If you want to understand what the relationship was like between Nick Saban and Kirby Smart as they teamed with Jim McElwain at the launch of Alabama’s 21st-century dynasty, there’s an obvious person to ask. There’s only one problem with pursuing that course.
“I don’t know,” McElwain said. “I was never a good enough golfer to be in their foursome.”
McElwain was the offensive coordinator as Alabama, in 2009, won the first of six national championships in a 12-year period. Smart was the defensive coordinator. Saban, then as now, was the head coach whose eye for talent and genius for organization put the Crimson Tide back on the pedestal Bear Bryant had built for them in the 1970s.
The almost instant success of that triumvirate – the Tide won two national titles and three postseason games and compiled a 48-6 record in four seasons together – has had an enduring impact even after McElwain left in 2012 to become a head coach and Smart followed three years later to take over at Georgia.
And that brings us to Saturday’s SEC championship, when Smart will take his fourth shot at beating Saban – and first as a significant favorite, with the Bulldogs now ranked No. 1. None of the previous three went the way Georgia would have preferred, including the 2017 College Football Playoff championship game won by Alabama in overtime, by the margin of a single field goal.
This will be the 26th time Saban will coach against one of his former assistants. His programs have produced a number of successful head coaches, except when they compete against their former boss. Saban has won on 24 of the prior 25 occasions.
It is rare for one of Saban’s Alabama teams to be in the position of substantial underdog, let alone entering such a consequential game with so few expecting his Tide to have a chance. It was Saban himself, though, who emphasized to McElwain and others on his staff the unsurpassed importance of playing talent in building a successful program, and the edge in that department this year belongs to the Bulldogs.
“The very first year I got in, after his first season at Alabama (when the Tide went 7-6), going through spring practice, he said, ‘Just be patient, because we’ve got great players coming,’ ” McElwain told SN. “That, obviously, played itself out. He has a plan for everything, and it’s not just a short-sighted plan. It’s a long-term plan. And Kirby, you’re seeing how Georgia has stepped up in a lot of different ways.”
The Bulldogs have three defenders projected in the most recent Sporting News mock draft, led by lineman Jordan Davis and linebacker Nakobe Dean. They’ve won their 12 games to date by an average of 33.8 points.
This being 2021, the 6.9 points per game the Bulldog defense is allowing creates a far deeper impression than what’s going on when their teammates possess the ball.
“The team we’re coaching out here every day, they’ve been through some adversity. I can assure you of that,” Smart told reporters this week. “We make for adverse situations every day in practice. We challenge them each and every day to the level they can be challenged. They go against each other every day, and they go compete.”
Yep, with only a single game decided by fewer than 24 points, with not a single opponent breaching the 20-point mark against the Bulldogs through a dozen games, Smart must reach into the team’s daily practice sessions to cite examples of “adversity.”
Defense is Smart’s specialty, and this team appears to be his masterpiece, even more so than the Alabama 2009 squad that went 14-0, ranked second in scoring D, held five major opponents to a touchdown or less and featured future pros Rolando McClain, Marcell Dareus, Kareem Jackson and Mark Barron.
Now head coach at Central Michigan and awaiting a bowl assignment following an 8-4 season, McElwain is surprised by precisely none of what Smart is accomplishing at UGA.
“I know Coach had a lot of trust in Kirby, let him do what he needed to do,” McElwain told SN. “Their relationship was really good. Coach was really good about that; he had good relationships with all his assistants.
“Kirby was competitive in everything he did. I think one of the things he’s been able to do is take a lot of the qualities and things within the organization that Coach was able to put into play and fit them to the needs at the place he’s at now. More than anything, you see in both cases where it’s: Let them do their job, get out of the way, and good things are going to happen.”
McElwain saw that in Smart’s approach to recruiting, which has been essential to establishing Georgia as a contender in a league populated by talent-rich opponents such as 2019 LSU and 2020 Alabama.
“Once we zeroed in on a target, he was relentless,” McElwain said.
Saban understands better than anyone this team does not reside in the same neighborhood as, say, last season’s squad led by quarterback Mac Jones, Heisman Trophy receiver DeVonta Smith and stud running back Najee Harris. The players are proving to have a sense of pride and confidence, though, perhaps derived from protecting the Alabama tradition as they develop. Their comeback from a 10-0 second-half deficit in the Iron Bowl against Auburn is a prime, recent example, but there also were narrow victories against Arkansas, LSU and Florida easily interpreted as an absence of dominance but that also could be read as a will to win.
“The players have to have the right mindset to keep playing: Play the next play, try to win the next play, everybody do that, keep your poise, make the adjustments we need to make,” Saban told reporters. “Don’t look at the scoreboard and look at it like: I’m going to play different when I’m 14 points behind, and I’m going to play different when I’m 14 points ahead. Really, you should be trying to do the best you can in every one of those scenarios.”
When they were developing Crimson Tide gameplans back in the day, McElwain said there were times when the nature of the opposition would dictate a more aggressive approach on offense, others when more ball control would be favored.
It wasn’t really a contest between the two coordinators to see whose side of the ball would be preeminent – except in spring practice. During those sessions, Saban wanted the two sides to hone their competitiveness.
“He has each side of the ball do things based on problems that are going to occur during the season against certain types of offenses or defenses,” McElwain said. “You’re actually able to kind of practice against certain looks that you may see that may be unique to a certain opponent, so when that comes during the season you already have experience with it and have developed a plan in your offseason study. It goes from year-round planning. It’s not just: Hey we’re going to play this team this week, now you’ve got three days to put something together.
“It was very competitive during spring, but that’s all part of it. What we can do for each other to help each side of the ball be successful, we did whatever it took.”
McElwain insists he still doesn’t know how, while serving as offensive coordinator at Fresno State, he came to be identified and hired by Saban to run the Tide attack. But even though he won’t say he foresaw the Tide becoming one of the great dynasties in college football history, he knew he was working under an extraordinary coach.
“You’re so busy working you never really look toward the future,” McElwain said. “But I do know this: The one great thing is the consistency he sets and the expectation for whatever part it is. It’s not just the football part. It’s facilities. It’s recruiting. It’s nutrition. It’s weight training – all those different things. Anything that touches his desk, there was no detail too small. It was really fascinating to see that.”