Alabama Football: Nick and Kirby say ‘it’s not personal.’ Do we believe it?

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

Alabama football coach, Nick Saban, and Georgia’s Kirby Smart have a long history. Both men say the title game is not ‘personal’ – but how can it not be?

The physical setup of Sunday morning’s final national championship press conference deserves notice. Alabama football coach Nick Saban and Georgia coach Kirby Smart sat several feet apart, at different tables, separated by a platform on which sat the national championship trophy.

Neither coach designed the setting. Nor was the physical distance between them on the platform meant to make a statement. The CFB Playoff Championship trophy had to be placed in the center. The title sponsor bought the right to display its logo on a pedestal under the trophy.

One picture does not tell a story but check out the photo in the tweet below.

Does the spatial distance between Nick and Kirby mirror a professional aloofness? Before moving to Georgia in 2016, Kirby Smart spent 11 seasons working for Nick Saban. Nick was the teacher, Kirby the student. Insiders at Alabama and Georgia acknowledge much of what Kirby does in Athens is a copy of what he learned from Saban.

Georgia as ‘Alabama East’

Why wouldn’t Smart try to replicate the Saban process at Georgia? Building Bulldog success by making Georgia’s program ‘Alabama East’ is a no-brainer.  Even if it indicates to some, Kirby remains in Nick’s shadow.

Being in Nick Saban’s shadow is the last place Kirby Smart wants to be. That too is understandable. In Kirby’s nine seasons at Alabama, the Tide’s defense was Nick’s, not Kirby’s. Despite Saban often sharing public credit, the rest of college football rarely mentioned Kirby as one of the top defensive coordinators.

Kevin Scarbinsky of described the relationship between the two men.

"It’s not personal, not between him (Nick) and Smart, because it never was. As the people who know them will tell you, in their 11 years together, nine of them at Alabama, their relationship was strictly business"

In his article, Scarbinsky makes the point when Nick and Kirby talk about each other, the word friend is not used. They say the right things as professionals stating a respect for each other. The two men are now adversaries and their profession values competitive excellence above coaching camaraderie.

Bear Bryant had many coaching opponents who were good friends

Competing coaches can be good friends. Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan were good friends, so were the Bear and USC’s John McKay. Nick Saban describes Dabo Swinney as a “good friend.” The friendships are separate and apart from wanting to dominate each other’s teams on the football field.

Terry Saban and Mary Beth Smart are friends and may call each other with holiday wishes every Christmas. We doubt Nick or Kirby have the time or inclination for such calls. Nick and Kirby will never play basketball together again or be in the same golf foursome. Never buddies, they are now battlers in the rough and tumble game of recruiting. And in that battle, maybe Nick and Kirby are not being honest when they say it is not ‘personal.’

There is an old story, too frequently told to be a rumor and now confirmed by Aaron Suttles of the Tuscaloosa News.

"The Tuscaloosa News learned that on his way out the door, Smart took a picture of Alabama’s recruiting board, which hangs in the inner sanctum of the Alabama football building, and showed it to recruits who weren’t necessarily at the top of that board. His message was simple: Alabama doesn’t want you as much as it says it does."

Such actions can make professional confrontations ‘personal’ very quickly. A more recent rumor, as yet not disseminated beyond Alabama football fan message boards, can also be interpreted as too personal.

Saban’s Last Stand

The rumor is Georgia coaches, following Smart’s lead, are calling the national championship game, ‘Saban’s last stand.’ The gist of the pitch is 2018 will Nick’s last season. After he leaves no top coach will want to follow in his footsteps. Recruits are being told that when this happens, Georgia will be the ‘New Alabama.’ We cannot confirm this rumor. It seems plausible and also not all that unusual.

Opposing coaches did the same thing to Alabama football and Bear Bryant for a decade before he stepped down. It is interesting to remember an old Bryant story. Near the end of his career (and sadly his life), Pat Dye beat Bear for a top state of Alabama recruit. Failing to personally close a recruit was new for Bryant. Friends later said it made Bear realize the game had moved past him.

Consider this hyperbole if you must, but Kirby Smart is trying to do the same thing to Nick Saban. And that, my Alabama football friends, is nothing but ‘personal.’

Next: Who is in and who is out for Monday night.

Kevin Scarbinsky closed his story (linked above) with these words and they bear repeating. “Without Nick Saban, there is no Kirby Smart, not as we know him today. That will never go both ways.” Well said, sir.