ARLINGTON, Texas -- Confetti fell from the sky, Alabama’s Million Dollar Band played through its songbook and the entire team celebrated the glory of it all -- dancing, hugging one another and holding up newspapers that read, “Title bound.” Even Nick Saban joined the fun, bouncing up and down on stage for a few awkward beats.
It was a jubilant scene inside AT&T Stadium after Alabama beat Michigan State, 38-0, to win the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on New Year’s Eve and advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T against Clemson on Jan. 11. The defense had its most dominant performance of the season, giving quarterback Connor Cook no quarter and no mercy. Sparty reached the red zone only once, and at one point during the second half, Alabama had allowed as many yards rushing as it had sacks with four apiece.
You wouldn’t know it from the way the game unfolded that the architect of the defense, coordinator Kirby Smart, was physically and mentally spent. Rather than jump into the celebration and soak in the postgame fun, he appeared to seek a more quiet moment as he turned away from the commotion and stood on the sideline with his wife, Mary, and a few friends and family.
Smart was happy, of course, but for weeks the 40-year-old had the impossible task of handling two jobs at once. On one side of the candle was the responsibility of finishing out the season as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. On the other side was his role as a first-time head coach at Georgia. Getting through the bowl game seemed to burn everything in between.
The funny thing is that his players hardly seemed to notice.
Safety Eddie Jackson said that, "If he is (tired), he doesn't show it."
Junior defensive end Jonathan Allen, who had a pair of sacks against Michigan State, characterized the last two weeks with Smart as “intense.”
“So focused and locked in,” he said.
Junior defensive back Maurice Smith said he doesn't know how Smart has done it, admitting that there must have been some “sleepless nights."
Said defensive end D.J. Pettway: "I have never seen that man not come to work and not be prepared. He’s the most focused, intense guy I’ve ever played for.”
Being that locked in comes at a price, though, and right now it can be measured in how many hours of sleep Smart is losing every night.
The good news is he’s handling it well. No one seems to be worried that he’s being pulled in two different directions, sacrificing his time at Alabama for his future at Georgia. Instead, he’s left answering questions about where Alabama’s defense belongs in a historical perspective.
“I’d have to say it compares with the 2011 (defense),” he said. “I don’t know, statistically, that team was probably better with the numbers. But this team has faced probably better offenses and more talented offenses. ... It’s deep.”
For Smart, the chance to be mentioned as one of the best defenses ever can only help draw attention to Georgia. Several times in the last week, he’s been able to talk about both jobs, delivering de facto recruiting messages through the media. Just being shown on TV during the game Thursday was free publicity.
It’s clear that Smart is ready to get to Athens and get going, but with another win, he faces 10 more days until he’s released from his duties as defensive coordinator.
In the meantime, he plans on attending Georgia’s bowl game against Penn State.
Getting to Jacksonville and watching the game shouldn’t be too much of a time drain for Smart, who can’t have enough hours in the day lately. But as Alabama prepares to face a difficult Clemson offense, it represents yet another opportunity to stretch him thin.
When Smart finally mustered the energy to jog off the field after beating Michigan State, what awaited him at the entrance of the tunnel? SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who wanted to talk to his league's newest head coach.
No matter where Smart runs or where he hides, he is stuck in two worlds right now.
Just thinking about it is exhausting.