A Failure of Imagination

ATHENS - Now we will see if Georgia, collectively, has an imagination.

For some time now it has not. 

Lots of men coach college football, but few coaches can capture the imagination of an institution and change it for the better. Kirby Smart now has that opportunity, and he needs to grab hold of it with two hands and pull hard as hell, because I am concerned that he’s going to have the fight of his life to change the institution that is the University of Georgia, and its athletic department. 

To paraphrase Smart: “We need to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Trust me Kirby, if you are doing things that lead to success a lot of folks who are comfortable right now are going to be very uncomfortable.

For too long Georgia fans have suffered with what could have been rather than what should be or is. Example: an indoor practice facility was half-assed in the past, and is now being torn down in place of a legitimate one. It should have been done the right way the first time, but spilt milk. 

Georgia was never serious about winning under Mark Richt. Perhaps they never respected him enough to take him seriously, but only in the final year of Richt’s 15-year term as head coach did UGA finally start giving him what he needed to win. By then it was too late. Smart is going to have to change that culture in order for his time in Athens to be as successful as his last nine years were in T Town, and that most certainly will be easier said than done. 

I’ve been around sports long enough to know and understand that getting past the last hurdle in the championship drive is the most difficult part. The difference in Georgia and Alabama isn’t just in players and coaches. It is in the spirt of the institutions themselves. The product you see on the field is a result of Alabama taking football very, very seriously every day, all of the time. Meanwhile, Georgia was taking football serious enough - enough to win 50 games in five years, but not serious enough to win an SEC or national title in that time.

Enough to be four yards short. 

That’s an institutional problem - a rabbit hole UGA has failed to crawl out of for some time now.

UGA faces a look-in-the-mirror moment right now. Can it imagine an institution in America where successful athletic programs don’t overshadow the campus of the institution they inhabit, but enhance it? Think along the lines of what North Carolina has done with basketball for decades.

What Georgia, the institution, has lacked in imagination is probably where Smart will have to help the most because for too long Georgia has totally failed when it comes to imagination. Everything has been “good enough”. Nothing in Athens seems to be elite any more - certainly not the football program. 

The new head coach must think big - very big. He must have a vision of what the future will be and start building towards that now - not just in recruiting or on the roster. That’s the easy part. The difficult part is changing attitudes about the future of not just football, but everything at UGA… more on that in a second. 

Smart must identify flaws in the football program and get them fixed immediately. If he’s not allowed to fix them immediately he should make a giant fuss about it, and remove the obstacles in the way of change. Dysfunction, so long the name of the game at UGA, can no longer be an option in Athens. Smart was hired for a reason. Now he needs to go out and execute his plan. 

“If they know what the expectation is: to be great, to win championships, to do things the right way, to go to the SEC Championship, to win the SEC East, when you build all those things with building blocks, you focus on what it takes to get you there, not the actual result — I think they’ve seen that product. They’ve seen me be part of that product for nine years.”

Smart may have been talking about his players, but he may as well have been talking to the power brokers and the red-tape makers at UGA. 

Translation: “Get the hell out of the way, I know what I am doing.”

He must set the path - and it shouldn’t just be to get to Atlanta each year. 

Getting to Atlanta for the SEC Championship, as it turns out, was simply not a big enough goal. Not getting there two seasons in a row was enough for the previous coach to be terminated. So the institution, for all its flaws and dysfunction, has set a precedent that winning ten games two years in a row is not good enough - only winning championships matters, and that will take a little bit of an adjustment on the fan base’s part if we are being honest. The institution, too, will have to adjust and actually figure out either how to get out of the way, or help - one of the two. 

Smart will be the one who, hopefully, drives a new way of thinking at Georgia. He should dream big - there are very few spots in college football with as many advantages as UGA - and understand that he will have things in his way both on the field and off it. 

One thing he will always have to navigate, and this is relatively unique to UGA in the SEC, is that the University itself is not going to bend over backwards to satisfy the football program. Needless to say that’s not an issue in the SEC West.

“There is also a standard of expectation that they are going to be held to at the University of Georgia,” Smart said Wednesday.

That’s where Smart can do some educating of his own. He can point out that his program is a walking advertisement for one of the leading research institutions in this country. More people around the state and country see the University of Georgia through the lens of football than anything else, so football does indeed matter very much. I’m not saying that football is more important than, for instance, cancer research, but reality is reality. 

Smart can point out that not only does the school’s football program bring around 100,000 people to the University at least six times a year, but increasingly more important than that - Smart is now in control of the weekly four-hour national advertisement for UGA that is the school’s football program. 

That’s a major, major asset to the University itself. And the more Smart and company win, the more eyeballs are on the institution itself. Winning at football, believe it or not, will help UGA’s monumental task of trying to hit its fundraising goal of $1 billion by 2020. Least we forget the data that overwhelmingly suggests that success in football brings in more applications, and therefore, makes institutions much more competitive and prestigious. 

Football matters more than some folks realize, and now it is time for Smart to do for the UGA community itself what he’s done for a long time as an assistant coach - imagine what is possible, and go take it.

No, not what is possible - what should be. 

If he can do that, the wins, banners and trophies will follow.


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