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Why Kirby Smart's month will be exhausting

Almost exactly a year ago, Tom Herman was sitting in his office as the offensive coordinator at Ohio State, preparing to face Alabama in the inaugural College Football Playoff -- a game plan he worked on diligently -- until he put on his red Houston hat.

Literally.

It had the U of H logo on it, and whenever Herman wore it -- even at his desk in Columbus, Ohio, -- he was working as the new head coach of Houston. He usually played that role from 6-7 a.m., before heading into the Buckeyes' offensive staff room to break down film of Alabama and prepare for practice. He wore it at lunch, before staff meetings and practice. And he put it on again around 9 p.m., when it was time to make recruiting calls.

"When I had the U of H hat on, I wasn't thinking about plays or beating Alabama or a game plan or anything," he said. "That's kind of why I put it on, to direct all my focus on what I was doing at that time and then take the hat off and it's OK, let's go beat the Tide."

The Tide's defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart, is now the new head coach of Georgia and up next in the juggling act. He is splitting time between Athens, Georgia, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, while trying to beat No. 3 Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl, a College Football Playoff semifinal.

Coaching changes are as traditional as the holiday season, but a select few have the double-duty of becoming a head coach while at the same time game-planning to win a national championship as a coordinator. They have to hire a staff and recruit for their new program, meet their new support staff and players, live in temporary housing and travel extensively all while breaking down game film of the biggest opponent of the season.

The playoff is new, but the challenge is not.

When Dan Mullen was hired at Mississippi State in 2008, he was still coaching to win a national title with Florida. When Mark Richt was hired at Georgia 15 years ago, he was still trying to win a national title at Florida State. Herman and Mullen both pulled it off. Richt wasn't as fortunate.

Smart is smack in the middle of it all.

"It speaks volumes for Kirby's character and all that he has to want to come back and finish when it may not be the most advantageous thing for him and his future," Alabama coach Nick Saban said on Dec. 16. "To do right by the players and come back and finish and do a good job for the guys who have worked hard for him."

There's only one way to do it -- exhausted.

"It certainly was emotionally, physically, everything -- just draining," Mullen said.

"It's hard to get a lot of sleep because your mind is all over the place," said Ohio State defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who is preparing the Buckeyes for a Fiesta Bowl game against Notre Dame while being the head coach at Rutgers.

"It was the longest month of my life," Herman said. "I think I'm still recovering from it, honestly."


Mullen was hired at Mississippi State on Dec. 11, 2008, and he didn't go back to Gainesville, Florida, until Christmas Eve. He missed Florida's first few bowl practices for the BCS National Championship game against Oklahoma because he was already working at Mississippi State. He no longer needed to attend Florida's recruiting meetings because he was now recruiting against them.

"If it was just a regular bowl game, I don't know if they would've wanted me back," he said, "and I don't know if I would've wanted to do that."

Because it was for a national title, though, the Gators wanted their OC and quarterbacks coach calling the plays -- and Mullen didn't want to miss it.

"To be in a national championship game, the first thought that goes through your mind is, I want to finish what I've started," he said. "You have a chance to win a championship, especially for the players more than anything. You want to be there for the guys you recruited and the coaches who helped you get there."

Mullen mostly game-planned for the Sooners by himself, watching cut-ups on his computer at his condo in Starkville, Mississippi. When he got back to Florida, he met with then-coach Urban Meyer to mesh their plans for the post-Christmas bowl practices. When the Gators arrived at the bowl site, Mullen spent the days as their offensive coordinator and his nights as the head coach of the Bulldogs. He missed just about every team and family function that didn't have to do with X's and O's.

When Florida won the national championship, Mullen and his wife ran onto the field, he smiled for a picture with the crystal trophy, handed it back to Meyer and ran into the tunnel to make a few recruiting calls for Mississippi State.

After about three hours of sleep, Mullen was on a plane to Starkville at 6 a.m. the next day to get to his first team meeting as a head coach.

"I don't think I've ever been that exhausted in my life," said Mullen, whose wife was seven months pregnant with their first child at the time. "It does make it easier when you're playing for a national championship because they're hard to come by. I want to win. I've been with Urban so long, he knows I'm a competitor. He knows I want to win."

Mullen wasn't the only one.


Mullen started a trend of Meyer coordinators who have been hired on the brink of program-changing postseason games.

Herman left last season, and now Ash is heading to Rutgers.

"He's had it before in the past with people on his staff so he has a good idea of how to make it work," said Ash, pausing game film of Notre Dame to talk. "He and I just discussed a day-to-day operation of how to manage the best I can to be a Buckeye and being a Scarlet Knight throughout the day. He's very supportive. He's been awesome with the process and very respectful to my new responsibilities as well as the ones I'm trying to do here."

Herman said that after Ohio State beat Alabama last season, he still needed to hire a defensive coordinator for his staff at Houston. Meyer flew Todd Orlando into Columbus that Sunday for a three-hour interview with Herman.

Herman said he shared some advice with Ash about not letting the two jobs overlap.

"When you're working on Rutgers, it has to be 100 percent Rutgers and the door needs to be shut and nobody can knock on your door and ask you a question about third down against Notre Dame," Herman said. "You have to say, 'No guys, for this hour I'm Rutgers' head coach.' I think that's the biggest thing, to maintain the discipline and not let the two jobs bleed into each other."

Mullen's experience with Meyer made him all the more supportive when his assistant head coach, Tony Hughes, was recently hired as head coach at Jackson State.

"I said what I want you to do is go be the head coach at Jackson State first," Mullen said. "I give him the complete understanding because I've done it. I said, 'Hey, if you all of a sudden feel overwhelmed -- and that's OK too -- we'll adjust to that.'"


Not all coaches are as amicable to the situation as Meyer and Mullen have been.

"I think it causes a few problems," former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden said.

In 2001, the Seminoles had a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in Chris Weinke and one of the nation's most prolific passing games under then-offensive coordinator Mark Richt, who declined to comment for this story.

Richt had been hired as head coach at Georgia, and was trying to adjust to that role while preparing the Seminoles for the No. 1-ranked Sooners in the Orange Bowl. It didn't turn out well, as Florida State lost 13-2.

"No. 1, we didn't score a touchdown," Bowden said. "I think I've heard [Richt] say he felt like he was unable to do the job he wanted to do under those circumstances. He did the best he could. There's no doubt about it. He worked as hard as he could, but there's no doubt they are distracted on something like this. You're playing for a national championship, man, you need 100 percent attention."

The Buckeyes are holding Ash to it for their New Year's Six bowl.

On Dec. 10, at 4:32 a.m., Ash Tweeted, "Woke up today excited about being a part of Rutgers football. Can't wait to get around our players."

His current players responded.

"We still got another game coach," Tweeted Darron Lee.

"Umm.... The Buckeyes still have one game to win.. #FilmRoom" -- Tyvis Powell.

Alabama and Smart could have two games to win.

"I notice Alabama's defensive coordinator is going to stay until the bowl is over although he's recruiting now for Georgia," Bowden said. "His thoughts are divided. He's probably busy trying to put a staff together and look at the opponent, too. It really divides their attention and causes you to lose a little something."

As long as it's not the national title.