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The Process For Millenials: Kirby Smart Has Become Better at Delivering “The Process” Message Than The Man He Learned It From

Graham Coffey

Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide came to Nashville on Wednesday for their annual appearance at SEC Media Days.

“Alabama Day”

That is what the people around this event came to call this day as Saban’s Crimson Tide ascended to the top of the sport and stayed there. Throughout the 2010’s, Alabama Day was the busiest of SEC Media Days week. 

Alabama was college football’s dominant force. 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2020- The Tide accumulated national titles at a rate never before seen in the sport. Year after year, Alabama signed the nation’s best recruits. Year after year, they fielded the sport’s best team. The numbers became staggering... 45 All-Americans. 4 Heisman Trophy winners.  

They say “it just means more” here in the SEC. For over a decade, Saban’s team was the one that meant the most. His program philosophy and organizational structure was flawless. Alabama lost first round draft picks and coordinators every season. None of those losses could offset the Saban magic.

The media and rival fans would check for cracks in the armor every spring and summer. A media member would occasionally predict that the dynasty was ending, but the Tide and Saban would quickly prove that the foundation was still solid. 

Saban talked religiously about The Process. The method is all about focusing on the present. Saban’s message to his players was that all of their present actions affected the final outcome. Their was no such thing as a trivial moment in the Alabama Football program. His teams didn’t practice until they got it right. They practiced until they couldn’t do it wrong. By focusing on doing little things with precision, the winning would take care of itself.

Not every season ended in Alabama winning a national championship. A miracle intervened in 2013 when the Iron Bowl ended in the “Kick Six” and Alabama’s bid for the first three-peat in the sport’s modern era was foiled. 2010 Auburn and 2019 LSU were one-hit wonders who caught lightning in a bottle with transcendent talents under center. Those teams managed to delay crimson confetti’s falling until the following fall, but none of them were ever built for sustained success like the Tide. Nobody ever threatened Alabama’s status as college football’s gold standard.

That history is precisely why what we witnessed in Nashville the last two days was so jarring to see… 

It is now “Georgia Day” that feels like the show stopper at SEC Media Days.

It has been an offseason filled with bad headlines for the Bulldogs. A tragic wreck took the lives of offensive lineman Devin Willock and recruiting staffer Chandler LeCroy on the night of January 15th. Since then, UGA players have had numerous speeding incidents. Some have accused Smart of not having control of his players. Others have applied more severe labels to the coach and the program. More attention has been given to Georgia’s off-field behaviors than the program’s upcoming pursuit of a third consecutive national championship. 

With that in mind, some wondered if Smart’s appearance at media days would be a little tense.

Instead, Smart worked his way through the Grand Hyatt with the type of PR savvy that many Fortune 500 CEO’s wished they possessed. On Tuesday morning he strolled to the main stage with a calm confidence. He looked simultaneously relaxed and energetic. He appeared like a man with nothing to hide, and the media treated him as such.

Georgia has a chance to become the first team to three-peat since 1935. Smart didn’t ignore the potential for history when talking to reporters on Tuesday, but he also spoke as if Georgia’s status as college football’s best program will be unaffected even if they don’t win their third straight title. 

“We expect to be good at (the) University of Georgia. We want sustained success. So we have to do that by winning every day. That's not going to change whether we win it or not this year.”

And here is the thing… He is 100% right. 

In his remarks on the main stage on Tuesday, Smart talked about complacency, taking things 24 hours at a time, and wanting a team of, “guys that think independent of outcomes.” These concepts are all straight out of the Saban playbook, but Smart is packaging and delivering Saban’s philosophy of process thinking better than Nick is right now. 

During his opening remarks, Saban also hit on some of the classic tenants of The Process.

“So we want to stay focused on the process of what we need to do to play winning football at every position. And I'm not here to create expectations for our team. Lots of people will do that. But expectations in some way are a premeditated way to create disappointment. I think you can look at it in your life and that's why I say we need to say process-oriented, not focused on the outcome, but focused on the things that we need to do to get the outcome that we want.”

Once the perennial title favorites, Saban told the room that he was not there to create expectations for his team. Though he did it within the framework of preaching about The Process, it still felt very different from Smart’s time on the podium. Kirby somehow managed to seem comfortable with the reality that all eyes will be on his quest for a three-peat while also using the platform to remind his team that it must get there one practice period at a time. 

Former Alabama QB Greg McElroy was on the SEC Network desk in the main hall on Wednesday morning. After Saban’s remarks he said the following, “Usually he (Saban) gets up there, he has a very clear message he wants to send, whether it be on big picture college athletics, whether it be to his own team. I didn’t get the sense that happened today… It was kind of all over the place.” 

On the other side of the spectrum was Smart’s time on the podium. He listed off the three costs of leadership in a segment of his remarks that highlighted the need for the individual to sacrifice in order to help the group. He then talked about the threat of complacency, openly admitting that acknowledging the threat is the first step towards stomping it out. Next he talked about the team’s six-week long deep dive study into the New Zeland All-Blacks rugby team. Smart told the media that the All-Blacks had the highest winning percentage in sport over the last 100 years. 

“One of their big mantras is better never rests. We believe that. Those are strong words now when you think about it. Think deep on it. Better never rests. Our kids understand it. Our kids have learned it. What drives us for this season is intrinsic motivation. We’re not going to be controlled by outside narratives…”

The last sentence there is key. Saban has talked about the dangers of “rat poison” for years, That term is Saban’s shorthand phrasing for outside narratives and praise from the media. At times we have seen Nick lash out at reporters for questions that were framed under the assumption that Alabama would easily win a particular game. Smart seems to have taken a philosophy of controlling what he can. 

At one point on Tuesday, Smart was asked where he gets his slogans from every year. He said that the message is the same but he has to find a way to keep it fresh. Smart understands his audience. He knows that attention spans today are shorter than ever. 

Smart has perfected “The Process for Millennials.”

When talking to Georgia players, it becomes obvious that Smart’s message is landing. Center Sedrick Van Pran told the media even more about Georgia’s offseason study. One of the things the All-Blacks do is “sweep the floor,” and Van Pran talked about how UGA’s offensive line has taken to cleaning their own spaces in the locker room. 

At one point Van Pran was asked about UGA’s game against Kentucky and whether the Bulldogs have it circled after the Wildcats played Georgia close in 2022. He gave a classic process oriented answer…

“So I would say this: We try not to get into the specifics of each game, because to be honest, every game is tough. There are a lot of opponents that give great challenges no matter who it may be, in conference, out of conference. But what I will say is that Kentucky has a great team. They really, really do play hard, especially in the trenches. Those guys are really, really talented. So I will say that we always look forward to games where we know that we'll have to like, you know, grind it out and things like that, but to be honest with you, it's like that every week. Every game, in and out of conference is a grind for us, so I will say, I do think that Kentucky is very, very talented. However, we try to make sure that we are on our best for every game.”

This answer perfectly sums up the UGA philosophy. The program’s biggest opponent each week is its own standard, not the team lining up across from it. 

On the other side of the coin was Alabama’s JC Latham. He took the stage at SEC Media Days and was asked about how he felt about expectations for Alabama being lower than usual following last year’s two-loss season…

“Disrespectful. I don’t appreciate that at all,” Latham said. “Understanding this group, I know we’re gonna win it all, national championship, undefeated, Joe Moore Award, I want that also.”

Latham mentioned that teams were already counting Bama out after the loss of Will Anderson and Bryce Young, both top three overall picks in the NFL Draft. Then he was asked how he would feel if Alabama wasn’t the media’s preseason selection to win the SEC West.

“Fuel to the fire. I know we’re gonna go out there, compete, dominate and do what we have to do to win, and I know we’re gonna win it all and go undefeated. Whatever anybody outside of our family says essentially isn’t what matters.”

Alabama isn’t used to being doubted, so you can forgive Latham for not being familiar with how to handle it, but his comments will be served as a dose of “yummy rat poison” for all the teams on the Crimson Tide’s 2023 schedule.

It was a bit odd to see an Alabama player talk like that, especially one who was selected to represent the program at SEC Media Days. For years the Crimson Tide spoke only with its pads. When they met with the media they gave mostly robotic quotes about getting better everyday and focusing on the next opponent. 


A Divergent Path

On multiple occasions in his opening remarks, Saban touched on the challenges of replacing people in his organization. First he touched on Tommy Rees and Kevin Steele, Alabama’s new coordinators. Many in the Crimson Tide’s fanbase were glad to see Bill O’Brien and Pete Golding move along, but breaking in new coordinators is still a chore. 

Hearing Saban talk about this was when it became clear that Kirby Smart has taken all of the amazing things that Saban did at Alabama and improved upon them. 

Here was Smart during his opening remarks on Tuesday: “Every full-time coach on this year's staff -- listen to me carefully -- every full-time coach on this year's staff was on last year's staff. Tell me the last time a National Championship team can say that. The same strength and conditioning coach, Scott Sinclair; the same player development coach, Jonas Jennings; and the same athletic trainer, Ron Courson, has been at our place for eight consecutive years, the entire time I've been there.”

Georgia lost OC Todd Monken to the NFL, but Smart has built an internal pipeline of sorts. Even at the peak of his powers, Saban’s program was notorious for burning out coaches. Rising stars in the coaching business were always eager to come to Alabama and get a year with Saban on their resume. They were also eager to leave. Ironically enough, Smart himself was the only one who seemed able to tolerate Saban’s demanding environment year after year, serving under Saban from 2007-2015.

So what is the key to Georgia’s retention? When taking questions from reporters, Smart said something key… “I think the best thing I've done is allow coaches to do their job. Take a step back and say, you know what, maybe it's not better that I sit in this meeting and tell somebody what I think they should do.”

Simply put, Smart trusts his coaches do their jobs. That means more growth opportunities for the coaches. 

Smart continued his answer… “It's probably better that I let them do it and just oversee it and spend more time with the players so that I know Kamari Lassiter's why, I know Brock Bowers' why, I know Sedrick's why. I can probably get more out of them by spending more time with them as players.”

Smart has made himself enjoyable to work for. In doing so, he’s gotten to know his players better. That has made him better at reaching those players.

Over the last two years I’ve talked a lot about the fact that Smart has successfully reached the NIL generation in ways that nobody else in the sport has been able to. People have joked a lot about UGA’s players thinking there were prognosticators who expected them to go 7-5 in 2022. What they all missed is that the 7-5 story was a good example of the ways that Smart consistently keeps his team on the razor’s edge between disrespected and confident. That is a fragile space.

College football players are inundated with messages from everywhere these days. It is hard to bring them together as a team and it is easier than ever to lose them. 

Alabama’s best defensive player, Will Anderson, told the media the following after last year’s loss to Tennessee… “I think we probably just had a lot of anxiety. We didn’t have the same intensity that we had a couple weeks ago. We most definitely needed that to carry over to this game. But that intensity was just not where it needed to be. Probably just had a little anxiety for a big road game.”

Once upon a time it would have been unfathomable to imagine an Alabama player being nervous for anything, but the kids coming into the Tide program today are wired differently than the generation that showed up in Tuscaloosa 5-10 years ago. 

The most problematic part of Anderson’s comments? That anxiety wouldn’t exist if Saban’s process was landing fully with Alabama’s players. The Crimson Tide were great in the clutch because they played like they didn’t know they were in it. All that ever mattered was the very next play. 

After talking about replacing his coordinators, and urging the public to be patient while Alabama’s quarterback battle plays out, Saban spoke about youth on an offensive line that has struggled for a couple seasons. 

It is perhaps that position that best represents the divergent paths of the Alabama and Georgia programs. Alabama signed 15 offensive linemen from 2018-2022. 7 of them have already transferred out of the program. The Tide aren’t struggling in the recruiting rankings. Is it an evaluation problem or a development problem? Regardless of the answer, something has been broken along the offensive line. 

Saban said that the Tide have young players who have developed well up front and recruiting observers know that Bama has once again brought in a crop of heralded prospects on the offensive line. They need those players to grow up fast in order to protect a QB who will be inexperienced. 

Georgia has won back-to-back national titles by dominating on both lines of scrimmage. Once upon a time, Saban did the same. 

As the sport went through an offensive revolution, Saban followed the trend. He would often say that Alabama had to be able to score with teams in order to win in the modern game. Georgia has managed to modernize its offense over the last two seasons without losing its physical edge in the trenches. Kirby says that Georgia’s goal is to keep teams in the teens. UGA has fielded elite defenses over the last two seasons, but Smart’s offense was still capable of answering the bell when the Bulldogs gave up 41 to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff. 

Georgia evolved into an elite offense without sacrificing the edge that they had on the other side of the ball. The level of physicality in UGA’s practices has become legendary across the sport. Georgia tackles better than anyone, and that is part of the reason they’ve become so hard to beat. 

On Wednesday, Saban was asked how his team can be more physical on defense in 2023. Instead of answering, he talked about the ways the game has changed…

“I think the game makes it more difficult to be the old-fashioned physical because you’re so spread out and you’re trying to negate explosive plays… It’s harder to be just dog tough physical team that I like to be on defense because the style of play that you have to play against and it’s harder to create that. When you’re in the I-Formation and they’re running Lead Draw, man, everybody’s running hot… The backers filling the ball to ya, you’re lighting a guy up, and loving it.”

Saban isn’t wrong about the fact that the game has changed. Offenses spread the field in ways they didn’t when he arrived at Alabama in 2007. The difference is that Georgia has figured out how to dictate terms to those spread attacks. The Bulldogs have jammed Tennessee’s fast-paced offense the past two years, creating havoc and closing down spaces. Saban’s team gave up 52 points to that same offense last season in a game where they allowed the same player to catch five touchdown passes. 

Saban’s program continues to recruit raw talent at a rate that will make them a title contender every year. Still, something had changed. Alabama is no longer the standard, and Saban isn’t getting any younger.

On Wednesday, he spoke about a trip that he had put off for two years, a vacation to Italy with his wife to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. He talked about the trip as if he was almost ashamed of vacation. Always the workaholic, the tone was textbook Saban. First he told the audience that he didn’t want to go on the trip, but then he admitted that he enjoyed himself…

"But it was a fabulous time. Fabulous. And I would recommend anybody do it, lots of good culture, great architecture, art, a lot of good things to see.”

While saying those words, Saban looked pained. He went on vacation and had a good time. Maybe somewhere in the back of his mind he realized that it might be nice to travel the world with his wife while he’s still able to have a good time. Whatever he was thinking, in that moment he looked like a man in his 70’s. 

He will push for another title, but on Wednesday it was clear that his run is entering its twilight. Part of that is the undefeated record of Father Time, but it is also made clear by the ways that Georgia has become the well-oiled machine that Bama once was. 

Many of college football’s most prominent media figures have spent the summer calling for an Alabama resurgence. Few of them have backed those predictions up with logic other than Saban being Saban. The Tide may win big again, but the problem with that logic is that Smart is doing Saban better than Saban right now, 

The contrast between the two programs was made clear by a lot of things that were said this week, but it was probably best illustrated by an action that took place in silence…

After many hours of media interviews, a UGA player was walking across one of the large meeting rooms in Nashville… Suddenly he stopped. The player bent over and picked up a piece of trash that had been dropped on the carpet. It was a simple act, one done without the knowledge that anyone was watching… 

He was sweeping the floor.

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