ATLANTA — Georgia hired Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart as its new head coach on Sunday, hoping he can accomplish what been routine for the Crimson Tide but eluded Mark Richt during his 15 years between the hedges:
Win a national championship.
Smart was formally approved as Richt’s successor during a meeting by the Georgia athletic association executive committee. Several media outlets reported that Smart would be the choice just days after Georgia announced it was parting ways with Richt, who won two Southeastern Conference titles and nearly 75 percent of his games in Athens but fell out of favor with many top boosters because of a perception that his team’s underachieved.
Richt has since taken a job as Miami’s coach — like Smart, returning to his alma mater.
Smart played at Georgia in the 1990s and has been Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama since 2008. The new coach turns 40 on Dec. 23 and was widely regarded as one of the top assistants in the country, with Alabama perennially ranking among the top defensive teams in the country.
“It’s an honor and privilege to return home,” Smart said in a statement. “I’m deeply appreciative … to lead one of the truly great college football programs in the country.”
When Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity decided to make a change, it was clear that Smart was his top choice all along.
Smart was expected to remain at Alabama through the College Football Playoff, though Saban would surely carve out time for him to handle some of his new duties at Georgia, such as recruiting and putting together a staff.
Saban made it clear that he believes Smart is ready to lead his own program after 17 years as an assistant at various schools, including a one-year stint as Georgia’s running backs coach in 2005.
“Because he’s bright, he really not only learned the system, but he also understood how to implement it and really understands football very, very well. He understands offensive football very, very well,” Saban said. “He’s got good relationships with the players. They respond well to him. He’s sound in how he goes about the things that we do, and we’ve worked together a long, long time. He’s as good an assistant coach, and as loyal an assistant coach, as I’ve ever had on my staff.”
Bryan McClendon, who was Richt’s assistant head coach and also works with the receivers, will serve as Georgia’s interim head coach during the bowl game. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, as well as all other assistant coaches, are also sticking with the Bulldogs at least through the bowl, to be announced later Sunday.
No. 2 Alabama won its second straight SEC title on Saturday night in Atlanta, beating Florida 29-15. The Tide, which won three national titles the last six years, was selected to the four-team playoff field and will meet Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl semifinal on New Year’s Eve.
The winner of that game will play in the national championship game on Jan. 11, which means Smart could be more than a month away from taking over full-time as Georgia’s coach.
Smart headed straight to Athens after the SEC championship game and was interviewed Sunday morning by university President Jere Morehead, the final step before the athletic association ratified McGarity’s choice.
The new coach will be formally introduced at a news conference in Athens on Monday.
“It was critical to identify a person who would focus on a specific, defined process of developing championship football teams on and off the playing field,” McGarity said. “Someone who competed at the highest levels on the playing field, was mentored by some of the very best in the game, and understood the specific ingredients necessary to excel at the highest levels of college athletics.”
Smart played defensive back at Georgia and finished his career with 13 interceptions, the fourth-most in school history.
He led the Bulldogs with six picks in 1997 and five in 1998, graduating with a degree in finance. He added a master’s degree from Florida State in 2003.
Smart agreed to a six-year contract that will pay him at least $3.75 million a year, with a base salary of $400,000 and $3.35 million from apparel deals, television and radio appearances, and other endorsements.
He also could earn performance bonuses of up to $1.6 million if the Bulldogs win a national championship. In addition, the deal includes such perks as $1,800 a month to purchase or lease up to two cars and up to $5,000 a year to cover insurance on the vehicles. If Smart took another job, he would owe the university anywhere from the full value of his deal in the first year to just the current base salary should he depart in Year 6.
In his statement, Smart made a special point to mention Saban, who choked up a bit when talking about his coordinator’s impending departure before the SEC championship game.
“I have been fortunate to spend 11 seasons with him as my mentor and have learned a tremendous amount from him as a coach and teacher,” Smart said.
Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson expects Smart to be fully committed to the Tide through the end of its season.
“He’s still our defensive coordinator,” Anderson said. “This is still his team, and we’ve still got some unfinished business.”