Some are football people. Some are former players. Some are fans. Some are a combination of all of those things.
Put it this way - nearly all of them say "We" when talking about Georgia privately.
The overwhelming consensus amongst the group of folks I spoke with was that although Georgia has no future this season as it relates to the SEC Championship, few people doubt that Kirby Smart is the guy to lead Georgia to the promise land. What most point out, however, is that most of the general public or fans don’t know just how difficult it is going to be to get there, and many point out that the Bulldogs’ talent gap is significant compared to many of the teams in the conference.
With that said, after the loss to Vanderbilt, there was some doubt for the first time with several of the folks.
“Nothing is guaranteed in coaching,” one told me. “We saw that on Saturday. UGA totally outplayed Vanderbilt and lost. That offensive line isn’t helping any… that’s a major problem. You have that figured out a lot of these problems go away.”
The offensive line problem came up consistently with almost everyone I spoke to. That’s not something easily fixed. Still, the group that Kirby is focusing on - recruits - are sold that he’s got all of the answers.
“Yeah, but these recruits - they believe in Kirby,” said one insider. “That’s the thing. He started using this loss as a selling point. He had the recruits there after the game just outside of the locker room saying: ‘See, this is why we need you here really bad. You can help us right now.’ All coaches say that after losses. The important part is that they believe him.”
“He’s one of the best recruiters in the league,” said one current NFL player. “He recruited me when he was at Alabama. I’ve talked with him a few times since he took over. The thing for me is that recruiting has become pretty much what college football is. If you don’t have the players you just can’t do it. You look at Alabama - they just don’t have a lot of freshmen playing. Pretty much its guys who have been in that system for a while. Right now Kirby is dealing with getting guys to buy into everything he’s doing. That takes time. I mean you look at what happened to Nick that first year at Alabama. Then they got that first class in there after the first year, and everything changed. Learning all of that new stuff. It just takes time. That’s really all there is to it.”
I asked another person why he still believed that Kirby was the guy.
“Because I saw what he and that staff did behind the scenes,” the person said. “If you saw it like I did you would believe in Kirby, too. Part of all of this is that he’s going through a learning process himself. But this is about football - plain and simple. This is about football before anything else. I’m not sure how much that was the case in the past. Football was a major part of it, but right now it is 100% of the thing with Kirby being there. You can tell, too. Its a learning curve for some guys who have been in the program in the past. Really, I think there's a learning curve for everyone involved.”
“I’m not sure you could have said that in the past,” said another. “Mark loved the kids, and Kirby does as well, but there is a different feel to the program right now. I mean, I think its hard on a lot of the guys who have been here for a few years. This is totally new. Kirby is very hard on them. They are not used to it. They thought they had worked hard before, and they had a small amount of success. But now there’s a lot more work involved. I think it is taking some time to trickle into the bloodstream of the program. You are talking about changing a culture. That’s not done very simply. There’s a lot of folks that, and they might not understand this about themselves, but they are OK with OK. Really, Georgia itself has never pushed for them to do more than that. And you have to remember how special Georgia is to Kirby, and there he is trying to change the culture of a place that’s missed narrowly all too often. The difference in narrowly missing and winning is small, but getting that small part right is very difficult. That’s probably why that loss was so painful. They lost because of stupid small stuff. The major stuff they seem to have handled. But the small stuff - why is Reggie Davis out there catching the ball on the three-yard line? How many times do we have to see that? Get his ass out of there.”
“There is no question who is in charge right now,” said a former player. “None. And I played for and loved that previous staff. You didn't always know who was in charge. But now everyone knows that when Kirby walks into the room he’s the person in charge. Period. The other thing that is so big is that he’s making a lot of the kids very uncomfortable. They just are not used to this. These seniors and juniors - a lot of them really are not not playing a ton - but they’ve never had to work like this. That’s got to make for dissension in the locker room. I don’t know that, but that’s my guess from the outside. I know the younger guys have never had to work like this because they were in high school. Its something that’s taking a lot of getting used to from the players. I’m not sure if people realize just how far away they are at the offensive line, too. I mean you’ve got probably two SEC-level offensive linemen starting right now. Maybe three. And those guys - I don’t know who the hell the coach was last year, but those guys actually got worse. It was horrible. That’s a hard spot to just work out in a short time. But Kirby, I am telling you, has a plan for all of this. He’s the guy in charge. He’s the one who knows how to steer this ship. No matter how much people don’t want to hear it - what happened on Saturday was something that happens in sports. You can be the better team, play better and still lose because of a couple of plays. And really special teams is the one spot that takes such a long time to get right. I mean the entire program is in there learning a new offense and a new defense. They work on that stuff so hard. Sometimes stuff like special teams, and when not to catch the ball on the three-yard line or running back to get field a punt you have no business fielding - you think guys know that. You think… ‘hey, that’s not that hard to know’. But they don’t know it. That’s something you just have to repeat over and over - you have to practice and play special teams for a long time to get them right. When was the last time special teams were right at Georgia? You don't unlearn dumb stuff from the past."
Others were not as kind.
“Man I’m pissed,” one said. “What the f&^% was that? How do you lose to Vanderbilt? That should never happen. It just should’t. What was that play call on the final drive? Running that same play after Vandy called timeout is just insane. Just frustrating. Kirby has got to get better at clock management. Its cost them a game now. It nearly cost them the Tennessee game. The stuff before the half… I didn’t get that. Now, this is what happens with first-time coaches. They have to work things out, too. He’s just doing it at Georgia. Lots of folks do it at much smaller places. That doesn’t mean its any better. It still sucks.”
“I know that Kirby is going to build it - I really do believe that because I know what he’s about from over the last two decades. I know he’s going to get it. He has major drive. He has an edge,” another said. “But I’m not going back to games until he does. When he builds it I will be there. I don’t have time for that stuff right now. I’ve got kids. We are busy.”
Most said the new head coach doesn’t have two things most Georgia folks desperately want - time and specific players.
“He’s going to do this the way that he knows how to do it,” one insider said. “I’m biased towards Kirby - I know that - but I’ve also seen what he can do. Yes, that loss does give you cause for concern, but not majorly for me. You have to understand that Kirby believes in the system that they are running. I believe they don’t have the right parts to do it correctly right now. They have some of the parts… not all of them. But what he’s going to do is teach it the way that he knows how to teach it, and the results are the results. They could probably do a few things different than they are right now and they probably win that game, but he really believes that this particular way is the way to do it. He doesn’t want to teach something one way this year, and then teach it another way next year. He’s trying to form habits. There’s one way to do it. There is no short cut. If you don't have the kids right now you have to make it work with what you’ve got. Over time new kids come in, and there is only one way to do it. But I wouldn’t worry about that because I can tell you right now that Kirby is going to get the kids. Period. This, really, is just a matter of time. And that’s the thing folks don’t want to hear even though it is true. They want it now. He can’t give that to them.”
Several former players who have recently left the program and still know a lot of the players on the team confirm that Kirby’s style is much more action packed. The workload is significantly more than the previous staff. Some players asked Alabama transfer Mo Smith how things were different at Alabama under Nick Saban. Smith’s answer: “That’s just the thing… its exactly the same. We are doing exactly what we did at Alabama.”
"I know that I don’t want to be on the wrong side of it when Kirby gets it going," said one former player in coaching. "I believe it - he will beat Nick Saban when he gets it going. He’s going to split it - split what Alabama can get."