SMITH COLUMN: Back to Back

Published 9:30 am Friday, January 13, 2023

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LOS ANGELES – The Georgia locker room pre-game Monday was as loud and animated as I have ever seen it. In the Kirby Smart era. In any era that I have experienced.

There were flashbacks to the 1980 national championship game with Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. It was eerily quiet. “Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

I remember Rex Robinson humming along with the singer of the national anthem. Herschel Walker’s broad shoulders stretched beyond the width of his locker.  Frank Ros was slapping teammates on the back with inaudible comment. 

Last year in Indianapolis it was more reserved, less intensity but with expressions of resolve and commitment. An occasional shoutout, a salty reminder or two. The coaches lectured hard with diagrams on overhead projectors.

To win the game is the objective and how you motivate yourself varies from team to team. Championship to championship. Just win baby. 

The ’22 Dogs were dog-tired from the long season.  The pressure to win was a constant in their heads. They had to journey across the country to a place where sunshine is the norm but was beset with constant rain or the threat of in all forecasts. All weekend I kept hearing in my head Albert Hammond’s lyrics, “It never rains in Southern California, but girl don’t they warn you.  It pours, man, it pours.”

Not sure how many times I have set foot in Southern California, but I don’t ever remember it raining. Then there are those last five words of that verse in that song. It definitely poured for the game.  

I got wet walking from the uber that took me to the fantastic So-Fi stadium. Then again after the game from the stadium to the bus that got me back to the team headquarters. I kept reminding myself, “Who cares?”

Georgia fans disappointed in management’s no tailgating dictum at the classy facility should not fret — the elements would have made for soggy sandwiches and soaked burgers.  

On Saturday at the Bulldogs workout at So-Fi, I have never seen Kirby more on edge. He ramped up the intensity, exhorting his charges to give more of themselves. “You are playing a team that will play hard. I want you to be winded, I want you to get tired today.”

The normal fast pace seemed faster. More alacrity was expected in the movement from one drill to the next. Hurry-up was never more underscored. Fumble recovery drills were a top priority. On-side kicks were given emphasis along with fake field goal attempts, 4th and 1 and short yardage plays. The coach coached like he expected it to be a very close encounter.

At the end of practice as he dashed out on the field, he said to a bystander. “I hope that we are ready to play. If we aren’t, it could be a long night. These guys (TCU) really play hard.”

The fear of losing had brought about a new meaning. Obviously, he wanted to win the game. 

There is no greater competitor in the game today. But to have it on the record that this team might lose to TCU would have been a colossal defeat. Will all due respect to the Horned Frogs, a loss would have been embarrassing.

Therein lies a telling element of the Kirby Smart story. He never takes anything for granted. He had to know he had better talent but is driven by the notion that the best team does not always win — rather, the team that plays the best. 

Whatever, he would never tip his hand that he is confident about an opponent under any circumstances to anybody. God forbid, his team. 

That is why he is now the only coach in history in the College Football Playoffs to win back-to-back national championships. 

Unless you have been hiding under a rock somewhere, you know the rest of the story. No team of Kirby Smart has ever been more opportunistic, none of his championship teams have been smoother or more efficient. 

They gave of themselves; they kept the petal to the metal, and they are again the class of college football.  This was a team of muscle and finesse. Heart and soul. It featured love and laughter, commitment and enduring resolve and resiliency.   

The memory of the Bulldogs, led by the Horatio-Alger-like- quarterback, Stetson Bennett, will be featured in the UGA statistical Hall of Fame and the memory banks of Georgia loyalists forever. This was a football Rembrandt.