ATHENS, Ga. -- Contrary to the insistence of every director of every live televised sporting event ever, it is not particularly compelling to watch coaches coach. This country's sporting culture has long fetishized the cult of the coach, this illusion that the game itself can be tamed, that the game, gloriously chaotic, could somehow be controlled by this Great Man if only the players would stop getting in the way. The fun of sports is watching otherworldly talented athletes do things we've never seen before, not in the reaction shots of the supposed generals trying to tell them what to do. The thrill is in the act itself, not the preparation for it or the reaction to it.
But after watching every single second of this beautiful Georgia football season, a season in which the athletic feats of Nick Chubb and Roquan Smith and Sony Michel and so many others have been breathtaking to watch, I have to say: It is downright exhilarating to watch Kirby Smart coach a football game. There is a level of focus and passion and even almost gymnastic physicality to his approach that I don't think I've ever seen before. Smart is not a general up on the hill commanding his troops from above: He's down there with them, swinging and screaming and sweating right with them. He is a 42-year-old man who, with every ounce of his being, coaches as if he is out on the field with his players. He is not the aloof growling genius of Bill Belichick or his mentor Nick Saban. He coaches like he's right there in the huddle. I guess he sort of is.
So I hope you'll forgive me when my singular memory of Georgia's staggering, flabbergasting, mind-esplodin'! 54-48 College Football Playoff semifinal win over Oklahoma at the Rose Bowl on Monday is not, in fact, of Michel's game-winning touchdown, or Lorenzo Carter's pivotal field goal block, or even Baker Mayfield devastated on the sideline, though all of those images are going to last with me for a long time. Instead, I'll remember the end of the first half, with Georgia down 24-14 and Oklahoma with a first-and-goal with under a minute left, and Kirby Smart coaching like the entire lower half of his body were on fire. If a team truly takes on the personality of its coach, if the Bulldogs were watching that display, it's no wonder they pulled off the greatest comeback in Rose Bowl history. Who wouldn't?
For all the talk of Smart supposedly being a knockoff of his old boss, Saban -- and Georgia's belief that it was getting Alabama East by hiring him -- Smart has shown, in his two seasons here, to have some key differences. He is looser with the media, more likely to crack a joke. He's goofier, a bit lighter, particularly this year, after a first season in which you sensed he felt obligated to be a Saban-esque grouch. But more than anything, the difference is Smart's emotion. Even when he was at Alabama, his energy on the sideline had a tendency to keep turning him into a meme.
And of course this Photoshopped gem, which always comes in handy when Georgia flips a recruit from Alabama:
Saban shows emotion on the sideline, but Smart sprints from end to end, getting in the face of every player and taking every opportunity he has to turn every play into a teachable moment. He coaches like he is playing. Sometimes, like with D'Andre Swift's SEC championship touchdown last month, you almost think he is.
Which is why the end of that first half Monday was so compelling. Oklahoma had dominated the vaunted Georgia defense the whole half, and with less than a minute left and the ball at the three on first and goal, they looked to take a 17-point lead into halftime and they'd be getting the ball to start the second half. They'd been marching down the field every possession so far; what was three more yards?
Smart set out to use every fiber of his being to deny them those three yards. He called a timeout and gathered his defense around him, going to every individual player and explaining to each of them, one by one, what they'd be facing, what to look out for, how not to be sucked in by Oklahoma's deception. The Georgia defense got a stop. Another instruction. Another stop. A timeout, and now, you saw Smart aflame. This was not a passive, schematic, trust-the-wisdom-of-the-process football coach. This was a guy who believed with all his soul that he, personally, could stop Oklahoma from scoring. It was active, physical coaching; he ran around the defensive huddle on the sideline as if he were running a tackling drill himself. It was a wonder to watch. When we think of "great coaching," as an idea, we think of strategic concepts, or a chess match, or even an inspirational -- or earth-scorching -- halftime speech. But Smart was tearing from player to player, downloading information, covering every base, in a way that felt visceral, almost engorged. He made coaching feel like an activity every bit of tangibly exhausting as actually playing. If there was a way for a coach to stop Oklahoma from scoring himself, through pure dint of preparation and passion, Smart was going to find it.
It turned out that he didn't. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, who is the same age as Aaron Rodgers, had a trick up his sleeve, too; great coaches always do. Smart could prepare his players within an inch of his soul, but he still couldn't prepare them for a reverse option pass in which the target receiver is the quarterback. Oklahoma did end up scoring, despite Smart's rabid sideline dog, and the Sooners took a 31-14 lead. You can't do everything, no matter what. It is why the job is torture, no matter how you do it.
But a guy who coaches like that is going to have his moment. Georgia was prepared enough to take advantage of an Oklahoma kicking error on the next play and put bespectacled kicker Rodrigo Blankenship in a position to blast a 55-yard field goal. And the Bulldogs were prepared enough to settle down in the second half and put on a third-quarter defensive performance that was as impressive as anything you will see in sports this year. And they were prepared enough to follow through on the full comeback, and to survive that exhilarating overtime, and somehow win, to somehow win, holy cow, how in the world did they win?
Yahoo Sports' Pete Thamel wrote a terrific deep-dive piece on how Smart had changed the recruiting game at Georgia, how he turned recruiting into a fight for an edge in every little corner by being absurdly prepared. (One example: At times, Georgia's staff would inform recruits of upcoming practices and games that the players didn't even know about themselves. Georgia is one step away from reminding high school juniors that prom is coming up, and that they should get their mom some flowers.) Smart coaches, and recruits, and runs up and down the sidelines, like a dog scrounging for every last piece of meat. He coaches like he asks his players to play. It is no wonder that they respond. It is no wonder that they never stop coming. It is no wonder that they somehow did that.
Now, of course, he has one game to go, against his old mentor, in an SEC grudge match, in Atlanta no less, that is going to set this whole region of the country ablaze. Saban is 24 years older than his protégé, seemingly mellowing over the last few years, a little more comfortable with his place in the universe.
Well, maybe just a little:
Smart coaches like a young man who believes, deep down, he could still go out there and play. Saban coaches like a man who has done it all before and must do it again, must do it forever. The Smart-Saban matchup will be broken down and psychoanalyzed all week; there is plenty of time for that. But Smart, like his mentor, is a man who believes he can shape and control reality, who can bend it to his will. It is not always fun to watch coaches do this. Most of the time it is downright oppressive. But Smart coaches like his players play, and that's just about the most fun thing to watch in sports right now.
We generally pay too much attention to coaches. We hand them too much power. We let them control more than they should control. We make them believe they are more important and vital than they actually are. But sometimes, when the right coach meets the right team at the exact right time, watching them coach can be transcendent. Georgia players wouldn't run through a wall for Smart; they'd smash it down right alongside him. They are now one game away from tearing down the biggest wall of all. You can't take your eyes off of it, off of any of it.
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