors, he hasn’t tried to imitate him.
“I'm just trying to be me,” Smart said. “I'm not trying to be Nick Saban. Our personalities are not the same. Nick is incredible at what he does. I'm a different person than Nick. I'm different than Nick in recruiting.
“But that's OK. I'm OK with who I am. I'm comfortable with that.”
But what about that 11-0 stat, Kirby?
“The 11-0 he's won," Smart said, "I would venture to say he's been favored in all 11.”
Probably so. And the Crimson Tide is a 3½-point favorite Monday night.
There is another quote that applies quite aptly to the Saban-Smart dynamic — this one from David Mamet:
“Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.”
You don’t think Jolly Ol’ Nick taught Smart or any of his other assistants all his tricks, do you?
Eleven-and-oh says no. But Smart will try to be the first to beat that staggering trend.
To be the first to beat the master at his own game.