TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Joe Kines remembers the 17-year-old gym rat at the University of Georgia. In the film room, at the mess hall, bouncing around the dorm with his teammates. The former Bulldogs defensive coordinator would recognize Kirby Smart's boyish grin and familiar flop of hair anywhere. Smart, the son of a coach in every sense of the description, was on his way to a coaching life even as a young defensive back under Kines in the mid-1990s.
"He's been on that track for a long, long time," said Kines, who retired from coaching in 2009.
He remembers a time when Smart, Mike Bobo and Will Muschamp lived together, all three the sons of coaches, all three destined to follow their fathers' leads. Bobo graduated from quarterbacking the Bulldogs to being their offensive coordinator. Muschamp bounced around and landed in Gainesville, where he has the Florida Gators poised for a BCS bowl berth in his second year on the job.
Smart didn't stay in Athens, nor did he rifle from post to post. He latched on with Nick Saban at LSU in 2004 and hasn't let go.
"He's always been a step ahead," Kines said.
While Smart's time at Valdosta State and Florida State is worth noting, his years under Saban have been the catalyst of his young career. At 36 years old, he's one of the hottest coaching names in the country. It's only a matter of time before he leaves the shadow of Saban and runs his own program. It could be this year, it could be the next.
No one has called Alabama to inquire about an interview with Smart, according to Saban -- but with three SEC head coaches' seats vacant, the line may get busy soon. There were reports Kentucky inquired about Smart just last week before choosing Mark Stoops, most recently Florida State's defensive coordinator.
Smart, who was named the American Football Coaches Association's Assistant Coach of the Year last week, said he's gotten his "master's in coaching" under Saban, following him from LSU to the Miami Dolphins to Alabama. When graduation day comes is anyone's guess.
"We want our assistant coaches to be able to fulfill the goals and aspirations that they have," Saban said.
Make no mistake, being a head coach is one of Smart's goals, but he's not ready to lunge at just any opportunity. Kines, who lives in Tuscaloosa, sees Smart as a patient man. Smart hit what Kines called "another gear" under Saban and is in "probably the best assistant's job in America" at Alabama.
"I don't think he needs to be one of those guys that chases every rabbit that jumps out in front of him," Kines said. "He's earned the right to make his own decision."
Smart nearly went for a job two years ago that would have returned him to Athens as the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator. The lateral move would have been shortsighted, according to Saban.
"It's a little bit human nature to think, like my dad used to say, the grass is always greener on top of the septic tank," Saban told reporters at the time. "You always think it's better someplace else."
If Smart had opted for greener pastures, he might be on the other side of Saturday's SEC title game pitting No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia for a shot at the BCS National Championship Game. Instead, he stayed in Tuscaloosa, got himself a raise and went back to work on sustaining what's become a defensive dynasty cloaked in crimson.
In Smart's six years at Alabama, he has helped Saban turn in five straight top-5 defenses, produced more than a dozen NFL draft picks and won two national championships. Alabama is No. 1 in scoring and total defense despite having lost seven starters from last season.
"We speak the same language and have been on the same page for a long time," Saban said of his relationship with Smart.
Players feel that kinship, too. Nico Johnson is in his fourth year under Smart and still marvels at his ability to read offenses.
"He sees things that we don't see," Johnson said. "He sees things before they even happen."
Those in-game adjustments are what Johnson has become accustomed to. It's not the sometimes domineering Saban barking orders during timeouts as some might suggest, it's Smart. Saban might be a defensive guru, but he trusts his coordinator to run the scheme.
"It's Coach Smart. He's here for a reason," Johnson said. "He tries to make us understand where he feels we're vulnerable during the game. He's going to make the right call to put us in the best situation to make a play.
"I've learned so much from him in the past three years than I ever have, even more than from Rolando McClain, because he doesn't teach it to use as a linebacker, he teaches it to us as a secondary that has to know what everybody knows from the D-linemen to the corners to the safeties. That's what makes us so good year in and year out because everyone knows what every person is supposed to do on the field."
In essence, the Tide would be lost without their defensive coordinator. Kines knows the feeling well. He can recall a game against Florida when the Gators had fourth-and-inches on Georgia, and Smart, then a sturdy defensive back, lined up over the center. Kines yelled at him, "You've got the tight end!" and Smart replied, "Not on a quarterback sneak."
"He was a coach on the field," Kines said, smiling, the stories endless. He knew then what Smart would become. "Kirby has the same enthusiasm as when he was at Georgia."
Smart has spent his life learning defenses, cutting his teeth at Georgia and developing his chops under Saban. He likely will be a head coach soon. The offer might come after Saturday's game against Georgia, or it might arrive after the bowl season in January. It could be a year from now.
Then again, he might be content in Tuscaloosa. He might stay with Saban because, as Kines has learned after four decades in coaching, there's nothing wrong with continued success.
"Being happy in coaching is not a bad thing," he said, and right now Smart is all smiles at Alabama.