Kirby Smart discusses Auburn interview, Nick Saban and coaching future
Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart spoke in-depth to the media on Friday in South Florida during a BCS National Championship news conference.
Smart discussed his experience working under Nick Saban, future coaching aspirations, the mindset of this year's Crimson Tide defense and his interview for the head coaching job at Auburn last month. Several of his defensive leaders also spoke on Friday before departing to Berry College for a two-hour practice.
Below are some highlights from the rare Q & A with the long-time Saban assistant.
For two championships now being with Nick, what have you learned from him? And how much of it is your call as far as the play calling and the design of the defense?
"Well, I'll tell you this: I have become who I've become as a coach from working for Coach Saban. He does an outstanding job of managing our organization. There is nobody I could put him up against anybody in the country. His ability to facilitate, that's great. He helps game planning on defense, he's a great mind in the room.
"Obviously the play calling comes to me, and I call all the defenses. I have ever since I've been the coordinator, and that's just the way it is in our system. He's able to give input during the game, as well as the other coaches. Jeremy Pruitt, who is leaving us, has done a great job helping me with information. But at the end of the day, somebody has got to be the guy to make the call, and that's usually my responsibility."
When you look at everybody you lost last year, guys to the NFL, some of the challenges you faced on defense, how pleasing has this been, what you've been able to do to get back here on this stage and the variables that are involved in sort of overcoming some of those things defensively?
"I'll tell you, this group has probably been one of my most favorite to coach since I've been at Alabama because of the expectations. They didn't have bad expectations, but a lot of the media, you guys had bad expectations for this group. I never was worried about their competitive character. Sure, we lost some good players. Coming over here I guess it was four or five draft picks, whatever it was, last year we lost off that team. But we had a lot of good players behind those guys, and this group to me had a little chip on their shoulder and felt slighted that people didn't think they'd be good. The leadership of Damion and Nico and Dee and these guys kind of took over from the Michigan game.
"We haven't played great all the time, but we've played with great competitive character. I mean, they have competed hard. We've been behind at LSU, we've been behind against Georgia, we lost to Texas A & M but we were behind in that game and fought back. So every time these defensive guys have been challenged, they've responded."
It probably feels like you get asked about this a lot but maybe it's because we don't talk with you a ton. But your name gets bandied about as a head coaching candidate this time of year. Can you talk about what your goals are, and what's your criteria for leaving a nice job at Alabama to be a head coach?
"First off, I'd like to say, obviously all my time, emphasis and effort since the last game has been on this game since we knew we were playing Notre Dame. That's all I can think about and all I want to worry about is winning this game for these guys.
"Ultimately my goal is my career is to be a head coach. Where that is, I have no idea. It's not like I wake up every day trying to leave Alabama. I have the best non-head coaching job in the country, period, because I've got a great administration, we've got a great facility. I want to be where I can win, and I know you can win at Alabama. I think that's so important.
"I'm now 37, I forget how old I am sometimes, 36, 37, I think I just turned 37. I am so worriedabout Notre Dame, I don't know my age. I don't worry about where I'm going to be in three years or ten years. I think if you win, that takes care of itself, and I'm not in such a hurry to run off and do anything that I don't have a pressing issue. If I was 47, I might feel differently. But most important thing to me right now is winning championships and developing young men into better players and better people."
Anytime you interview for a job, do you benefit from that? Do you learn from each step of that process?
"I certainly think you do. I think the interview process is beneficial for you becauseyou find out a lot more about the people you're talking to, and you also find out a lot more about yourself and you get better experience doing that. I certainly think it's a benefit. And Coach Saban has been extremely supportive of me in that process and has told me on a number of occasions that he knows that I'm going to have opportunities, and he's happy for me for those opportunities."
You were asked earlier about the value of interviewing for other jobs. I know there are probably a lot of people back home who wondered about a month ago what was the value of you interviewing with Auburn, and did they ever actually offer you the job?
"Well, first thing, I respect the University of Auburn and the opportunity they gave me to interview and talk to them as far as all the other stuff, the most important thing to us here is to focus on this game and get it done. I thought the interview process went great. Found out things I needed to know, and I'm sure they found out things they needed to know. As far as any of the other stuff, I'll just leave that to us and them."
You were with Nick Saban in Miami with the Dolphins and in the NFL. How closely do you guys run this Alabama program to the same program you had in the NFL? And what are some of the benefits of running an NFL-style program at the college level?
"I think it helps you with the development of your players. I think in the NFL everybody develops their players. In college it's not always that way, as far as the number of reps you get in the off-season, how many reps do you give your threes and fours in your training camp, how many reps do you give those guys. To me the development of the younger players, so that when you lose five guys or six guys on defense, you've got guys ready to replace those, and I think his focal point is always, how are we going to make ourselves better at every position, and he's always working towards that.
"And I want to say this: My stay down here was really great. I have a son, I've got twins at home, one named Weston, I named after where I lived in South Florida. He went yesterday to the city limits and got his picture taken right there, and he was really happy about that. He's now five years old or fixing to be five years old."
How much has it prepared you working under Nick down the road when you want to be a head coach versus having gone somewhere the way he positions and the way he challenges you?
"I think it's a great point. To me personally, my development to become a head coach will be much better working for Coach Saban than necessarily going somewhere else because you learn every day that you're in there.
"As a teacher, and I can tell you even back to the Georgia game, halftime, we screwed it up. Hey, he admitted we should have called timeout to create an advantage to score in the end, but he always uses that to teach us. He doesn't use it just for himself. Every day we do two-minute against each other, we come in, talk about clock management, what could we have done here? What should we have done there? He's questioning not only us why we did this in this situation, but he questions himself. He does a great job of quality control of the entire organization, what could we have done differently, and I think sometimes when you go other places that don't have the same support structure, you don't get those -- you don't get that same experience.
"The experience that I've been able to gain through being with Coach is hey, this is how you run a major program, this is the way you do it and this is the way you question every part of your organization, therefore making it better. So I think his ability to run that program is really good."
Given what you said about your aspirations in coaching, given what you said about Alabama, would your ideal situation, maybe your dream be to succeed Coach Saban at Alabama and coach there some day?
"Well, I'm like Coach Saban, I don't get into hypotheticals. That's completely ahypothetical. I think Alabama is a special, special place, and it's obviously a great place to coach. But as far as anything outside of that, I'm just worried about this game and being successful at Alabama."
Nick seems to have created a system within the system, particularly when it comes to the mental side of things. What kind of edge, particularly in a game like this, does that provide? And how deep does he go into the mental side of things?
"He goes deep into the mental side. He spends as much time on that as he does defensively now, and I think that is where he's grown as a coach, because I can remember being at LSU, I didn't remember the mental side being so great. And now six, seven years later, it's extended so far. He really believes in that, he believes in what you tell the players, he believes in the angle of approach of each game being different and getting their mindset right for the game.
"To me that's where he has established himself as a coach ahead of the curve because of his ability mentally to create an advantage with his team. Whatever the mindset is, whether it's physicality, whether it's execution, whatever it is, he does a great job of conveying that to the kids. And he makes us realize as coaches, it's not going to be about what we call, it's not going to be about what we rep, it's going to be about the mindset in Damion Square's head that's going to make a difference in this game."
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