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Column: Why we should celebrate Kirby Smart and Dabo Swinney

Active college football coaches are responsible for five college football national championships. Kirby Smart and Dabo Swinney have four of them.

Mack Brown has the other, though it came from a time when “NIL” was more likely an on-screen graphic reference to Northern Illinois in some Tuesday night MACtion.

In some ways, Smart and Swinney radically differ in how they run their programs.

Kirby Smart calls the Dawgs at Georgia's national championship celebration.
Kirby Smart calls the Dawgs at Georgia's national championship celebration.
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Kirby Smart rarely weighs in on rule changes. He mostly asks for clarity of the rules to strategize how to best thrive within them. Dabo Swinney can be more beholden to the strategies that helped take Clemson from good to excellent.

Famously, Swinney has protested the transfer portal both through words and actions. Kirby Smart spent his first summer at UGA fighting 2016’s more rigid transfer rules to get Alabama’s Maurice Smith eligible to play at Georgia.

Other than having 80 percent of national championships among active coaches, one trait about Smart and Swinney separates them from their peers. They are loyal.

Swinney has won two national championships at Clemson.
Swinney has won two national championships at Clemson. (USA TODAY Sports Images)

Dabo Swinney has coached for two teams since his coaching career began in 1993.

Kirby Smart has worked for only Georgia or Nick Saban for the last 20 years.

Even Saban’s path to head coaching prominence was the traditional winding road that puts a look of resignation on the face of any coach’s wife.

Dan Lanning is being billed as one of the next great head coaches after a successful start at Oregon. His path to Eugene went through Pittsburgh, Arizona State, Sam Houston State, Alabama, Memphis, and Georgia.

That is the common way. It is the expectation. Smart and Swinney have done it differently.

Every athletic director searching for a head coach interviews the renegade program builders with the assumption they will figure out the cultural fit stuff later.

We are now a generation removed from Bobby Bowden, Frank Beamer, and Phillip Fulmer being the face of a fanbase.

The foundational structure of the sport has been altered since LaVell Edwards, Tom Osborne, Woody Hayes, and Vince Dooley were leading the way.

In a sport that is increasingly negotiating its past in favor of its financial future, Kirby Smart and Dabo Swinney portray a path to do both. They still pursue transactions, fulfill sponsorships, and even impact legislation. However, they also still embody the part of the sport furthest away from the CFOs making bottom-line decisions.

They care about the team and what it means to its supporters. They care about the home state. They care about how their personal life experience was defined by being the underdog on a roster of giants.

2024 is a line of demarcation for college football. The SEC no longer has divisions. 12 teams will make the playoff.

We don’t know where this sport is going, but we know Kirby Smart cares about Georgia and Dabo Swinney cares about Clemson. That is worthy of celebration on its own.


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