The worst-kept secret in the Southeastern Conference these days is that Alabama Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart has agreed to take the head coaching job at his alma mater, Georgia. And why shouldn’t he? For years Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban has said that he is pleased when one of his assistants has the opportunity to have a better job.
Saban hasn’t said that yet, because the official announcement hasn’t come. But even in explaining that “It’s not my position to confirm any of this stuff, and I really can’t confirm it,” the lack of a denial said it all. Moreover, Saban continues to heap praise of his longtime assistant.
“I will say this,” Saban said. “Kirby has done an outstanding job here for us. He's worked really hard to do a great job with our defense for nine years now. I think the guy would, and I've said this many times before, do a great job as a head coach.”
While that may be on Saban’s mind, he said, “I think that everybody in this building is very, very focused on what we're trying to do for our team, because regardless of what anybody's opportunities are in the future, all those things get enhanced by us playing well in this game. So I think that's what everybody's focus should be, and I have no doubt about anybody in our organization focusing on this.”
“This game,” of course, is the Southeastern Conference Championship Game against Florida on Saturday. Kickoff in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta is at 3 p.m. CST (4 p.m. Eastern time). CBS will televise the game.
Saban said that he had talked to his team about staying focused on the game. He said, “The coaches really care about the players and I think the players care about the coaches. And if you really care about the coaches and you know a guy's done a great job and and he's worked hard to create another opportunity for himself, you ought to be happy for him. You shouldn't be worried about it, you shouldn't be concerned about it. And you also should know that we've had these situations in the past and we always seem to bring the next best good coach in, so you'll continue to get good coaching and help you develop as a football player.
“I think the players kind of get it so everybody's kind of zeroed in on what we have to do on Saturday.”
If anyone expected more from Saban on the subject, he made it clear there would be no more.
“And incidentally,” he began, -- and it didn’t sound like “incidentally” -- “don’t ask me any more questions about that, because that’s all I have to say about it. I don’t have anything else to say about it. So don’t ask. There is no more.”
So that means we must wait at least until after the SEC Championship Game to see if there is more. The rumor mill has had everyone but Saban going to Athens with Smart, notably Scott Cochran, the Crimson Tide strength and conditioning coach, and Billy Napier, Bama’s wide receivers coach.
It is the nature of being the nation’s best football coach that Saban can expect his staff to be raided at the end of each season. An athletics director in search of a new coach, or a coach in search of a new coordinator, could do much worse than going for a branch of the Saban tree.
So not only might Smart snag a few assistants with promotions and raises, other current assistants may find new opportunities in the current season of firing and hiring coaching staffs.
By the same token, Saban is not caught off guard. And as any good manager, he is prepared for contingencies and likely has a list of qualified candidates for any vacancy. Moreover, very good coaches know the value of having the line “worked for Nick Saban at Alabama” on the resume.
Earlier in the week, Saban was very complimentary of Smart. “I've said many times before in years past that Kirby has done a fantastic job for us, and I think he'll be an outstanding head coach. I don't think everything you do as an assistant necessarily prepares you as a head coach, but I also think that Kirby is very capable of doing all the things necessary to be a head coach.
“He's a good teacher. Players respond to him well. He's outgoing. He's got a good personality.”
Alabama once again this year has been one of the nation’s top defensive teams, and Saban passed along the credit.
"This is Kirby's defense,” Saban said. “He's the defensive coordinator. I try to be a good graduate assistant wherever I can to sort of help him out. It is a system that he grew up in, which is the old system that we played for years and adapted through the years. So he understands it and applies it in the game as well as anyone. I think that's the key; not only his understanding, but it's being able to apply the principles in the situations in the game. That's what he's really good at. That's what he's done.
“I think his competitive character certainly rubs off on players in terms of his spirit, his enthusiasm, his attention to detail, all these things contribute to how we've been able to play defensively. So he's done a really, really good job not just this year, but for a lot of years.
“I think Kirby's had opportunities in the past. I think he's a really good coach. He's done a great job for us, and I think he'll be a really good head coach someday.”
Smart was named one of five finalists for the 2015 Broyles Award, which is presented annually to the nation’s top assistant coach.
Smart is joined by Baylor’s Kendal Briles (OC), Clemson’s Brent Venables (DC/LB), North Carolina’s Gene Chizik (DC), and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley (OC/QB) as finalists.
The Crimson Tide defense ranks second nationally in total defense allowing just 264.6 yards per game while ranking third in scoring defense at 14.3 points per game. Alabama boasts the nation’s No. 1 rushing defense surrendering just 78.9 yards per game while ranking fifth in pass efficiency defense.
The Tide defense has been tough to all season on the ground and in the air, forcing 69 three-and-outs, ending opponents’ drives without yielding a first down 41.3 percent of the time. The defense’s average of 5.75 three-and-outs per game is second in the nation. Alabama has also forced a combined 23 turnovers through 12 games, which is second in the SEC.
The Crimson Tide defense has intercepted 15 passes to lead the conference and rank 17th nationally in that category. The defensive unit also been highly effective at returning those picks, notching an NCAA-leading 442 return yards and recording four pick-sixes. The defensive line has also gotten involved in slowing down the opposition’s passing game, batting down 16 passes (second nationally) and totaling 41 sacks (3.42 per game) to lead the SEC and rank third in the country.
Against the run, the defense has been even more impressive, allowing opposing rushers to gain an average of just 2.47 yards per carry while only reaching the end zone six times. The Alabama defense that has held every team they have played at least 50 yards below their season rushing average.
The winner of the 2015 Broyles Award will be announced Tuesday.
One point Saban has made this week and in previous years is that he doesn’t expect an assistant coach leaving to be a distraction to the team. He said, “I've got a lot of confidence in our guys that they're certainly committed to our team and doing the things they need to do to help our team be successful, and I think each and every one of them know that, if they are being considered, it's certainly an honor for them, and I certainly want to help them every way I can.
“But the better we play in every game that they're responsible for, the better opportunity they have to advance and reach the goals and aspirations they have professionally. But I'm totally confident the guys will do everything they can to help this team play well in this game.”
Maybe not beyond this game, though. A coach taking over a new team has many responsibilities, including hiring a staff and recruiting.
Earlier it had been revealed that Mark Richt, who had surprisingly been fired at Georgia last Sunday, would coach the Bulldogs in a bowl game. But Richt reportedly will be the new Miami coach, and he may feel the need to get on the job hiring his staff and doing the recruiting work needed by the Hurricanes.
That may force Smart to be on the job in Athens Saturday night.
Saban could relate from his own experience, when he was defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns when he was named head coach at Michigan State prior to the 1995 season. The Browns were in the playoffs and Saban stayed with Cleveland until the end of the season before heading to East Lansing.
“For the players, for the team, for your own personal pride and professionalism, you want to do a good job of finishing the job that you have right now,” Saban said. “I think those values are really, really important, and I think the guys on our staff, I trust that they believe in those as well.”
Asked if he had been approached by other schools about his assistant coaches, Saban said early this week, “No. I think everybody sort of respects where we are and what we’re doing, and I think that’s probably the reason that we haven’t, and I would expect those things to happen when we get finished playing.”