As confetti rained down in SoFi Stadium last Monday night and Kirby Smart planted a triumphant smooch on the championship trophy for the second consecutive year, I couldn't help but think of Vince Lombardi, and another team with a Power G on their helmet.
In his first team meeting as head coach, Lombardi told the gathered players, "Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence."
The Packers finished an unremarkable 7-5 that season, but followed up the next season by winning the NFL Western Conference for the first time in 15 seasons and faced the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1960 NFL Championship Game. Lombardi and the Packers came painfully close to hoisting the championship trophy that second season, but were stopped just shy of the endzone on the final play of the game. Heartbreaking? Certainly. But, the foundation for Green Bay's championship ascent was poured and cured.
The Packers never experienced a losing season under Lombardi's leadership, and they won three straight NFL championships from 1965-1967. That same roster that finished 1-10-1 in 1958 eventually yielded six NFL Hall of Famers.
Chase perfection. Catch excellence.
In his introductory press conference a little over seven years ago, Kirby Smart's remarks struck a Lombardian chord, "Although we know these young men will not be perfect, they'll be held to a higher standard of behavior . . . We'll play with great confidence and pride on the field. We'll work toward this with relentless energy and passion, and I will demand that everyone in the organization does the same."
Smart's first season at the helm of his alma mater came with some speed bumps. The team finished the regular season 7-5 with a home loss to lowly Vanderbilt, while mustering an anemic effort against Jim McElwain-led Florida in the Cocktail Party. The year ended with a season-ending Liberty Bowl win over TCU, but Smart's biggest victory came two weeks prior to the Dawgs tilt with the Horned Frogs.
Seemingly headed for the start of their NFL careers, standouts Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy announced they would return for the 2017 season. The announcement signaled buy-in to a new brand of Dawgs football, a brand being meticulously crafted by their enterprising head coach.
As it was for Lombardi's Packers, year two with Kirby Smart wearing the head coach's whistle proved fruitful for the Dawgs. They downed Auburn to bring home the program's first SEC title in more than a decade, and after a thrilling double overtime win over Heisman-winner Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, squared off against mighty Alabama for college football's crown. And like Lombardi before him, Smart and his team experienced championship agony, losing on the game's gut-wrenching final play.
Although victory alluded Smart and the Bulldogs that night, the development and maturation of the program, and its determined head coach, were full steam ahead. Smart's postgame remarks exuded as much, "I think everybody can see that Georgia’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. I’m very proud of this team and this university, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Chase perfection. Catch excellence.
Four years after that painful January night, almost to the day, the rematch of that 2018 title game entered its final minutes in Indianapolis. Alabama trailed by eight, but Heisman-winner Bryce Young had the Tide positioned to write yet another chapter in Georgia's ongoing opus of almost.
With 1:09 on the clock, Young calmly collected a shotgun snap, gathered his feet underneath him, and confidently fired down the left sideline. A collective gasp rose with the flight of the ball as a doomsday chorus of Georgia fans near and far sang, Please, not again.
During his time in Athens as a player, Smart excelled on and off the playing field. A coach’s son, he ensured a lack of preparation would never be the culprit for subpar performance. Coupled with the fiery disposition and competitiveness Georgia fans have grown to expect from their head coach, Smart turned in a splendid career, snagging 13 interceptions total, while leading the team in picks as a junior and senior. That metric gets some extra oomph when you account for the fact he shared the field with some fella named Champ Bailey.
Smart earned distinction as a first-team All-SEC selection as a senior, and in each of his four years lining up Between the Hedges, he earned a place on the SEC Academic Honor Roll.
His mastery of the mental side of the game and his dogged preparation translated naturally into his post-graduate career as a coach. Under his tutelage, numerous players realized their NFL dreams.
One player whose benefited from his teaching is Kelee Ringo. A highly touted recruit coming out of high school, Ringo started every game of the 2021 season as a redshirt freshman, earning SEC All-Freshman Team honors.
About the time Dawgnation’s blood pressure reached its crescendo watching Bryce Young’s pass zip through the Lucas Oil air, Ringo leapt and corralled it. He raced down the sideline to make a championship house call and Georgia fans let out a 41-year exhale of exuberance.
When ESPN cameras showed the replay, Kirby Smart could be seen leaping to high-point the ball almost in unison with his star pupil. If you focused your gaze, it wasn't hard to see that former All-SEC defensive back in the current one. Preparation. Performance. And a moment that would change both of their lives forever.
Chase perfection. Catch excellence.
Fast-forward a year later to an uncharacteristically rainy night in the City of Angels. Kirby Smart and the Dawgs sit unblemished, waiting to tee it up in the quest for their second consecutive national title, a feat no one during the College Football Playoff could claim.
One thing the Dawgs were always chasing was perfection. For all of its championship drought-breaking magic, the 2021 team finished with a blemish. an early December humbling at the hands of the Crimson Tide simultaneously erased their hopes of an SEC Championship and an undefeated season. This year's team had its sights set on posting a goose egg in the loss column.
In the lead-up to the game, Coach Smart was asked about the pressure accompanying a national title opportunity. His reply embodied the quality that belies the success of his tenure as head coach, “We have our own pressure that we place on ourselves, which is to be at our best when our best is needed.”
Nothing could encapsulate the backbone of Georgia's football program under Kirby Paul Smart more aptly. Each opponent is nameless and faceless. The daily quest is to control the controllables. There is a standard in an around the football facility in Athens, Georgia and there is no negotiating with its charter. The standard is excellence. Honoring that is not a choice, it’s an expectation, and one Georgia’s players live by each day.
Four quarters and a 65-7 thrashing of TCU later, with Georgia executing seemingly flawlessly all night, the college-football watching world got a first-hand look at what playing to the standard looks like.
From opening kickoff to final whistle.
Perfection had eluded Georgia’s football program since 1980. It rarely comes around for any program at all. You have to imagine that, somewhere, Vince Lombardi was nodding in approval with a knowing squint in his eyes.
In their relentless, season-long pursuit of the standard, Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs not only caught excellence, they also caught Lombardi’s unattainable - perfection.