The Rarified Era
The Trio of former Bulldogs focused on leading Georgia to unprecedented heights
By Johnathan McGinty
It’s rare enough to find an alum of a school serving as the head coach of its college football program, and it’s even rarer to have what you have at Georgia where three of the primary leaders on its coaching staff all suited up for the Bulldogs.
Rarer still is the fact that these three particular coaches — head coach Kirby Smart, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp — not only starred for Georgia during the 1990s, they were — and are — close friends who remained in touch despite where their journeys took them.
During their playing days, Smart and Bobo were roommates and served as leaders on and off the field for the Bulldogs. Muschamp would help Smart get his first coaching job as a member of Valdosta State University’s staff in the early 2000s.
“I remember thinking when Kirby first got there how neat it would be if he could eventually get Bobo back and Muschamp back at some time,” said David Greene, one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Georgia history. “They played together, and they were all good buddies in college. To see all three of them have a lot of success in their coaching careers is great.”
In all, Georgia has 26 graduates of the university on its football staff with Smart, Bobo and Muschamp serving in prime leadership roles. They first found their passion for the program while donning the red and black during the ups-and-downs of the 1990s in Athens.
While Georgia football enjoyed some memorable highs during the decade — including a raucous upset over a heavily favored Clemson team in Sanford Stadium on a fall night in 1991 or a dramatic win over Florida in 1997 where Robert Edwards’s sideline jaunt to the endzone left the temporary bleacher seats precariously swaying in Jacksonville — there also were a fair share of lows.
The Bulldogs finished .500 or worse four times in the 1990s, were winless against Tennessee, managed only that thrilling upset over the Gators and failed to reach a bowl game in four of those seasons. It remains the only full decade in program history where the Bulldogs didn’t win at least one NCAA Southeastern Conference (SEC) football title.
For many diehard fans, it’s simply referred to as the “lost decade.”
And it might be reasonable to assume their playing time in Athens, coupled with some of those on-the-field challenges, partially helps fuel the competitive fire that drives Smart, Bobo and Muschamp. It sure did for one of Georgia’s greatest foils, former University of Florida coach and player Steve Spurrier. His struggles on the field as a player against the Bulldogs, as well as other rivals, famously helped drive him to dominate college football when he roamed the sidelines for the Gators.
“I understand the life of coaches because it is a profession and you go to other schools and cheer for the other team,” said Greene. “That said, you would think the allegiance to the alma mater you played at is going to be a little stronger than anything else.”
However, past experiences aren’t the primary motivation for this trio of leaders.
Instead, it’s a rigorous, disciplined approach to living in the present.
“From them, the biggest thing is taking what they learned from their time as players and implementing that ‘WIN’ mentality — what’s important now,” said John Staton IV, a member of the Bulldogs’ 2021 national title team. “They lean on those prior experiences to implement a system and develop a plan to get it done today. There’s not a lot of focus on the past or on the future at Georgia. They handle what they have to handle because you’re only guaranteed today.”
Relying on that approach, Smart set out to change the culture of the program when he arrived in the Classic City in 2016. For years, the program had enjoyed success but failed to break through and capture that elusive national title, often falling short in the most heartbreaking of ways. “Pulling a Georgia” became a punchline among some of the more braggadocious rival fanbases who had reached the proverbial mountaintop in the 41 years since the Bulldogs had last won a championship.
Rather than retreat from the moment, however, Smart got the program to embrace it, relying on the mantra of pressure being a privilege. He was able to get his teams to let any mistakes live in the past with a relentless focus on succeeding in the present.
“As a fan, and even as a player, you remember those moments and think ‘OK, we’re so close, so we just need to get back there and it will be different,’” Staton said. “The incremental difference that is made is achieved each and every day, so each time you get in that moment you’re more prepared to be able to succeed.”
It paid off handsomely.
“We want guys that think independent of outcomes,” Smart said. “So when you see complacency take over it’s when a team’s enthusiasm and ego start worrying about outcomes. That’s not what we do at Georgia. That’s not what we bring into our place. That’s not what we bring into the culture we want to have. We want selfless people who love football, and that’s what we build around.”
In Smart’s seven years at the helm of the program, the Bulldogs have claimed five SEC East crowns, six bowl victories, two SEC titles and, of course, consecutive national championships after the 41 year drought. The breadth of success in this stretch is only rivaled by the early 1980s in Georgia lore, but this run might be a bit more satisfying given who is leading the program.
“It’s definitely a bit sweeter knowing that these are guys who not only played for Georgia, but also are good friends of mine,” said Dax Langley, a former Bulldog who also was roommates with Smart and Bobo in college.
To stave off the dreaded threat of complacency, Smart and the coaching staff had the team embark on a six-week course this summer that studied the history and culture of the New Zealand All-Blacks, a professional rugby squad that is one of the most successful franchises regardless of the sport.
“They’ve done it better than anybody else, and we use that,” Smart said. “One of their big mantras is ‘better never rests.’ We believe that. Those are strong words now when you think about it. Think deep on it — better never rests.”
Smart, Bobo and Muschamp have positioned their alma mater as the preeminent program in college football having built what Staton referred to as a purpose-driven culture where everyone, from players to coaches to staff, all feel equally invested in the success of the team both on and off the field.
“The beautiful thing about what Will, Mike and Kirby have done is they’ve created a culture where everyone feels like an equal part of the team and plays an equal role in the success of being a Georgia Bulldog,” Staton said. “That’s the difference between a team that goes 13-2 and doesn’t get it done, and a team that goes 15-0 and holds up the national championship trophy.”
• A whopping 11 Bulldogs were selected by the media for the Preseason All-SEC team, including three of four eligible spots in the secondary (Malaki Starks, Javon Bullard and Kamari Lassiter).
• All-American tight end Brock Bowers returns for his junior season with a chance to become the first player in history to win the award two years in a row. He enters his third year with 1,824 career receiving yards, giving him an outside shot to displace Georgia great Terrence Edwards (3,093 yards) as the most prolific receiver in school history.
• A trio of Bulldogs — Carson Beck, Brock Vandagriff and Gunner Stockton — are vying to replace Stetson Bennett at quarterback. The departed Bennett may have been smaller than the average college QB, but he leaves some proverbial big shoes to fill after guiding Georgia to two national titles and a 29-1 record the past two years. Beck, who went 15-for-22 for 231 yards and a touchdown in the spring G-Day Game, is presumed to hold the edge heading into fall.
• In an era dominated by offensive play, Georgia has made defense the name of the game in Athens. The Bulldogs once again are projected to have one of the premier units in college football, with ESPN ranking its as the best returning defense in the game for 2023.
Photos in slide:
Kirby Smart; photo courtesy of MGoBlog on Flickr
Coach Mike Bobo; Photo courtesy the University of Georgia Athletic Association
Will Muschamp; Left photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports