Alabama vs. Georgia for the CFP National Championship may be Kirby Smart's seminal moment

7:11 AM

In the summer of 1983, Sonny Smart took his youngest son, Kirby, to the city pool.

The 7 year old was trying out for the swim team. A child had to swim the entire length of the pool without stopping. Kirby couldn't do it on the first day.

Sonny Smart, a high school football coach in Alabama and Georgia, said that he didn't know how to swim and breathe. He would swim as far as he could and then he would stop and grab the rope and go on.

Kirby made the team by swimming the length of the pool.

How did you do it? Sonny asked his son a question.

Kirby told him that he swam the entire way without taking a breath.

Kirby Smart was able to finish what he started because of his resilience, determination and problem-solving. He became an All-SEC safety at Georgia in the 1990s and then went on to become the head coach at his alma mater.

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Smart will have a chance to end Georgia's 41-year titleless streak when they play Alabama in the College Football National Championship on Monday. In Indianapolis, you can watch the following channels:

Sonny Smart said that he's always been that way. He always wanted to excel and was very competitive. He was that way when he was a child. I can't point to a specific reason, it's the way he's made.

The best college football team in the country was when Sonny Smart moved his family to Bainbridge. Georgia had a chance to win two more national titles before Herschel Walker turned pro. Since that time, the Dogs have been trying to win another one.

Georgia has not won a national title in over a decade, but it is one of the 30 teams that has won a title since the split. According to research by the sports information company, the most teams that haven't won a title have finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll 16 times.

Kirby Smart needs to beat Alabama and win the national title to return Georgia to prominence.

Winning a national championship is the final step in making his program truly elite.

What are we doing if it's not coming? Before the season, Smart told the network. I don't look at it from the perspective of winning. I look at it from a different perspective, what are we doing now? I know the people in this organization, the administration, the people in the state, the people that love Georgia and the energy and enthusiasm they have, it's always been a long time coming. I don't care if you won a year ago. That's the goal for me, that's the end game. That's what you're always working toward.

Smart had a goal to play football for the school he attended. He might have been the most competitive kid in his class. Kirby was determined to be faster than Willie Ross and to make better grades than Ellen Tipton, according to his older brother.

Kirby would line up buckets in the living room and throw golf balls into them for hours when he was younger because he was so mad at contestants missing the buckets on The Bozo Show. Kirby made a competition of it when he set up paper bags in the lawn so the Smart brothers could pick up pine cones and rake straw. The brothers couldn't go to bed until they wrestled to see who could win.

Karl, who is 47 and works as a mental health nurse in Athens, Georgia, said that he feels like it was everything. He was about everything. He wanted to do it. He wanted to be the best.

Karl was a freshman at Bainbridge High in 1989 and played football. Karl was diagnosed with leukemia. He was hospitalized with a variety of problems. He woke up on Christmas day in 1991 after spending six days in a medically induced coma due to a rare fungal infection in his lungs. Doctors told Karl to stop playing football when he returned to the team as a sophomore. Kirby was going to have to play for both of them.

Kirby was a senior at the time and led the Bearcats to a 10-3 record and a state semifinals appearance, but they lost to Dunwoody High 28-3. Smart earned a scholarship from Georgia in 1994 after he had 16 intercepts in high school. He was a four-year letterman and had 13 picks in college. As a senior in 1998, Smart was named All-SEC and led the league in intercepts, playing in the same secondary as Champ Bailey.

Jim Donnan hired Smart as an administrative assistant in 1999. When the University of Georgia was about to play in the Outback Bowl, Will Muschamp, who was a teammate of Smart's at UGA, called and asked if he had any interest in becoming the defensive backs coach at Valdosta State. Smart wasn't sure if he was going to take the job and had other opportunities. The $10,000 annual salary was not attractive.

Muschamp joked about Smart's interview at Valdosta State when he was Georgia's special teams coach.

Muschamp said that he put 12 guys up on the board. If he could figure out how to get 12 guys on the field, I thought we would be pretty good on defense.

The Blazers went 10-2 and won the Gulf South Conference in 2000, but Smart still got the job. Chris Hatcher, who is now the coach at Samford University, was impressed by Smart.

Hatcher said that Southern Arkansas ran the wishbone and won 30-29. "We're all fired up and celebrating, and Kirby is over there telling us that we have to play Central Arkansas next week and they're going to throw the ball all over the place." We have to start getting ready now.

Hatcher was promoted to defensive coordinator by LSU's Nick Saban, who hired Muschamp as his linebackers coach. The team allowed eight points or fewer in seven games. Hatcher was told by Smart that he was leaving to become a graduate assistant with Mickey Andrews. Smart received a master's degree from FSU.

When Kirby Smart started at Georgia six years ago, he adopted many of the same practices as his former boss at Alabama, Nick Saban.

When Smart was at LSU, he worked as the defensive backs coach. Smart returned to Georgia as running backs coach under Mark Richt after he left to coach the Miami Dolphins. He joined the Dolphins as a safeties coach in 2006 and then went to Alabama as a coach. Smart helped the Tide win four national titles over the next nine seasons.

Smart became Georgia's coach after the school fired Richt.

Greg McGarity, the former Georgia athletic director who hired Smart, said his initial conversations with his new coach weren't much about what the Georgia needed to do to catch Alabama, but what they needed to do to consistently win at the highest level.

He wasn't doing things for the sake of doing it because someone else had it, said McGarity. He wasn't saying that he needed more people at Georgia than at Alabama. It was a great learning experience for our administration. He does what he says he will do.

"They're not just crazy ideas, they're ideas that are well thought out and when you see it in place, it makes sense." Kirby was very intentional. It wasn't because someone else had it. It was always "We need this for this reason" or "This is why I need these people for this reason." He had a plan, he executed it and so far it is playing out.

After joining Smart's staff at Georgia in 2016 he noticed something familiar about the way his boss was structuring his program.

South Carolina's head coach said that they implemented everything Alabama did, from the weekly schedule with the coaches to the practice schedule to the weight room program. It was the same. He didn't have to say what Alabama did. You were aware of it. A lot of the stuff we used was copy and pasted from the Georgia logo.

The most efficient way to close the gap on the greatest dynasty in the sport's modern era was to imitate Alabama. Whether it was support staff, recruiting, nutrition, strength and conditioning, facilities or coaches' salaries, the bulldogs were willing to compete with the Tide in any area.

Kirby would always listen if there was a better way of doing things. I'm sure there are things they are doing that are better than what Alabama is doing. There were things we did that were different from Alabama in Year 2. Alabama came up because they were the SEC champion, they were the team that was at the top in recruiting year in and year out, so that was who you were chasing.

Smart is trying to beat his mentor for the first time in his sixth season at Georgia. The first four games against Smart's teams were won by Alabama, including a 26-23 overtime victory in the CFP National Championship. Tua Tagovailoa's 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith was the difference in the game.

Kirby said in the press conference that they were not going anywhere. "We'll be back,'" Beamer said. It took them four years to get back, but they are back. The game has nothing to do with this game. Alabama did a great job, but it was a tough one to lose. I'm sure it motivates Kirby and the staff to get back and win the game on Monday night.

Georgia's loss to Alabama in the SEC championship is also considered a loss.

"They're the best football program over the last 10 years and maybe more," Richt said. A lot of people try to emulate what they do for a good reason. You're going to play a team with great players, great coaches and a championship spirit. You don't beat them easily. They are the king.

Smart is not the only former assistant who hasn't beaten him. Over the past 12 seasons, he is 25-1 against the coaches who worked for him. Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M became the first to knock him off with a 41-38 upset of the Tide. The teams have played four games and each team had leads in three of them.

"It's been a lot of games," Smart said earlier this week. They have done a good job of keeping the crowd on their toes in the second half. It will never be about him and I, because that's for the media to do.

How competitive is Kirby Smart? The quarterback was reprimanded by the coach for letting the clock run down in the first half instead of trying for more points.

Over the past six seasons, Smart has built a program that has only one obstacle left to overcome -- taking down Alabama and winning a national championship.

"Kirby knows what it would mean to the people of Georgia, and he grew up in that state," Beamer said. I'm sure it would be special for him. It's where he went to school, where he grew up, and where he wanted to coach. At SEC media days, he said that if you continue to recruit at a high level and continue to knock on the door, eventually you're going to knock that door down.

They're going to do it eventually. I don't know if it's going to be Monday night or not, but there's a national championship coming. It will be extra special when it does.

Even if Georgia doesn't get it done on Monday night, McGarity said, fans should appreciate what Smart has done in such a short time. His teams have played in a New Year's Six bowl in five of the last six seasons and have won four SEC East titles.

"I think that's one thing Georgia people should always keep in mind, that this is something that's going to be normal during Kirby's time, is to be highly competitive," said McGarity. If that door opens, that would be great. It shouldn't define someone's career. Some people think that he can't win the big one. He played in the national championship after winning a Sugar Bowl, Peach Bowl, Rose Bowl. It's an example of what an elite coach at the University of Georgia can do.

Bobby Bowden won his first national championship as a coach when he was an assistant at Florida State. Joe Paterno waited 17 years. Nebraska's Tom Osborne needed a long time. John Wooden did not win a national title until his 16th season. It isn't easy.

"You have to get in those games," Richt said. If you get in those games long enough, you'll win one, especially if you recruit the way they've been recruiting and developing players the way they've been developing them. It's going to happen.

Smart is going to keep kicking his feet and holding his breath, like the 7-year-old boy in the swimming pool.

Sonny Smart said that Alabama has great players. They're difficult to beat. You can't fill it up when the cup is full. Kirby doesn't want to win that game anymore because Alabama is on the other side. It wouldn't matter who is over there, you have to beat them. To be the best, you have to beat the best.