LOS ANGELES – Sonny Smart is not here, and that hurts his son Kirby. Sonny is dealing with health issues that have prevented him from being part of Georgia’s College Football Playoff run. He missed the Peach Bowl classic when the Bulldogs rallied to beat Ohio State, and he will miss their attempt at a national title repeat Monday against TCU.
“It hurts me that he and my mom [Sharon] won’t be here,” Kirby Smart said Saturday, offering a rare moment of vulnerability during the impersonal and transactional bustle of CFP media day. “But I know it’s the right decision for him. Nothing worse than watching your parents grow old. It’s like taxes; it’s inevitable. They’re going to get old. And that’s been tough.”
Sonny’s health started slipping between the SEC championship game against LSU and the Peach Bowl, Kirby said. His father has been missing his usual time on the golf course, but the football is a bigger part of it. Sonny hasn’t missed many home games or big games since his son became the coach of the Bulldogs in 2016.
The Ohio State game ended so late—the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, to be precise—that Kirby didn’t get a chance to call his dad afterward. Sonny had already gone to bed. But Kirby made sure to call him the next afternoon on the ride from Atlanta back to Athens, another chance to talk ball with the man who taught him so much about it.
Sonny Smart is more than Kirby’s father; he was his first coach. Sonny coached high school ball in South Georgia, winning enough games to be inducted into the Decatur County Athletic Hall of Fame three years ago. He also raised a tough, smart, athletic defensive back who played for the Georgia Bulldogs, and has since gone on to lead his alma mater to the pinnacle of college football.
Along the way, Kirby himself is poised to become the current king of his profession. What Kirby Smart learned from Sonny all those years ago flows through his own coaching now. Alabama’s Nick Saban might be Kirby’s college mentor, but what Sonny instilled started earlier and runs deeper.
“He’s taught me so much just about the way you handle things, the right way, the wrong way,” Kirby said. “Control the controllables. The moment’s never too big if you’re prepared. And I always watched the way he prepared our teams and our staff in high school. He was a very wise man, a man of few words. I tried to follow his mantra as a coach.
“I’ve certainly evolved from going to coach for other people, but a lot of my core beliefs came from the way he ran our programs in high school.”
The Bainbridge High Bearcats were a key part of the flourishing football culture in South Georgia when Kirby was growing up. He remembers watching the Friday night highlights show hosted by Ducky Wall on WALB, a TV station out of Albany, Ga., as a kid. The scope of football was smaller then in Kirby’s life, but it meant every bit as much as it does now.
“My parents and I spent every Friday night tuning in to watch the other highlights,” Kirby reminisced. “That was my ‘College Gameday’ when I watched high school highlights on that channel.”
Several times a year, Bainbridge would drive 60 miles north to the big city of Albany (pop. 70,000) to play games in the municipal stadium there. If Bainbridge’s stadium was home, that was Kirby’s second home.
“I was a little gym rat running around Hugh Mills Stadium my entire life, because my dad’s teams had to go play there three, four, five times a year,” Kirby said. “I thought that was home for me. That was my Mercedes-Benz [Stadium, the Atlanta dome where Georgia has played several games in recent years]. A lot of great memories from South Georgia.”
Kirby has his own “gym rat” son now. Andrew Smart, the youngest of Kirby and his wife Beth’s three children, is around the Georgia team as much as possible. Before the Peach Bowl game against Ohio State, long-legged Andrew was making an impressive array of end zone receptions, catching passes thrown by a Bulldogs staffer.
Having Andrew around offers the same generational football connection that Kirby has had with Sonny.
“It’s awesome,” Kirby said. “I worry more about my other two [Weston and Julia] that don’t really—they don’t care to be around it. They’re older. They did not immerse themselves in it. They don’t love football. They love what football brings with the trips and the chances to go places, but they don’t love football.
“[Andrew] loves football. He likes contact. He enjoys the relationship with the players. He’s got a very different personality than them. So it’s great because that gives me somebody with me. But I have to work really hard to spend time with my other ones because I spend so much time with football that he’s around it, I end up getting more time with him.”
Win or lose against TCU, Smart will be embraced postgame by his family. But two family members will be absent, watching from home instead of in person. The inevitability of aging parents is something Kirby Smart understands, but that doesn’t make it easy to deal with. Sonny Smart, the old coach who taught his son so much about the game, will be missed Monday night.