Expectations are already sky high for Kirby Smart at Georgia

Kirby Smart is off and running at Georgia, where great things are expected of Mark Richt's successor. John Bazemore/AP Photo

ATHENS, Ga. -- The May evaluation period is winding to a close, and the assistant coaches' offices at Georgia's Butts-Mehre football complex on this rainy morning are mostly empty.

The assistants are scattered out on the road recruiting, and as their boss so appropriately puts it, trying to find players who can beat Alabama.

"That's the standard in this league," says Georgia first-year coach Kirby Smart, who has had a close-up view of that standard for the past nine years, as one of Nick Saban's most trusted assistants. "At the end of the day, if you're not beating the teams on the road recruiting that you have to beat on the field, then you're probably not going to win many championships."

Like all head coaches, Smart isn't allowed by the NCAA to be off campus recruiting in May, but he's still going 100 mph prepping for a different kind of recruiting trip. He's about to catch a plane to visit a group of big-money boosters, and he's taking a video his staff put together of some of the swanky facilities other programs in the SEC, namely Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Texas A&M, have built in recent years.

"We've got to recruit at the same level of the people who are winning titles and playing for titles, and to do that, we've got to have great facilities," Smart explains. "We have the resources and the people within the radius of us to build those facilities, and we're going to recruit like crazy. We've just got to have the facilities to get them in here."

"If you get the best players in this state, you should be winning championships."
Georgia coach Kirby Smart

Georgia was behind at least half the SEC schools -- and just about everybody in the Western Division -- in the facilities arms race when Smart was hired. A long-awaited $30.2 million indoor practice facility was already in the works and should be completed by January. Smart's checklist also includes an expanded locker room at Sanford Stadium, a recruiting lounge at the stadium for recruits and their families and a new weight room that will feed into the indoor facility.

"We have to keep up, and that's the message I'm putting out there," says Smart, who is candid about the stakes of taking over for Mark Richt, who averaged nearly 10 wins over his 15-year career and was universally respected, yet was still fired.

Five-year plans in college football have long since been extinct, especially in the SEC. They went out with the rotary phone. Even four-year plans can be sketchy, and though nobody's coming right out and saying it, the fan base in Georgia, now brimming with optimism, will quickly turn impatient if Smart hasn't won an SEC title within three years.

"Let's be honest. Georgia, if you get the best players in this state, you should be winning championships," says Smart, who hasn't slowed down since he returned to his alma mater in January.

The Bulldogs recruited well in Smart's first class (seventh nationally in ESPN's rankings). He's confident they will recruit even better in the 2017 class, in which they are currently fourth in ESPN's rankings. Smart knows the state of Georgia and its high school coaches like he knows the 3-4 defense -- like he's one of their own.

That's because he is. The Bainbridge, Georgia, native is the son of a high school coach and played for the Bulldogs from 1995 to '98, including as a team captain the last season.

"I think that's why so many people are excited to see Kirby back," says former Georgia coach Jim Donnan, who coached Smart his last three years at Georgia and gave him his start in coaching as a graduate assistant in 1999. "He's helped bring a lot of the Georgia people together. He's been able to jump right in because he does know so many people, and they know him. He knows what needs to be done here and knows what a championship program looks like, and I think you saw with the 93,000 showing up at the spring game that he's got the fans behind him."

The 40-year-old Smart feels the pressure. He isn't afraid to say so. There's always a little bit more when you come back home, especially when the challenge is to go from double-digit wins to championships.

Further, this is the job Smart has been patiently waiting for since he became one of the most respected defensive coordinators in college football at Alabama. He didn't jump at just any head-coaching opportunity. He was a finalist for the Auburn job when Gus Malzahn was hired in 2013, and he didn't flinch when some suggested his head-coaching window might be slowly closing.

"Every day I pull into that parking spot that says head football coach, I get out of my car and pinch myself sometimes, just to make sure it's real, sort of like, 'Is this really happening?'" Smart says.

"I feel the pressure of the whole state. I mean, you feel it every day, and we haven't played a game. I want to be great. The people that love this place, I want to be great for them. I want to be great for us. I want to be great for these players. At times, it's overwhelming when you start thinking about the magnitude of it, but that's what we all signed up for, and I'm honored to be here."

Smart is the first to concede he won't be here for long if he doesn't start adding to the football trophy case quickly. Richt wasn't fired because he didn't win enough games. He won games at a 74 percent clip. He was fired because he didn't win enough of the right games and, after winning a pair of SEC championships in his first five seasons, didn't win another SEC title in his final 10 seasons.

"I feel the pressure of the whole state ... At times, it's overwhelming when you start thinking about the magnitude of it, but that's what we all signed up for."
Georgia coach Kirby Smart

The last SEC championship trophy to make its way to the Bulldogs' football complex came in 2005, and you have to go all the way back to 1980, when Herschel Walker romped his way into college football immortality, to find Georgia's most recent national title.

Smart was Richt's running backs coach in 2005, and he speaks with reverence when discussing his predecessor. At the same time, Smart has heard plenty from fans about what they want to see out of the new regime.

"What Mark did was remarkable," Smart said. "Averaging almost 10 wins over 15 years in the SEC is really amazing. But in the last five or six years, the East has been down, and you also have to be competitive with the West. So we know exactly why we're here and what the expectations are, and I can assure you we have those same expectations.

"If you win the SEC, you're going to be in the [College Football Playoff]. That's the aiming point: going and winning the SEC and getting in that four and then going and playing teams that maybe aren't as good as the ones you played during the year."

One of the things Smart has heard most from fans, other than their frustration with the championship drought, is that the program has become stale.

"They want passion and energy in the players," Smart said. "They want passion and energy out of the coaches. They want humility too. A lot of the fans have been like, 'We're tired of our players feeling like they're entitled when they really haven't done anything.' Their complaint is, 'We won 10 games, but who did we beat?' And it might be 12 wins one season and then eight or 10 wins another season and then eight and then six.

"They want consistency and performance, and that's what we're grinding every day to bring them."