ATHENS, Ga. — Kirby Smart, who is not only a football coach but a football coach’s football coach, volunteered something illuminating on Sept. 30 in a little visitors’ interview room in Knoxville, Tenn. He said the struggle of preventing college-age players from luxuriating in their own success and praise — keeping them “focused” — is actually the hardest task in coaching. That means it’s harder than even the groveling of recruiting, the unbearable study of practice film or the forced cordiality in the company of boosters who offer play-calling suggestions.
Crazily enough, the comment made an apt backdrop from which to view this breakthrough Georgia football season, although only an outsider would, at this fleeting moment, call it a breakthrough Georgia football season. As Georgia has reached 9-0 and No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, there’s a sense of Smart rummaging his Georgia-grad brain for verbal gadgets to ply in the battle against a terrible football enemy: satisfaction.
These gadgets must need chronic updating. It’s a shame Smart majored in finance and not poetry.
When, on Monday, Smart mentioned “the messaging that we create and pass down through the staff,” you might have known you were well into the 21st century. Search a thousand transcripts of John McKay, Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, and you might not find the word “messaging,” even though each of those commanders in chief did have a certain way of messaging.
Two of the latest messaging nuggets came up Monday during media sessions ahead of Georgia’s loud match coming Saturday at No. 10 Auburn. One, apparently already established, was restated by Sony Michel, one of the batch of four main Georgia running backs primed to wreak Sunday soreness on a defense near you.
“Humility is one week away,” Michel said, repeating Smart and staff, and that line is not bad, maybe an update from the ancient Roman, “All glory is fleeting,” retold at the end of the film “Patton.” It’s a handy device to repeat, even if its power probably defused when Georgia played Samford.
John Atkins, Georgia’s 315-pound nose tackle with the sparkling personality, told about another method. About a week ago, Atkins said, Georgia players wrote down three things they found positive about the season and three things they found troubling. These were read to the team, as if some sort of twisted on-campus haiku reading.
For the positive, Atkins said he mentioned the team’s unquestionable physicality, as well as its bond, which he finds formidable. Conversely, he mentioned complacency, and even though the Bulldogs haven’t demonstrated any notable complacency, Atkins said, “That’s the worst thing you can get, complacent.”
“Our freshmen, they’re undefeated,” Atkins said, soon adding, “We talk to them.”
“Our group has taken ownership,” Smart said, “and they’ve really tried to own the burden of this by preparing the right way.” Yes, they have owned the burden of 9-0 and No. 1, and huh, Which coach does that sound like? I know I can think of one. It sounds like a coach who might be maybe even one state over to the west . . .
This all means our nation has two teams in the Southeast, next door to each other, who openly try to outpace human nature in the long-standing fight against complacency. The stouter one is ongoing at Alabama, where the regime won its first national championship in 2009-10, with Smart as defensive coordinator, a position he held down for nearly a decade.
Here’s another quotation: “Why would any game in the past with Auburn have anything to do with this game?” That easily could have come either from Smart or, of course, Alabama Coach Nick Saban, and it came from Smart, on Monday. It’s often hard to believe these utterances come in the Southeast — where every game in the past with Auburn is still being played (especially that one in 2013), and will continue to be played in perpetuity — but that’s the shrewd football thinking of the moment. It’s also a reminder that while these coaches are characters in a public narrative, they often dwell in a denial that they’re characters in a public narrative.
The public narrative of Georgia might seem fresh because it is, but the players do their interviews in a room that reminds you it isn’t.
If you got the proper angle to hear Michel answer questions, you could see, just to the left of his right ear, placards honoring Georgia-to-NFL stars such as A.J. Green, Todd Gurley, Kendrell Bell and Terrell Davis. A nearby trophy case boasted the mass of hardware that went to former defensive end David Pollack, before he became an ESPN bloke. A wall across the way reminded how three of the 51 Super Bowl MVPs played for the Bulldogs: Davis in Super Bowl XXXII, Hines Ward in XL and Jake Scott way back in VII, when he outpaced Garo Yepremian for the honor.
Now they have won the Southeastern Conference East again, for the first time in five years, with a coach who led his team in exactly zero seconds of celebrating the Southeastern Conference East. “We really didn’t know until after the game,” Michel said. “There was really no celebration, and now there’s really no time for celebration.”
Their perch here in 2017, Atkins said, is “a blessing and a burden.” He said they need to run through the rest of it with blinkers, as do dogs in dog races. In most cases, people mention blinkers in reference to horses. In Athens, it’s Dogs.
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