ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia will hire Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to replace former head coach Mark Richt, who was fired Sunday after coaching the Bulldogs for 15 seasons, according to several people with knowledge of the situation.
Smart, a former Georgia safety and assistant coach, has not signed a contract with the Bulldogs, and he won't be able to do so until after the No. 2 Crimson Tide play No. 18 Florida in Saturday's SEC championship game in Atlanta.
Georgia targeted Smart from the infancy of its search and is expected to announce his hiring early next week, the sources said.
Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked about Smart during his Wednesday press conference.
"It's not my real position to confirm any of this stuff and I really can't confirm it," Saban said.
According to the sources, Georgia contacted representatives of at least a couple of other candidates, including Houston's Tom Herman, but it was apparent to the other candidates that the job was Smart's from the beginning. Herman never talked with UGA athletics director Greg McGarity about the job, the sources said. Smart, a native of Bainbridge, Georgia, has long been tied to Georgia, where he played football and graduated from in the late-1990s. Smart, who's never been a head coach, was also a leading candidate for the South Carolina job. Sources told ESPN.com that one of the reasons Georgia acted so decisively Sunday in parting ways with Richt was to ensure moving in a strong position with Smart, who was a finalist for the Auburn job in 2013 when Gus Malzahn was hired.
Smart's wife, the former Mary Beth Lycett, is a former Georgia basketball player and worked in the school's athletics department. Smart also owns a vacation lake home near the Georgia campus. Richt averaged nearly 10 wins a season in his 15 years at Georgia, but last won an SEC championship in 2005 and never won a national championship. His 74 percent winning percentage ranked fifth-highest among active FBS coaches with at least 130 victories, behind only Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops, Nick Saban and Gary Patterson.
Ultimately, Richt's championship drought was his undoing, and sources told ESPN.com that Georgia officials believe Smart could pump the kind of energy into the program, assemble the kind of staff and continue recruiting at a level that would put the Bulldogs back into the championship equation on a consistent basis. Smart was the 2009 Broyles Award winner as the country's top assistant coach, and he was also named the 2012 American Football Coaches Association Assistant Coach of the Year.
Smart, who turns 40 in December, has overseen some of the top defenses in the country at Alabama over the last eight years and is also a dogged recruiter with extensive recruiting ties throughout the South. He's been patient at Alabama and not jumped at just any head coaching opportunity, but returning to his alma mater has always been his dream job.