Why is Georgia the new Alabama? Kirby Smart's spin on Nick Saban's 'process' could be a game-changer

Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – In December of 2015, new Georgia coach Kirby Smart met with his team for the first time. He held his fingers one inch apart, explaining how close they’d been under former coach Mark Richt to playing at the highest levels of football. Smart promised the Bulldogs he’d teach them how to traverse that inch, the gulf between excellent and elite, that Georgia’s teams could never quite navigate.

Two years later, Smart has won an SEC title, secured the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class and has the No. 3 Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 2 Oklahoma on Monday. Georgia had always recruited well, consistently made top-tier bowls and been competitive in the SEC. But Smart figuring out that final inch has pushed the program into a new paradigm, staring down his old boss, Alabama coach Nick Saban, faster than anyone could have anticipated.

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A deep dive into Smart’s recruiting infrastructure – his spin on Saban’s fabled “Process” – illuminates just how Smart has nudged Georgia into the highest echelon of college football. The breadth, intensity and sheer numbers in Georgia’s recruiting operation combine with Smart’s maniacal insistency that the recruiting be based on personal touches. There’s nine new full-time employees in Georgia’s football office, most focused on recruiting, being paid more than $500,000 annually to fuel the operation. There’s also a phalanx of more than 60 support staff members, interns and students who have created one of the most vast and sophisticated recruiting ecosystems in college football. “Kirby took it from a Mustang and turned it into a Ferrari,” said Georgia linebacker coach Kevin Sherrer, who worked under Richt.

Smart laid out his vision for Georgia’s recruiting to athletic director Greg McGarity in his interview. And soon after he got the job, Smart put together a flow chart that made his vision and desires tangible. It explained in color-coded detail the jobs he needed to fill, jobs needed to be created and the reporting structure and hierarchy of everything. Hires weren’t made just to add bodies, McGarity pointed out, as every role had a function and intention. And many of those revolved around Smart’s philosophy of personalized recruiting – invitations to games through graphics via direct messages on Twitter, a focus on assistant coaches directly contacting prospects every day and enough mailings with personalized graphics to kill half of the Amazon rain forest. “We all have great weight rooms, we all have great things like that in the SEC, it’s about what makes you different,” Smart said. “That’s the relationship building.”

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has turned the program into a national powerhouse. (AP)
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has turned the program into a national powerhouse. (AP)

So how has Smart elevated the program to compete at the highest level with Saban? It starts with working harder and smarter. The recruitment of Christopher Smith II, a four-star cornerback from Hapeville Charter in Atlanta, illustrates how a massive macro operation can deliver Smart’s preferred personalized touches in the micro.

Smith’s father, Chris Smith, said he’d met and interacted with Kirby Smart in person “at least eight times” before his son committed. That included games, unofficial visits and even a scavenger hunt on a recruiting weekend where taking a picture with Smart was an item. (“That was the most fun thing,” Smith said, “it’s those little things.”)

Smith contrasted that with Alabama, where his son visited five times. “We were recruited by Alabama for a year, and I only met Nick Saban one time,” Smith said. “It was like, wow, I didn’t feel like it was important enough for him to build a relationship with us. It means something when the head coach takes time out of his day to talk to you.”

It’s too early to declare Smart’s recruiting version of the process a better one, but the success can’t be argued. In Smith II’s bedroom in Atlanta there’s a giant black storage container filled with mail, graphics and lanyards from just Georgia. It’s so heavy – Smith estimated 50 pounds – that he needed his son’s help to move it recently. That doesn’t count the graphics and direct messages on Twitter, or the constant phone and text communication from defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and assistant coach Dell McGee. They knew his high school team, schedule and offseason events better than those close to him. “Even when he was playing in the 7-on-7 circuit, they’d send mail about games,” Smith said. “There were some things I didn’t even know he was playing in and they did. It was like, ‘Whoa, how do they know this stuff?’ ”

Managing and efficiently using all the information available is the genius behind Smart’s process. There’s nearly a dozen student workers in an office known as the Dog Pound that watch tape, set up mailings and serve as do-it-all gophers to help coaches recruit better. (There’s incentives like Starbucks gift cards and dinner at Five Bar for weekly challenges like uncovering the best unknown recruit.) There’s more than 30 workers from the R.O.S.E. Society who work to put together personalized communication and help on recruiting visits. (They use a color printer the size of a Star Wars transport.) There’s a director of recruiting, director of player personnel coordinator, a graphics department (with interns), a digital media department (with interns) and even an employee focused just on the transcripts and academics of individual recruits. “I hate comparisons,” said Mel Tucker, Georgia’s defensive coordinator who worked at Alabama before joining Smart’s staff, “but the platform is similar. We try and be unique in what we do and how we do it. It’s really about the people and personal interactions.”

There’s recruiting boards in the Georgia staff room for the current recruiting class, next two years and separate boards tracking in-state recruits and national ones. The information on the prospects is similar to NFL draft boards, with details like character and academics noted and coded. Smart goes through all the boards multiple times per week, which coaches say is much more often than their previous employers. Says Tucker: “Not a day goes by where there’s not a discussion about recruiting. He leads the charge. He loves to recruit.”

Georgia coach Kirby Smart waves to fans in Pasadena, California, on Sunday. (AP)
Georgia coach Kirby Smart waves to fans in Pasadena, California, on Sunday. (AP)

McGarity did the back-of-the napkin math in an interview this week and came up with a figure of more than $500,000 annually for the nine new full-time positions added since Smart came aboard. Some were part timers moved to full time. Some were evolved positions. The number of students around the office, coaches estimate, has doubled since Smart took over. As pleased as McGarity is with the results, he’s just as enamored with the philosophy and methodology behind the positions. “I didn’t mind adding people as long as I know what they did,” McGarity said, explaining how the flow chart laid out the staff. “Kirby being able to explain that made all the sense. I’ve always said, just tell me what you need.”

Smart also sets the tone personally. Most days, he starts by watching film of five to 10 different recruits with director of recruiting Marshall Malchow and player personnel coordinator Luke Moore. On Fridays during the season, a day where most staffs exhale and get haircuts, Smart and the staff watch hours of high school film. “One thing that’s different with us is he watches more video than any coach I’ve been around,” said Shane Beamer, the special teams coordinator who has worked for Steve Spurrier and Frank Beamer. “I think that gives us an advantage. People say you’re Georgia and you’re going to get great players. That’s true, but if you recruit five offensive linemen and take two of them, the other three are going to Florida and Auburn. So you better take the right ones.”

So how’s the whole operation work together? The best example may be that when coaches return from the practice fields most days, there’s notes, addressed envelopes and printouts on their desk. The printouts have information that say Recruit X had three touchdowns against Valley Central on Saturday and plays in the first round of the playoffs against Springfield East on Friday night. That way, the coach can have the personal touch in handwriting the note without the research time. There’s addressed envelopes waiting for them and along with a stationary adorned with a graphic – think an image of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb – to write their note on. Coaches don’t even have to lick the envelopes, there’s someone who’ll do that for them.

The notes show the Dog Pound’s research, the graphics department’s ingenuity and the prospect identification of the recruiting department. It allows the coaches to maximize their interactions amid their busy schedule. “Their job is to put the ball on the tee,” says Sherrer, “and let us take a swing.”

Smart does channel his inner-Saban when he laments that the young members of his Dog Pound are being hired elsewhere. Some have gone to the NFL to be personnel department grunts. Others move up within the Georgia hierarchy as interns or student assistants. But Smart’s embrace of what they bring is a unique twist to his process. “That kid might be able to relate better than I can,” Smart said. “He knows the music they listen to, where they go, what they want to see. The more juice you have, the more youthfulness, the better off you are.”

A win on Monday has Georgia playing for the national title for the first time since 1980, one more step in traversing that final inch. Two years into Smart’s process to push Georgia back to the top, there’s a thriving recruiting ecosystem that’s detailed evidence of a plan to keep Georgia there.

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