SMITH COLUMN: The business of being the number one ranked team in the country

Published 9:30 am Saturday, October 30, 2021

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This business of being the No. 1 ranked team in the country is nothing to be nervous about. It is where you want to be, so embrace it and deal with it.

When he arrived as the Bulldogs head coach, Kirby Smart didn’t make any bold predictions or lay out a time table for elite rankings and national championships. He is too smart for that, but he immediately set about developing a program, that starting in the spring each year, aspires to reach the ultimate status of No. 1 by the conclusion of the first fortnight of the New Year.

Rehashing games lost is an exercise in futility, but the blocked punt versus Alabama in the 2017 national championship game, was wrong called, (Tyler Simmons was not offsides, which the officials later admitted) or a title would have come about already. That is but a part of the game we play.

Winning a championship usually comes down to focus and attitude.

To begin with, there is no question that the longer a team totes the No. 1 ranking, the heavier it gets. Pratfalls are commonplace with teams that become giddy with success. (In 1985, Florida was the No. 1 ranked school in the country, but lost to Georgia, 24-3).

Kirby watched how Alabama embraced No. 1 and dealt with it which is what must be done if you want prolonged success. To be in the hunt annually, you have to hang around No. 1. It is a fact that while Jack Nicklaus has won more major golf tournaments, eighteen, than any professional golfer, he also was runner-up in majors, nineteen times. The more you are in contention, the more likely you have a chance to claim victory.

Anyone with any proximity to the current Bulldog head coach, can tell you how exceptional he is across the board — a no stone unturned practitioner.  He is a driven man but is not ego driven. There is a big difference.  He says the right things, never allowing for any fallout to harm his team. 

Dizzy Dean, the colorful St. Louis Cardinal pitcher always said that, “It’s not bragging if you can do it.” Steve Spurrier, former Gator coach, was given to denigrating his opponents. He got away with it a lot of times, but you never saw anybody give him any sportsmanship awards. Furthermore, the “Spurrier way” has always reeked of a lack of class.

I’ve heard Kirby evaluate a player or situation candidly in private, but would never say anything about a kid or an opponent that could come back to haunt him. When Jamie Newman chose not to play for the Bulldogs after transferring to Georgia in 2019, Kirby supported his decision and said he would always consider the quarterback “a Bulldog.”

Who knows? Jamie Newman might have a cousin or a nephew whom Georgia might want to recruit. His high school coach will remember how the Bulldog head coach treated his quarterback. High school coaches across the board will remember that treatment, too.

During Alabama’s dominant era of during the middle of the decade of 2010, I would always see Nick Saban at a function of the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association in February. Congratulate him and he would politely say thanks and immediately take to the stump addressing the challenge of the next season. 

Obviously, I am not an Alabama fan when it comes to SEC football but that was Saban being Saban — always thinking ahead. Don’t drink to past success. Worry about the next game, the next season. After all, in the coaching business, champagne often turns into hemlock. Kirby Smart is of the same ilk. He likes his team being No. 1, but he is working overtime to maintain a championship focus.   

At the end of daily practices, in the locker room after victory, he is always reminding his young charges that the best way to lose exalted status is to beat yourself. Teams always reflect the personality of their head coach.  This Bulldog team is being conditioned to not take anything for granted.

Those who were around in 1980 see an attitude with Kirby’s sixth team that reflects a throwback to the last Bulldog team to win a national championship. This is a BIG TEAM, little me, team.  It has exceptional talent.  It has excellent leadership and telling depth.

While I am advocate of worrying about the next opponent.

The next series, the next play, I have reached the conclusion that the team that can best beat Georgia, is Georgia.