If you live in Bainbridge and you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably seen the above picture–Kirby Smart, who is said to be the University of Georgia’s choice for its next football coach, sitting in the media center of the old Bainbridge High School, surrounded by family, friends and coaches. It was 1994, and Kirby was just a teenager, signing his letter of intent to play college football for UGA.
Now, two decades later, Kirby Smart is on the cusp of starting a new chapter of his football life. Kirby is poised to take his first head coaching position, making national news when longtime Bainbridge residents still remember him as a clever kid who loved sports and was part of a well-liked family headed by his father, former Bainbridge High School football coach Sonny Smart.
Kirby Smart was born in Elmore County, Alabama and spent the first few years of his life in Slapout, Ala. When he was 7 years old, his family moved to Bainbridge, Ga.
Sonny Smart moved his family to Bainbridge around 1982 when he was hired as an assistant football coach at Bainbridge High School, under former head coach Ralph Jones. Sonny Smart was promoted to become the Bearcats’ head coach in 1988, after Jones returned to coach his alma mater, the Cairo High School Syrupmakers.
Kirby, who says he has a passion for competitive sports, was on the Bainbridge Barracudas YMCA swim team and also played baseball and basketball at Bainbridge High. Kirby’s brother, Karl, and sister, Kendall, also enjoyed swimming at for the Bainbridge swim team.
“I got into coaching because of my father,” Kirby said in an interview with Tide TV. “I was born and raised around it; it was all I knew. I had a passion for competitive sports and felt I knew the most about coaching.”
Mike Jones coached the defensive secondary for Bainbridge High School and remembers Kirby’s on-field awareness at the position of safety.
“He could have been anything you wanted him to be,” Jones said. “He was that good of an athlete, but more than that, he was just a great kid.”
“It’s a coach’s dream to coach somebody like that. Kirby was like a coach on the field. He was a student of the game, even in the 9th and 10th grade.”
Jones recalls the 1993 season, in which the Bearcats went to the state AAAA semifinals, which after the Bearcats’ state title in 1982 was the farthest the team had gone in the playoffs until 2015. Kirby was a senior that year, having been a backup during his sophomore year and a starter in his junior and senior years.
Kirby was slender and not especially tall, but had grown stronger under strength coach and defensive coordinator Johnny Hayes. Coach Jones said Kirby’s strength and knowledge of the game proved helpful, as Kirby notched 16 pass interceptions during his BHS career.
In addition to Kirby, who went on to play safety for the University of Georgia from 1995-1998, Coach Jones recalls a number of players who made the Bearcats’ 1993 season special.
“Derek Frazier, Bobby Frazier, Jonathan Butler-Cooper, Edward Cochran, Jeff Summerlin–all of those guys were talented in 1993,” Jones said. “It was a great group of kids, they just weren’t going to be denied…I hate to leave anyone out, all of them were special. It was fun from the time we went to practice in the summer until we finished, it was never a bad day with that group of kids.”
In the 1993 playoffs, Bainbridge faced a gauntlet of tough opponents, and defeated Colquitt County, Valdosta and Lowndes County in a row before ultimately falling to Dunwoody in a bitter cold Atlanta semifinal.
“I remember we were playing Valdosta, and it was nip-and-tuck there for a while,” Jones said. “I just knew that if they put the ball in the air, Kirby would pick it off and he had 1 or 2 interceptions that game. You waited for him to do something big and he always seemed to come through. He did a good job of reading the offense and he studied film back before many kids knew how to do that.”
Jones, whose family attend several UGA football games each year, said he enjoyed seeing Kirby play at the University of Georgia, where he had 13 career interceptions and was named 1st team All-SEC defensive back in 1998. Jones has kept in touch with the Smarts some over the years, and recalls sending Kirby a congratulatory text after Alabama won one of its three national championships under Saban thus far (2009, 2011 and 2012).
Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban praised Smart to AL.com in 2009, noting that Kirby had followed him from LSU to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, and later to Alabama.
“Kirby has done a really good job. We hired Kirby at LSU when he had just coached maybe a year or something at Valdosta State and was a graduate assistant at Florida State. … He’s a hard worker.
Saban continued, “He certainly understands our system and can apply it in the game, which I think is the part of it that a lot of people really overlook. You can know a system and you can understand it and you can teach it, but there is a whole other level to be able to go into a game and apply it where it’s effective.”
I asked Coach Mike Jones whether he thought Kirby’s personality lended itself well to being a good coach.
“I just think it’s a proven fact by what he’s done and what he’s been a part of,” Jones said. “You know, it takes everybody and I think Kirby would be the first one to tell you that. But he’s a great piece of the puzzle.
In the interview with Tide TV, Kirby Smart talked about his coaching philosophy.
“My philosophy as a coach is to get the most out of your players, just as simple as that. Whatever it is, whether it’s psychologically, physically, on and off the field, you’ve got to get the most out of your guys. My philosophy is to get the most out of your players, and the only way to get it out of them is to have a good relationship with them and be close enough to them that they trust you and you can get on to them and demand a lot of them and they still give you effort.”
“That’s what you get into the business for, helping people and wanting other people to be successful, and seeing guys come from small-town high schools to realize their dreams.”
Locals react to news of Smart headed back to UGA
“I’m thrilled to death for both him and his family, they’re a classy family all the way,” Mike Jones said. “And Kirby’s paid his dues, he’s earned the opportunity and I think he’ll make the most of it, I really do.”
The picture of Kirby Smart signing to play for UGA was taken by Joe Crine, who has been sports editor of the Bainbridge Post-Searchlight, a twice-weekly newspaper in Southwest Georgia, since 1970. Ronny Turner, whose family owned Eastside Grocery in Bainbridge for many years, was a friend of the Smart family and recalls that Crine gave everyone in the picture a copy of the newspaper in which the photo was printed.
Turner has kept the photo of Kirby’s proud moment on a bookcase in his home all this time. Today, Turner sells cars for a local dealership but found himself wanting to share in the community pride that surrounds Kirby and his family in Bainbridge. Bainbridge City Councilwoman Roslyn Palmer uploaded the photo to Facebook on Turner’s behalf and the photo has been liked and shared too many times to count.
“It’s kind of ironic–Kirby sitting there signing his letter of intent and next thing you know, he’s going to be signing to be UGA’s head coach. That’s pretty remarkable,” Turner said.
Johnny Grimsley, who runs Grimsley Pharmacy in Bainbridge with his wife, Nancy, recalled Kirby was “a fine young man a good football player.” According to Grimsley, UGA was one of the few schools who made Kirby a scholarship offer and said giving the Bainbridge boy a chance obviously has paid off way beyond their expectations.
“The Smarts have kept in touch all these years–I’ve been to Rabun County several times,” said Turner. [Note: Rabun County in Northeast Georgia is where Sonny Smart went on to coach high school football and Kirby has a vacation home there.] Sonny’s showed up several times at Grimsley Pharmacy [in Bainbridge], all the old farts hang out there every morning,” Turner said with a laugh.
Some of the other characters at Grimsley Pharmacy who have a lot of good things to say about Sonny Smart and his family include Dr. Sydney Cochran and Dr. Charles Walker, both regulars at Grimsley’s coffee table and fish frys over the years.
Turner also recalls the excitement of when a group of Bainbridge fans would travel to Athens to see Kirby play for the Bulldogs. Another of Turner’s prized possessions is a picture of himself and Kirby in his Bulldog uniform standing on the field at Sanford Stadium, “Between the Hedges.”
Kirby benefitted from more strength and conditioning in Athens, but Turner claims it was still Kirby’s smarts that led him to more success at UGA, where he was also an Academic All-American.
“Kirby wasn’t really big or extremely fast, he’s just extremely smart,” Turner said. “With his Daddy being a coach and just having whatever it is that made him know what the offense was going to do before they did, it seemed like. He’d just sprint to a place he knew they were going to be.”
Grimsley said he agreed, except for Turner’s assessment of Kirby’s speed. “He wasn’t as fast as some of these kids today, but he wasn’t slow either. Kirby could close in to the wide receiver very quickly when he needed to.”
It seems strange now that for a short time, Kirby didn’t even plan on coaching football. After trying out as a free agent for the Indianapolis Colts and being cut, Kirby returned home to Athens to serve as an administrative assistant for the Bulldogs. However, fate came calling soon, as his former UGA teammate Will Muschamp called and said he was taking a position as the defensive coordinator for the Valdosta State Blazers, a Division II powerhouse. Muschamp invited Kirby to be his secondary coach, but at first Kirby wasn’t sure, as he had several job offers in the business world.
Of course, as it turned out, Kirby followed Muschamp (who was the head coach at Florida for 2 years and is currently Auburn’s defensive coordinator) and the rest has been a steady rise to the top for both men’s careers, partly due to their affiliation with Nick Saban, who also won national titles at Louisiana State.
UGA reportedly offered Kirby the job of defensive coordinator under Richt in 2010, but Kirby stayed put in Tuscaloosa.
“Kirby becoming a head coach is something we’ve been hoping for a long time,” Turner said. “We’re just really proud of him and he represents Bainbridge well.”
Both Turner and Grimsley noted their belief that Kirby Smart is a great recruiter. How so? I asked.
“I’ve been watching Kirby since he was 7 years old and he’s always been a leader type…I don’t know how to put my finger on it, but he’s just a guy that every recruit’s mama and Daddy would like,” Turner said.
“Kirby was raised well by his parents and he enjoys meeting new people,” Grimsley said.
Dr. Cochran was sitting in Grimsley’s Pharmacy as I talked with Johnny Grimsley, and it was clear that both men were bursting with enthusiasm over the news that the boy they had seen grow up in Bainbridge is doing well in the college football ranks.
“Who wouldn’t be proud?” Grimsley said emphatically. “A boy from Bainbridge, GA, becoming head coach at one of the most prestigious universities in the country? Yeah, that’s a big deal!”