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HomeSportsFamiliar foes, 'different people': Kiffin, Smart square off for first time

Familiar foes, ‘different people’: Kiffin, Smart square off for first time

As he sat beside Kirby Smart in the many staff meetings led by Nick Saban at Alabama in 2015, Lane Kiffin never really thought about all the coaching talent in the room.

“No, not really. I just knew that you better be on top of your game every day or you were going to hear about it from Coach [Saban],” Kiffin said. “We all did. Nobody was spared. Didn’t matter if you were a coordinator or a [graduate assistant].”

The Crimson Tide won the national championship that season, and 13 staff members — including analysts, personnel/player development directors and graduate assistants — went on to be Power 5 head coaches or coordinators. Three others would become NFL assistants, while another position coach, Bobby Williams, had previously been head coach at Michigan State.

Saban told ESPN last year that it was as complete, and yet as diverse, a staff as he’s had in terms of coaches with different backgrounds, ages and mindsets.

“But that’s what you want, guys who are driven and have what it takes to be a head coach, but also guys who are able to coach and challenge each other in that moment,” Saban said. “We had a lot of those guys on that staff.”

On Saturday, two of the centerpieces of that legendary staff will meet for the first time as head coaches when Smart’s No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs take on Kiffin’s No. 9 Ole Miss Rebels at Sanford Stadium (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). It’s the first top-10 matchup this season in the SEC and the first top-10 matchup between the Bulldogs and Rebels.

Smart and Kiffin aren’t exactly phone pals (or text pals), but Smart said this week he has a lot of respect for his Ole Miss counterpart.

“He was a head coach at a really young age,” Smart said. “He taught me a lot of things about what he believes in being a head coach and doing it your way. He’s certainly had a unique experience in terms of the places he’s been able to work as a head coach, and he draws on that. There are times we share ideas or GPS numbers or whatever, but there’s nothing outside of just a really good friendship and respect.”

Where Smart and Kiffin are most alike is their fierce competitiveness, but that’s about where the similarities end.

“I think most people who really know us, the people who sat in those rooms with us, would tell you that we’re always looking for ways to beat the other guy somehow and win,” Kiffin said. “That’s how we’re wired. But they’d also tell you that we’re very different people.”

Kiffin jokes that he was different from just about everybody on the 2015 staff. He said Saban had the coaches on that staff take a judgment index test.

“I would call it a personality test, sort of measuring how you think, your creative side, your structure side, and I remember meeting with the lady who administered it,” Kiffin said. “My score was a lot different than Kirby’s, a lot different than everybody’s, really.

“There were eight coaches whose scores were pretty similar and over here on one side of the scale, and then my test was way over here.”

Kiffin is known as someone to do things his own way, but as he thinks back, he said there’s no question the members of that staff learned from each other and even leaned on each other at times.

“Everybody knows about what we call the infield, the nine assistant coaches, and how you’ve got all these head coaches other places out of that,” Kiffin said. “But you don’t really think about all the outfield coaches, as we called them, that were there at that same time. That’s what really makes it impressive.”

Two of those outfield coaches will be integral parts of Saturday’s showdown. Georgia defensive coordinator Glenn Schumann and Ole Miss offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr., then in their early to mid-20s, were just getting their coaching careers started in 2015. Schumann was one of the Tide’s directors of football player development and Weis was a defensive analyst.

Weis said Schumann taught him the Alabama defense, and they’ve remained close since moving on in the coaching world. Both are the primary playcallers for their units and both have had opportunities to go elsewhere. Schumann interviewed for the defensive coordinator’s job with the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason, but chose to stay at Georgia. Weis was pursued by several Power 5 teams to be their offensive coordinator, but got a hefty raise (going from $800,000 to $1.4 million) and stayed at Ole Miss.

Schumann and Weis were just two of the budding stars on that staff. Others included Oregon coach Dan Lanning, who was a graduate assistant.

Kiffin downplayed the idea that he and Smart have intricate knowledge of each other’s coaching tendencies because of their short time together at Alabama. They were also the Tide’s coordinators in 2014.

“I think that’s kind of more of a made-for-TV thing,” Kiffin said. “We went against each other at Alabama, but you got to remember: Coach Saban structures the defense, Kirby calls it. So when you go scrimmage, you get the same calls. The whole year is so planned out that way that I don’t think you really learn a lot about the playcaller there like you would another place.

“Now, we talked about football and traded ideas. But it’s not like when it’s third-and-6, I know he’s going to run this blitz or something like that.”

Alex Mortensen, in his first season as UAB‘s offensive coordinator, was a key behind-the-scenes figure for three of Alabama’s national championship teams and was a graduate assistant on the 2015 staff. He said the talent on that team — 17 Tide players were selected in the 2016 and 2017 NFL drafts — combined with the coaching acumen created an ultra-competitive practice environment.

“It wasn’t Lane versus Kirby every day and the two coordinators trying to outwit each other,” Mortensen said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there wasn’t some of that, but not as much as people would expect. Coach Saban always talked about the object of practice was not to win the drill, but installing the things you needed to install for the benefit of the team.”

Another caveat for Saturday’s game, as Kiffin notes, is that neither he nor Smart calls the plays now, even though both are heavily involved.

Moreover, Smart said Kiffin has evolved significantly as a playcaller.

“He’s not the same mindset he was 10-15 years ago. He’s changed,” Smart said. “He hasn’t always been an up-tempo guy. He’s coached in the NFL, USC, Tennessee and Alabama. He’s had different run schemes. With tempo, he’s more committed to the run and being physical. … You mistake Ole Miss if you think they’re a pass-first team.”

Saban’s influence is apparent at both Georgia and Ole Miss, perhaps more so at Georgia. But Kiffin said he and Smart run their programs very differently, mostly because of the emergence of NIL and the transfer portal.

Plus, Ole Miss is never going to recruit the high school ranks at the same level as Georgia.

“Take it for what it’s worth, but you have to build your program at Ole Miss — the way you do some things like using the portal or running an abnormal offensive system — differently than you have to do at Georgia,” Kiffin said. “So I think they are different jobs in that way.”

What’s not different is that Smart and Kiffin have steered their programs to heights they hadn’t reached in decades, if ever.

Georgia (9-0, 6-0 in the SEC) has won 26 straight games and is looking to become the first team since Minnesota from 1934 to 1936 to win three straight national championships.

Ole Miss (8-1, 5-1) is in the midst of its best three-year stretch since the John Vaught years in the early 1960s. The Rebels have cracked the national top 10 for the third straight season, the first such streak since 1962 to 1964. They also have a chance to win 10 games in the regular season for the second time in three seasons. Ole Miss had never had a 10-win regular season before 2021.

Beating his old colleague and two-time defending national champion Georgia would be the biggest step yet for Kiffin and an Ole Miss program that suffered through four consecutive nonwinning seasons before he arrived.

“It used to be that you could sign a great class, play all freshmen and then they’re better as sophomores and really good as juniors,” said Kiffin, who is 26-9 over the past three seasons. “That doesn’t happen anymore, and part of that is because nobody waits around that long. You get fired.

“So I can’t tell you this was the plan in Year 4. I thought we’d be very good, but the way you get here has changed. We’ve recruited out of the portal really well and then fit them into a culture. That part gets missed.

“You can’t just bring in good players. Look at the NBA. Teams sign these great free agents and then they sink as soon as things go bad because they have a bad culture fit. I’m very proud of our staff and players and the way they’ve jelled together. It’s not easy.”

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