LOS ANGELES – Sonny Smart isn’t here, and that bothers his son Kirby. Sonny is dealing with health issues that have prevented him from being a part of Georgia’s College Football Playoff. 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 mother [Sharon] won’t be here,” Kirby Smart said Saturday, offering a rare moment of vulnerability amid 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 get old. It’s like taxes; it’s inevitable. They’re going to get old. And it’s been tough.”
Sonny’s health began to slip between the SEC championship game against LSU and the Peach Bowl, Kirby said. His father has missed the usual time on the golf course, but football is a bigger part of that. Sonny hasn’t missed many home games or big games since his son became coach of the Bulldogs in 2016.
The Ohio State game ended so late — at midnight on New Year’s Eve, to be exact — 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 trip from Atlanta back to Athens, another chance to talk ball with the man who taught him so much of 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 led his alma mater to the top 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 may 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 is never too big if you’re prepared. And I always watched him prepare our teams and staff in high school. He was a very wise man, a man of few words. I tried to follow his mantra of coach.
“I certainly evolved from coaching 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 central part of the thriving football culture in South Georgia when Kirby was growing up. He remembers watching the Friday night highlight show hosted by Ducky Wall on WALB, an Albany, Ga., television station, as a child. The scope of football was smaller then in Kirby’s life, but it mattered as much as it does now.
“My parents and I spent every Friday night tuning in to watch the other highlights,” Kirby recalled. “It was my ‘College Gameday’ when I watched high school highlights on that channel.”
Several times a year, Bainbridge drove 60 miles north to the big city of Albany (population 70,000) to play games at the municipal stadium there. If Bainbridge’s stadium was home, it was Kirby’s second home.
“I was a little gym rat running around Hugh Mills Stadium my whole life because my dad’s team had to play there three, four, five times a year,” Kirby said. “I thought it was home for me. It was my Mercedes-Benz [Stadium, the Atlanta dome where Georgia has played several games in recent years]. Lots of good 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, the lanky Andrew made an impressive receiving streak in the end zone, catching passes thrown by a Bulldogs employee.
Having Andrew around offers the same generational football connection that Kirby has had with Sonny.
“It’s awesome,” Kirby said. “I worry more about the other two [Weston and Julia] who don’t really – they don’t care to be around it. They are older. They didn’t delve into it. They don’t love football. They love the travel that football brings and the chance to go places, but they don’t love football.
“[Andrew] loves football. He likes contact. He enjoys the relationship with the players. He has a completely different personality than them. So it’s great because it gives me someone with me. But I have to work hard to spend time with the others because I spend so much time with football that he is around it, I end up getting more time with him.”
Win or lose against TCU, Smart will be embraced after the game by his family. But two family members will be absent, watching from home rather than 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.