Full education: Kirby Smart’s path to coaching stardom began long before meeting Nick Saban

RABUN GAP, Ga. – Six miles from the North Carolina border and nine miles from the South Carolina border rests a home that escapes most GPS trackers. Drive 441 North to the base of the Smoky Mountains, past the pawn shops and first-name businesses like “Jim’s Service Center” and “Alice’s Painted Goods.”

Turn east off 441 and wind up a one-lane road to a hill where Sonny and Sharon Smart have lived since 1995, when they came here to finish out their careers as educators. It’s a tidy and modest home, with a Rose Bowl program atop the golf magazines on the coffee table and pictures of their three children and eight grandkids cluttering the bookshelves.

They call the town Rabun Gap, but it could also be considered Mountain City. Don’t worry, they’ll text turn-by-turn directions and promise a light lunch upon arrival. If the visitor happens to be a vegetarian there will be squash lasagna, just in case, to complement the cold cuts.

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Sonny and Sharon Smart greet a stranger at the door with a smile, and joke that they’ve always been a package deal – hard-nosed football coach and kind-eyed English teacher.

With the University of Georgia on the cusp of its first national title since 1980, the foundation of what allowed second-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart to lead the Bulldogs there is not as hard to find as the house itself. Sharon and Sonny Smart’s middle child has taken the family’s name from respected regionally to known nationally. The education of Kirby Smart began long before he worked 11 seasons and three jobs under Nick Saban.

With No. 3 Georgia squaring off against No. 4 Alabama on Monday night and Smart facing his former boss, a convenient mentor-student storyline emerged. Saban provided an integral and definitive influence in Kirby Smart’s coaching arc, but the foundation of Kirby’s career is in plain view. Just step inside.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart (R) learned a lot from Alabama’s Nick Saban, but he was on a path for coaching success well before he worked for him. (AP)
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart (R) learned a lot from Alabama’s Nick Saban, but he was on a path for coaching success well before he worked for him. (AP)

For nearly three hours on Thursday, the lyrically named Sonny and Sharon sat in their living room and talked about their favorite topic – their family. Sonny, a jovial old center, wears corduroy slippers and speaks in a melodic drawl from SEC central casting. Sharon shows off pictures from the annual Julymas, a summer Christmas substitute because bowl schedules don’t often allow the whole family to get together on Dec. 25. She goes through the grandkids from ages 17 to 3, the youngest splayed across the laps of the others in one picture.

Kirby grew up spending New Year’s Day watching bowl games for hours uninterrupted, the family always rooting for the SEC teams. Now he’s coaching in an All-SEC national title game, and his road there started long before he crossed paths with Saban.

– – – – – – – – – During a moment between the third and fourth quarter of a Georgia game earlier this season, Kirby Smart paced down the sideline and made eye contact with his dad. As Georgia’s Redcoat band blasted out its traditional song, “Krypton,” the fans all lit up their cellphones to create a surreal scene where a football game collides with a rock concert. When Kirby Smart saw Sonny Smart, he recalls saying: “We’ve come a long way from Bainbridge, haven’t we?”

Born outside Montgomery, Alabama, raised in Bainbridge, Georgia, just over the border from the Florida panhandle, and educated in Athens, Kirby Smart’s life traced a path seemingly predestined for this game.

Sonny and Sharon knew their middle child had a penchant for activity early, as he’d actively kick in the womb in response to crowd noise at his father’s football games. Kirby Smart grew up surrounded by SEC lore, as Sharon retrieves a picture frame from another room. It holds an autograph from former Alabama coach Bear Bryant and a note from former Auburn coach Pat Dye to Sonny. Young Kirby got hooked on Herschel Walker early on and never wavered, as an inordinate amount of his school photos growing up featured him in Georgia-logoed clothing.

Sharon’s eternal childhood memory of Kirby is running through the neighborhood with his socks pulled up over his knees, ready to organize and mobilize the neighborhood kids. Sonny coached baseball early in his career, and the Smarts remember on-deck batters in practice flipping Coke bottle caps to Kirby. He’d rip at them with a broomstick, kindergarten-aged but swinging hard to keep up with the older kids.

Kirby grew up as the family’s alpha athlete, so competitive that the family stopped playing board games in the house. He played second base and shifted the infield in line with hitters’ tendencies. He played point guard in basketball, where his lifelong friend Mike Bobo recalls him as the “designated fouler” and relentless trash talker. In football, Smart played in the secondary and spent the second half of games screaming out the opponents’ plays. When Bainbridge needed a quarterback Kirby’s senior year, Sonny’s defensive coaches refused to give him up.  “Without Kirby,” they reasoned, “we wouldn’t be able to line up.” The conversation ended there.

Kirby’s competitiveness transcended to the classroom, as Sharon is certain to point out. He served as a ringer on Bainbridge High School’s math tournament team, rushing after athletic games to join his other teammates. Sharon recalls him being organized enough to lay out his school clothes before bed each night and goal-oriented enough that he set his sights on being Bainbridge High School class valedictorian. Kirby came up short, ending up as salutatorian. But he did get elected class president, joined the Key Club and spoke at graduation.

“I tried to give him quotes,” Sharon said. “But he didn’t use them. He gave one of the best speeches. His central focus was, ‘It’s On,’ which is what they’d say before games.”

Being on, always, was the only way Kirby knew.

– – – – – – – – – Sonny and Sharon met at Samford University in Birmingham in the late 1960s. Sharon needed an escort across campus on a rainy day. Sonny, the burly center on the football team, offered a spot under his umbrella. They’ve been linked together since, hopscotching the south and raising their family. They trade smiles on their living room couch, sometimes finishing each other’s stories, as they reflect back on early years that provided the ideal incubator for a life in coaching. Sonny and Sharon came from hard-working backgrounds and demanded their family focus on education, work ethic and discipline. Just like their own families did.

Sonny, 69, is Clyde Smart Jr. on his birth certificate, but has been called by his nickname since he was an infant. Sonny is the son of a truck farmer – peanuts, butter beans and turnips – from an area of south Alabama outside Dothan so rural that he claims there’s no official address.

Sharon, 68, came from a similar background, as she grew up in Plant City, Florida, and was discouraged from going to University of Florida because they sold beer in the student union. Her father drove trucks for Southland Frozen Foods. Her grandfather and middle son’s namesake, Kirby Pitts, lied about his age to fight in World War I. He later opened Kirby’s Bakery, where Sharon’s mom worked for years. (Sharon’s high school classmates still ask for the recipe of a date cookie known as a “Chinese Chew.”)

Sharon and Sonny Smart will be cheering on their son Kirby in Monday’s national title game. (Special to Yahoo Sports)
Sharon and Sonny Smart will be cheering on their son Kirby in Monday’s national title game. (Special to Yahoo Sports)

The first package deal for Sonny and Sharon came outside the Montgomery, Alabama, area where they landed their first jobs at Holtville High School. Sharon kicked off her career as an English teacher and Sonny coached the baseball team there to a state title in 1982. He coached football as well, his teams running power football out of the I-formation. What else would you expect from a former center who still focuses on line play when watching UGA games?

Sonny won more than 100 games as a head high school coach in Alabama and Georgia and is so respected that one former rival coach, George Bobo, remembers, “You’d need ice bags after you played them.” Sharon still cringes when her son uses the word “ain’t” in an interview and jokes she’s gone from being known as “Coach Smart’s wife” to “Coach Smart’s mom.”

All three kids – Karl, Kirby and Kendall – were born in the Montgomery area. The family left for Bainbridge after that state title in the spring of 1982, with Sonny and Sharon landing at Bainbridge High School. (Bainbridge won a state title that fall with Sonny serving as defensive coordinator.) Those early days hitting bottle caps, winning championships and loitering around the locker room provided Kirby’s earliest lessons. He recalls players coming over for dinner, his dad cherishing the relationships and the reciprocal investment of time and emotion required for success. The lessons of good families crossing over to good teams. “I think the first thing I remember about him as a coach is you have to spend time in the locker room with the players,” Kirby Smart said. “If you’re going to be hard on them and get on their [tails], you have to love them.”

– – – – – – – – – The man who’ll stand across the sideline from Kirby Smart on Monday night provided a graduate education in coaching. No one realized that quicker than Sonny Smart, who went to Baton Rouge in the spring of 2004 to help Kirby’s family get settled there. Along with helping around the house, Sonny Smart wanted to do a little scouting. He asked to attend practice to watch Nick Saban, Kirby’s new boss who grew up the son of a coach, fresh off the first of his five national championships.

Sonny Smart spent more than 30 years in high school coaching and has no idea what his career record is. Many of the wins came at Bainbridge, where he eventually become head coach, and he had another run at Rabun County for nearly a decade. (He and Sharon can’t quite agree on what year he stepped down, somewhere around 2003.) As accomplished and as respected as Smart was on the sideline, he was also well known amid the fraternity of high school and college coaches. He’d visit practices at Alabama, Auburn, Florida State and Georgia over the years, taking notes and borrowing concepts. After observing Saban for three days, Sonny Smart gave some blunt analysis to his son: “I’ve never seen a head coach who coaches as hard as he coaches.”

What blew away Sonny was Saban’s mastery of every facet of the program. Saban would move a student assistant on the sideline holding a card. He’d lecture the video guys on their positioning. Saban’s energy, intensity and omniscient presence stuck with Sonny Smart. “Coach [Bear] Bryant, Coach [Bobby] Bowden or Coach [Ralph] Jordan,” he said, casually rattling off Hall of Fame coaches. “Those guys were all good. Everyone has their way of doing things. But Nick’s out there coaching the corners. He’s coaching a position. They have an extra coach on that staff. He’s out there sweating and working like a graduate assistant.”

From there, a strong bond formed between Saban and Kirby Smart, who eventually became his defensive coordinator, ace recruiter and right-hand man at Alabama. Sonny says any notion of tension between them, outside of the 60 minutes of game time, is laughable. One of Sharon’s favorite memories came when Kirby and his wife, Mary Beth, had their twins during his time working for Saban. “When the twins came home, [Nick Saban’s wife] Terry came to the house and danced around with the babies,” Sharon said.

Kirby Smart (L) had 13 interceptions as a player for the Bulldogs. Now he’s coaching them in the national title game. (Getty)
Kirby Smart (L) had 13 interceptions as a player for the Bulldogs. Now he’s coaching them in the national title game. (Getty)

As Kirby ascended through the coaching ranks, the phone calls came to Sonny and Sharon Smart. Reporters would ask when they knew their son would be a coach. And the truth is, they really didn’t. Kirby Smart graduated from the prestigious Terry College of Business at Georgia, joined the SAE fraternity and had plenty of options outside football. His older brother, Karl, is a nurse practitioner in the Bay Area. His younger sister, Kendall, is a chemistry teacher and cheerleading coach at Kell High School in the Atlanta area.

There was no definitive “ah ha” moment for the Smarts when they knew their son would follow his father’s footsteps. But there was a distinct moment when Sonny Smart identified the proper mentor to guide Kirby through the highest echelon of college ranks. “This guy is special,” he told his son back in Baton Rouge after those spring practices. “You’ll never outwork him, and you better pay attention.”

– – – – – – – – – When Kirby Smart walked into Wetumpka High School in central Alabama earlier in his career, he quickly learned that the principal there played for his dad. When the school secretary walked him down the hall to meet the coach, she informed him that she’d babysat him. A similar scenario played out so many times, over so many schools, that Kirby can only laugh: “Made me wonder what kind of parents I had, every person I met wiped my butt or changed my diaper.”

Smart is joking, of course. And that’s just the kind of tall tale that would flow through this corner of the country, where football provides the connective tissue between states and counties, towns and families. As Sonny Smart coached in central Alabama, south Georgia and north Georgia, he unintentionally cultivated a recruiting radius for his son.

Before Kirby Smart starred at Georgia or worked for Saban, his family planted the earliest roots for his career. (Former Alabama All-American Dee Milliner’s father, James, played for Sonny Smart at Holtville.)

Sonny coached in the shadow of the Panhandle and the cusp of the Carolinas border, and seemingly got to know all the coaches in between.

Kirby gets a thrill every time a high school coach in Georgia or Alabama references playing his dad, as he never recognized the breadth of his dad’s reputation in real time.

After a childhood of tagging along to his father’s football practices and later participating in them, he’s received the thrill of having his dad on the Georgia sideline for games. “That’s been the most prideful thing for me,” he said. “I like to talk about our team and our players. But for me, selfishly, the most gratifying thing is when I see my dad after a game.”

On Monday, Kirby Smart will lead Georgia out of the tunnel for the program’s biggest moment in a generation. In just his second year, the Bulldogs are SEC champions and on the precipice of transcendence.

On the outside, Georgia’s transformation from the Liberty Bowl to the title game in such a short timeline remains a shock. Around Alabama and Georgia, those who watched Sonny and Sharon raise their family realize this moment has been a lifetime in the making.

As the team buses idled on Saturday morning, Smart reflected on his parents in a quiet moment. He choked up, pausing to find the proper appreciation. “She’s done a lot for our family,” he said of his mom, his voice catching in the middle of the sentence. “She’s given up a lot. They both, just mean a lot to all three of us.”

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