We're still deep in the speculation stages of who will be on Ray Tanner's short list for the South Carolina Gamecocks' head football coaching job, let alone knowing who the leader is right now. However, one name that has popped up throughout the early process is Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Smart, who turns 40 on December 23, has held the post since 2008 and came over with Nick Saban from the Dolphins in 2007, first as an associate head coach and defensive backs coach before being bumped to the DC position the next year. He was named the country's top assistant coach in 2009 and is currently the highest paid DC in the country.
But would he be a good fit in Columbia? We caught up with a few people that know the Alabama football program inside and out to get their thoughts. Creg Stephenson is a writer for al.com and the Alabama Media Group and is based out of Mobile, where he also co-hosts the afternoon drive program "Sports Drive" on WNSP-FM. Josh Chatham, who ironically lives in the Palmetto State, has been an editor at our sister site, Roll Bama Roll, for several years. Rounding out the group is Tommy Deas, executive sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News and editor of Tidesports.com.
What impact has Kirby Smart had on the Alabama program?
CS: If there's such a thing as a "Nick Saban Jr." as a coach, it's probably Kirby Smart. Like Saban, he's a former defensive back and longtime secondary coach. He's been on Saban's staff at three different places dating back to 2004, and they seem in virtual lockstep in terms of defensive philosophy and coaching style. But his biggest impact has been in recruiting. He's one of the best in the country.
JC: Kirby has been a mainstay in the program since Saban arrived in 2007, offering a degree of stability rarely seen nowadays. He's obviously an excellent defensive mind and recruiter who has bought into Saban's process and understands it better than anyone.
TD: Kirby Smart has had a tremendous impact on the Alabama football program. Over the years, you can see that while Nick Saban has oversight of every element of the team, including the defense, Kirby has clearly become the lead guy in the huddle during timeouts on defense and hands-on leader of the unit. Needless to say, Alabama has been one of the top defensive programs in the country during his time as coordinator.
He is also probably the best recruiter on the Alabama staff. He has given UA a major foothold in recruiting talent-rich Georgia, and gone head-to-head with the Georgia Bulldogs for major prospects and come out on top.
How has Smart been able to consistently recruit at such a high level for the Crimson Tide?
CS: He's the son of a former Alabama and Georgia high school football coach, so he's got great connections in the coaching world going back several decades. His ties in Georgia cannot be overstated given the amount of talent in that state. He played in the SEC and coached in the NFL, which adds to his credibility. And he's still young (39) and energetic enough to be able to relate to high school recruits better than most coaches do.
JC: Alabama's success speaks for itself and certainly helps all of the coaches in this regard. Smart can point to the string of top five defenses as well as the plethora of players that have developed into high draft picks. As far as personal ability, Kirby is a very sincere, down to earth type who undoubtedly comes across as more of a mentor figure than a superior. This has to play well with both the prospects and parents. (Josh also noted that while Smart has stated that he would like to be a head coach someday, he wants to be careful to make the right decision. Current Tide ILB coach Kevin Steele and former DC/interim coach Joe Kines, who Smart counts as two of his "mentors", were former head men but failed.)
TD: I'm sure everyone wishes they knew his secret. I think some people are just natural recruiters, and Kirby Smart is one of them. We don't get a lot of contact with him as Nick Saban keeps assistant coaches pretty much off-limits to the press, but when we do get him before the season or at bowl games, it's clear that he's got a very engaging personality and is the kind of guy who would impress recruits and their parents alike.
What is the likelihood of him taking the job at South Carolina?
CS: I think he will definitely be interested and would take the job if offered. The conventional wisdom is that he was holding out for either the Georgia or Alabama jobs, but it doesn't appear likely those will open up any time soon. The question is whether or not South Carolina is really interested in him. Most high-profile hires in college football the last few years have been offensive-minded coaches, so that might be a strike against Smart.
JC: Anything is possible, but he has been interviewed many times in the past and thus far has decided to retain his position among the highest paid assistants in college football. Should South Carolina offer him the job, this would likely be the first offer to coach an SEC program he has received. I certainly think he would strongly consider it along with the requisite salary bump.
TD: If given that opportunity, I feel sure he would take it. Kirby has made it clear over the last few years that he wants to be a head coach, and Saban has said he is ready for it. He has learned from the best, and while he's still young he has also had the opportunity to watch how Saban runs the program up-close, which should prove valuable when he gets the chance to be a head coach.
Smart has pursued openings in the last few years, but the right job hasn't been offered to him yet. He's making so much as a coordinator at Alabama that he is priced out of a lot of head coaching jobs. South Carolina, I feel sure, would be the kind of job I'm sure he would take.