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`HUNTING SEASON' OVER, KIRBY SMART IS THE BADDEST MAN IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL
Georgia is the sport’s undisputed king, with back-to-back titles and a third possible, and with Stetson Bennett established as an American folk hero, thank the merciless coach and his Bloody Tuesdays
Forever a defensive back, Kirby Smart jumped so high, you worried he might be whisked through the side openings in SoFi Stadium’s roof on a night of torrential storms. That this meteorological mess was coming down in southern California, where it’s never supposed to rain according to musical lore, was as preposterous as the history being made inside. Champions aren’t supposed to repeat in college football, where the NIL era should reduce dynasty chances to nil. Champions aren’t supposed to repeat in sports, period, where complacency is the enemy and distractions are the devil.
But there they were, surrounded by movie studios in every direction, two natives of small-town Georgia giving a very lucky screenwriter a remarkable story. Smart grew up in Bainbridge, where he learned the game under his father, Sonny, who has been ill of late and couldn’t be in Los Angeles for the national championship game. Stetson Bennett IV grew up in Blackshear, which didn’t endear him to Smart, who didn’t want him around, watched him flee to a junior college in Mississippi, then return to author one of the most unlikely redemption stories in all sports. Last we saw them Monday night after a record 65-7 mauling of no-show TCU, Bennett was smoking a cigar and Smart was still jumping around and wagging his tongue, having licked the remnants of a Gatorade bath from his forearms.
Understand, these are not football games for the Georgia Bulldogs. These are mass hunting expeditions, a merciless defense accompanying a savage offense. “All year, I told ‘em, ‘We ain't getting hunted, guys. We're doing the hunting,’ ’’ Smart roared afterward in a red sea of joy. So when they arrived in L.A., where it’s easy to be hunted on a downtown weekend if young men aren’t focused, he had only one message.
“Hunting season's almost over,” he told his players. “And we’ve only got one more chance to hunt, and we hunted tonight.”
Hunt, they did. Devour, they did.
The coach’s son heeded the youthful lessons of toughness, work ethic and the “fat belly” — his phrase for what impedes human beings when the eating is too good — and laid down his gospel in a dominant two-year title run that might not happen again anytime soon. Unless, of course, the Dawgs win a third next January. Would you put anything past Smart, who has replaced another of his mentors — Nick Saban, forced to watch the pummeling from an ESPN studio set near the roof — as the preeminent coach in the sport? Georgia is the new Alabama, which chaps asses in Tuscaloosa, where Smart was allowed valuable years in the Crimson Tide incubator before his alma mater in his home state poached him. When I say he nearly leaped to the heavens, I do so knowing he is only 47 while Saban just turned 71. This is known as a succession, a takeover by a competitive beast who not only coaxed unthinkable brilliance out of Bennett — he has replaced Notre Dame luminary Rudy Ruettiger as the nation’s favorite walk-on — but has turned Athens into the premier NFL talent factory.
Here we thought it was the jamming bar town that produced R.E.M. and the B-52’s. If you have to ask because you’re too young, just know all of the band members are way older than Smart — and now take a back seat to him in the local cradle of fame. He might have a paunch, but damned if any of his players will be allowed to graze. The result is a 17-game winning streak, 31 victories in their last 32 games, in a volatile enterprise played by young men vulnerable to upsets and vultures waving money.
“It is really hard to do because human nature is to relax," Smart said of the back-to-back burden. “When people pat you on the back, human nature is to say, ‘I’m good. I've done a good job. And we won it last year. Let's take a year off.’ I think complacency sets in and it can be a disease. And I talk a lot about entitlement. When you start feeling entitled, that’s how the mighty fall. We take a lot of business analogies, how companies have fallen in this world we live in, society we live in, how do empires fall and how do companies and businesses fall? You see the ebb and flow and we try to learn from their mistakes. And a lot of that is denial. Hubris. You have to stay humble or anything will get you, and our kids understand that.”
No one understands better than Bennett, who literally “hated” Smart and offensive coordinator Todd Monken when they stuffed him into backup duty despite his marked improvement. His bitterness lingered in his opening weeks as a starter in 2021, when he was mocked on social media by fans who didn’t trust him. Even when he began to morph into STETSON BENNETT IV, AMERICAN TREASURE, Smart continued to attack his psyche. In the CFP semifinal that essentially was for the national title, Bennett’s comeback heroics on New Year’s Eve were lost in a tongue-lashing by his coach, who said, “He showed great competitive character. But he’s got to play within our system. And he’s got to do what he’s coached to do, or you can’t win games. You know, he didn’t get those opportunities until the defense stopped them. He must play better if we expect to win the next one.”
Oh, Bennett played better in the championship game. He knocked the Stetson hats off the boys from Fort Worth, Texas, throwing for 304 yards and accounting for six touchdowns — four in the air, two on the ground. As the final seconds ticked away on his career, he shared a warm hug with Smart. Hate had come full circle. “I will remember that the rest of my life,” Bennett said on the field, trying not to cry. “He told me he loved me and the journey that we’ve been through together.”
He looked around the mammoth stadium at the fans. “I didn’t dream this,” Bennett said. “It’s the craziest thing in the whole world.”
Said Smart, not one to choke up but emotional nonetheless: “Well, he’s meant a lot to me personally because of what he’s gone through and what he’s put up with from the outside noise. But to this university — he’s a kid that was told he was not good enough, and leaves to come back and win two national championships. He’s really phenomenal. He did some things tonight that are just electric. And he’s just one of a kind, a special football player. He should get many opportunities to keep playing.”
That was a message to the NFL, which sent a record 15 players into the draft last April, five in the first round. Defensive tackle Jalen Carter might be the first player taken this year, after Travon Walker went first overall in 2022. Georgia is a machine, a team that probably would beat the Atlanta Falcons if they had a showdown for charity in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Bennett will be drafted somewhere and he’ll make a roster, fueled by more public doubts. And to think his Georgia saga started in 2017, when he walked on only because a high-school opponent convinced Smart to invite him. During the post-game press conference, the coach told a story about his 10-year-old son from minutes earlier. The boy was crying. His father wondered if the ill-timed meltdown would “ruin” the moment.
“Why are you crying?” Smart asked.
“Stetson's leaving. Stetson's gone,” said the boy.
Said Smart: “He’s 25 years old and he’s gotta go.”
The coach’s impact on his players redefines the meaning of tough love. His “Bloody Tuesday” practices are insane, a test of mental will and physical tolerance. Sometimes, blood actually is shed. “The whole day is about setting your jaw," Bennett said. “It's a mindset day. That's when we go good-on-good, and we try to shove it up the defense and they try to spit it right back out. And it's competitive, and we're talkin' trash, and coach Smart's on the microphone, and it's almost like a game.”
Georgia vs. Georgia is more competitive than most games on the actual schedule. Certainly more so than the so-called championship game, where TCU couldn’t be helped by its zany Hypnotoad craze from an animated sci-fi series — which wasn’t good news for Shaquille O’Neal, who promised to eat a horned frog if TCU lost. When Smart arrived in 2016, he blew away a crowd during an Athens Country Club speech when he spoke of movies he’d show the team on game eves. “Friday The 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street,” would you believe? “That's who we want them to be," he said. “We want them to be scary. Just like the guy in the mask; you can't kill him. He keeps coming back. As soon as you do kill them, well, here comes the sequel.”
So did it surprise anyone when his pre-game motivation Monday included a clip of Kobe Bryant bullying through a teammate, Pau Gasol, en route to the basket in his championship years? “We were not holding back anything,” Smart said. “I wanted our kids to play without fear.”
They scored on 10 of their first 11 drives. They held nothing back. They will hold nothing back next season. They will hold nothing back as long as Kirby Smart has a film screen and a Bloody Tuesday. Think Saban was taking notes in his blue suit? He should have been.
“We do it the Georgia way, not the Alabama way,” running back Kenny McIntosh said. “We’re Georgia.”
Coached by the baddest man in college football, who just might be with us again next January, showing off his vertical leap in another stadium.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.