How Kirby Smart balances his Bama past while building Georgia's future

Kirby Smart admits some things he did at Alabama will find its way into the program he wants to build, but is also mindful of the Georgia Way . "I just have to make sure it meshes," he said. John Bazemore/AP Photo

ATHENS, Ga. -- College football's most fascinating nature vs. nurture debate is taking place in a second-floor office of Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.

Kirby Smart is back on native soil, in the state where he grew up, the state where he became a high school star for his father, Sonny, and then a standout defensive back for the Georgia Bulldogs. This is his school, his state, and now he's calling the shots.

But the Georgia guy was raised, at least professionally, across state lines, at the feet of Nick Saban. Smart spent the past nine seasons on the Alabama coaching staff, and the past 10 assisting Saban in different roles. He helped make Alabama college football's hegemon, and celebrated four national championships for his efforts.

Smart now takes over a program with similar DNA but lacking a championship gene. Georgia hasn't won a weakened SEC East division since 2012. It last claimed the SEC title in 2005 and last won a national title in 1980, a week after Smart's fifth birthday.

The smart play for Smart would seem to be applying everything he learned at Alabama to Georgia.

"It's tempting," he said recently in his office at Butts-Mehre. "Coach Saban's a great coach, he does it his way, and I have to do it my way. I have to cut my own cloth. But yeah, when you say what's the infrastructure like? What's the core beliefs? A lot of that is going to be similar because that's what I know and that's what I know has been successful.

"I just have to make sure it meshes."

That last part -- make sure it meshes -- will define the first part of Smart's tenure at Georgia.

He has to be delicate with some items, forceful with others. He must be mindful of the Georgia Way -- a source of pride to many, a program hindrance to some -- while integrating the Alabama approach in needed areas. He must show respect to his predecessor, the upstanding Mark Richt, who averaged 9.7 wins over 15 years. He must cultivate players who could tune out Alabama comparisons, while instilling the edge they have lacked.

"Coach Richt had a heck of a run here for 15 years, winning 10 football games for many, many years," said Vince Dooley, who coached Georgia to the 1980 national title. "The championship has been exclusive and the expectations, perhaps too high, might have caused that. And maybe the Saban effect.

"That is, if Alabama can do it and we've got the same resources, then why can't we do it?"

The two biggest stories in Smart's brief Georgia tenure could be viewed as moves to Alabama-ize the program.

His decision to limit running back A.J. Turman's transfer options -- SEC schools and rival Georgia Tech were prohibited as well as Miami, where Richt now coaches -- drew a strong reaction. Richt rarely placed restrictions on transfers, even within the conference.

Last week, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a controversial bill allowing all athletic departments of state institutions, including Georgia's, up to 90 days to respond to open records requests. Although Smart downplayed his involvement, he visited the Capitol for a meet-and-greet with state leaders in February and discussed the differences in open records policies in Alabama, which doesn't specify a response time for athletics department requests.

Hollie Manheimer, executive director of Georgia's first amendment foundation, told the Associated Press, "No other public agency in Georgia is given 90 days to conduct its business in secret." Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, meanwhile, said of the bill, "I hope it brings us a national championship."

Smart has been back at his alma mater for less than five months, and already state laws are changing in his favor.

"I don't think Georgia's going to become Alabama," said Michael Adams, who served as Georgia's president from 1997 to 2013. "It's a different constituency, it's a different mindset, it's a much different state, a much more pluralistic state. There probably are some elements of what Coach Saban has done that will work at Georgia, and there's some elements that have been there a long time, through a number of coaches at Georgia, that I don't think will change."

Smart said athletic director Greg McGarity was very receptive to the new transfer approach. Many programs place restrictions on league opponents or future opponents. The Miami constraint drew the most criticism because Miami and Georgia have no plans to play, but Smart viewed it as "standard operating procedure" to prohibit players from immediately joining their previous coach. Smart also notes that many players have mentors who maintain relationships with multiple programs and who capitalize when a player shows the first hint of discontent.

Smart had no issue with Turman, who spent three years at Georgia and couldn't overcome the logjam at running back, transferring but the coach would like to see transfers prohibited for the first two years of a player's career. He estimates 80 percent of the players he coached who transferred later regretted it.

"That's the side that the media doesn't see," he said. "They don't see the kids calling to come back."

There's also a competitive element. After listening to Smart, McGarity thought the new approach "might remove us from being a target."

"At the end of the day, he's got to implement the policies he feels strongly about," said former Georgia linebacker Frank Ros, captain of the 1980 team. "People may not agree with him, but people support him because they realize that's his way."

It hasn't been easy for Georgia fans to see former players flourish elsewhere. Nick Marshall and Zach Mettenberger didn't transfer from Georgia -- both were dismissed for off-field issues - but both ended up starting for other SEC teams.

"When we were watching quarterbacks at Auburn or LSU that played against us pretty effectively," Adams said, "maybe we questioned it in our own mind, some of that."

Adams added of Smart's transfer philosophy: "It's an indication of Kirby's competitive nature."

The view both inside and outside the program is identical. Georgia has the makeup to be a consistent SEC and national contender. Florida and Texas produce more total recruits, but "Georgia is No. 1 per capita," said Smart, who recruited the state while at Alabama. Georgia also is making overdue facilities upgrades, building a $30.2 million indoor practice complex next to Butts-Mehre.

"The expectation should be clearly a national championship," Ros said. "There's no reason that cannot be achieved."

So why are surrounding schools -- Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Auburn, now Clemson -- reaching the championship stage instead of Georgia? Is Georgia a break or two away, as Adams suggests? Or has a mission to uphold certain values and standards -- the Georgia Way, Richt called it -- cost the program in a win-at-all-costs league?

It's known that Georgia takes a harder line on academic and disciplinary infractions than some of its SEC competitors. Georgia players who fail a drug test miss 10 percent of the season for their first offense. Three unexcused missed classes trigger a one-game suspension. Richt embraced the standards and dismissed players like Marshall, Mettenberger and defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor, who was facing a domestic assault charge. Like Marshall and Mettenberger, Taylor also found an SEC landing spot at Alabama, which later dismissed him.

Georgia successfully campaigned to change SEC bylaws and prohibit transfers with serious misconduct issues. Georgia also pushed for a league-wide drug policy, which is being considered but not yet adopted.

"Our rules are very public," McGarity said. "Some may view it as a hindrance. I view it as the right thing to do. I've heard more parents compliment the policy and want their kids in an environment that holds people accountable."

Smart embraces the standards in recruiting and stresses Georgia's commitment to them. While Georgia's championship drought makes the school -- and, as it turns out, the state government -- receptive to change, there are limits.

"My goal is to outwork everybody in recruiting, sign the best players in the state and turn these guys into the best team we can," Smart said. "Whatever rules and regulations we've got, we've got. It is what it is. I'm not going to be able to go in there and change all that."

What Smart can control is the atmosphere inside the program. He provides instant feedback, positive and negative, and has demanded daily excellence this spring, especially from top players like running back Sony Michel.

Smart is candid about his new team. Alabama had more elite players. He's a "little disappointed" in Georgia's depth, and the Bulldogs need more size and explosion. Players' response to criticism is different, as they sometimes take two or three plays to recover after being dressed down.

Trust still must be built.

"He's coming from a culture of accountability," McGarity said. "Not that we didn't have that, but it's a level of accountability where everybody's going to be on their toes to a different level."

Smart doesn't mention Alabama around Georgia's players. They don't want Tide talk. They think they're just as good, and Smart wants to foster that belief. He learned from Saban that the players' view of themselves is what matters most.

So he'll use experiences from his past but stops short of drawing direct links.

"It's modifying to fit to what we have," he said. "You can say it's copying, but not everything here is going to be the same as it was there."

Despite a decade with Saban, Smart's knowledge isn't limited to one coach or program. Saban stresses professional development, and Smart built a vast network of resources as an assistant.

Several are now league competitors: Florida's Jim McElwain, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze and South Carolina's Will Muschamp, Smart's former Georgia teammate.

"Really, the last person I knew who had that ability was Urban [Meyer] at Florida," said McGarity, who worked at Florida during Meyer's tenure. "Kirby's so well-connected."

In 2000, Dooley led a Georgia coaching search that ended with the hiring of a coordinator from college football's preeminent program, Florida State. Richt built a consistent 10-game winner at Georgia while embracing the school's tenets, but he couldn't reach the pinnacle.

Georgia once again has looked to the sport's best program for a coach. This time, it has brought in a native son, whose nurturing at Alabama could provide the missing ingredient, as long as the blend is just right.

"Kirby's a Georgia guy, so it's good to have him home," Dooley said. "It's a new beginning."